Senior Travis Lee will forever be in the annals of Cornell wrestling with 143 wins, four EIWA championships and four All-American selections.
You can also add two NCAA titles to his impressive resume.
The 133-pound Lee captured his second national title of his career on March 19 with a resounding 6-3 win over the second-seed, Shawn Bunch of Edinboro, in the NCAA finals at St. Louis’ Savvis Center. Lee is the third Ivy League wrestler to win two career NCAA championships, and the first since 1960, when Dave Auble ’60 accomplished the feat.
Lee, who raised his arms in the air after the win, said he was extremely excited to win, although the fact that he is now a two-time champion has not hit him yet.
“I was pretty relieved it was finally over because staying really focused took up so much energy,” Lee said. “I’m just kind of soaking it up right now and trying to take it all in.”
Lee’s win over Bunch was Cornell’s 25th in the tournament, as the Red ended the championships in fourth place — its highest finish in 52 years. The team, which was ranked as low as 13th coming into nationals, also recorded its highest point total ever at this year’s tournament with a total score of 76.5, one point behind third-place Oklahoma and 6 1/2 behind second-place Michigan.
In addition, Cornell had four All-American wrestlers in the same year for the first time in program history — Lee, senior co-captains Tyler Baier (184 pounds) and Joe Mazzurco (174), and junior Dustin Manotti (149).
Head coach Rob Koll was named the National Wrestling Coaches Association Coach of the Year.
Oklahoma State, which had five national champions, won the tournament with 153 points. But while the Cowboys dominated the team standings, according to Baier, Cornell was the talk of the tournament with observers.
“[The people were saying] ‘How do these Ivy League geeks compete with these Big 10 and 12 teams?'”
Lee was one of the tournament’s stars. The Hawaiian stormed through four matches en route to the final, including a first period pin over No. 5 Tom Clum of Wisconsin in the semifinals. This set up Lee’s match against Bunch — a wrestler who defeated him earlier this year. But the national final was a different story. Lee, who occasionally tends to start out slowly in matches, earned a first period takedown to go ahead 2-0 — a moment which was crucial in the match according to Koll. While Bunch evened the score at two with escape points, Lee earned a second takedown before gaining over a minute of crucial riding time.
“Getting that first takedown was pretty huge and I felt that it gave me control of the match,” Lee said.
Bunch could not get back into the match, as Lee outmaneuvered the Edinboro junior during the third period to take his second national title. Lee won his first championship as a sophomore in the 125-pound weight class.
“He was completely focused all year, but the week before the tournament, during the tournament, I’ve never seen anybody so focused. Against Bunch, he wrestled a perfect match,” Baier said. “If I was going to make a wrestler, I’d make Travis Lee. He works for it and earns it and is a complete role model.”
Baier was another East Hill wrestler who impressed. Ranked seventh in the tournament, Baier knocked off No. 10 Roger Kish of Minnesota — a wrestler who defeated him earlier this year — before taking out both the second and third seeds in Iowa State’s Kurt Backes and Nebraska’s Travis Pascoe, respectively, sending the Cornell grappler into the finals.
“Tyler’s really paid his dues and with guys like that, you feel good when they are ultimately rewarded,” Koll said.
But, Baier’s tantalizing run came to an end against No. 1 Greg Jones — a wrestler who had only been taken down 10 times in his career. Jones opened the match up by earning a takedown on Baier before the Cornell wrestler escaped.
However, Jones, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Wrestler, earned another takedown. Baier would be down 5-1 and earned two escape points to bring the deficit back to two, but he could not get the decisive shot, giving the Mountaineer the win. “Baier came to wrestle this weekend,” Mazzurco said. “He didn’t care who he was wrestling, he just did his thing and had a great tournament. He showed a lot of leadership.”
Mazzurco and Manotti both had strong tournament showings, making it to the semifinals in the main bracket before losing their respective matches. In the consolation round, Mazzurco was able to capture fifth place after defeating Northern Iowa’s Eric Hauan, 7-3.
Third-ranked Manotti was not as lucky. After losing to Army’s Phillip Simpson in the main draw’s semifinals, Manotti dropped two bouts in the consolation round to Hofstra’s Jon Masa and Iowa’s Ty Eustice, ending the tournament in sixth place. Manotti is the fourth Ivy League wrestler ever to be a three-time All-American.
“I think he mentally wore himself out during the course of the tournament,” Koll said in regards to Manotti. “I just think he emotionally was exhausted and wrestled very poorly after that.”
Sending nine qualifiers to the national tournament for the first time in program history, each Cornell wrestler won at least one match to contribute to the Red’s team score. While not every Cornell wrestler enjoyed the same success as their All-American counterparts, many put in impressive performances against tough opponents.
One example of this is freshman Jordan Leen (141), who was drawn in the first round against Iowa State No. 1 and eventual runner-up Nate Gallick. Leen almost pulled off the upset before Gallick earned a reversal in the third period to give the Cyclone a 2-0 victory.
“I’m sure a few guys are disappointed [with their performances], but I’m not disappointed with them,” Baier said. “I was extremely proud of the team and how they did. Everyone wrestled their hearts out.”
The program has come a long way since Koll came to Cornell 12 years ago. Once a team which struggled to stay within the top-20 nationally, the Red has a new training facility in the Friedman Wrestling Center, as well as a number of top recruits to help it contend with top programs every year.
Koll attributes his coach of the year award to the impressive performances of his wrestlers and Mazzurco said that the assistant coach triumvirate of Steve Garland, Clint Wattenberg ’03 and Jamar Billman “make up one of the best coaching staffs in the country.”
While the Red will be losing Lee and Baier to graduation, Koll expects his team to be as good as or even better than this year’s team with returning and new wrestlers, as it continues to establish itself as a powerhouse in college wrestling for seasons to come.
“I can’t wait to be in the stands [in the future] and watching us vie for national championships,” Baier said. “We are here to stay.”
Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Assistant Sports Editor