Coming off of a demoralizing dual match loss to Ohio State in front of an energized home crowd and a disappointing 14th place finish at the Las Vegas Invitational in early December, the wrestling team had a lot to ponder before it returned to action almost a month later in the Southern Scuffle tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
“There was definitely a lot of doubting going on,” said assistant coach Cory Cooperman. “A lot of guys began to think that we are not as good as we thought we were, and that type of attitude affects the whole team. We really needed to come together and realize that this is a team sport.”
So while most Cornellians were lounging at home or relaxing on a tropical beach over winter break, the wrestling team stayed at Cornell to try and come together as a team.
“The break gave us a chance to not only to complete some double sessions, but also to get everyone in a room together and bond,” Cooperman said.
The results speak for themselves as the squad grappled its way to a third-place finish in the Southern Scuffle, a tournament that hosted over 30 elite teams from all over the nation. This fact is all the more impressive considering that the only two teams to top the Red in the tournament were Missouri and Minnesota, the top-2 teams in the country.
“Our performance in the Southern Scuffle was the high point in an otherwise very tough break,” Cooperman said. “I think we realized how good we actually are, [and] that talent-wise we were just as good as them. We just needed to come together.”
The Red was led by sophomore co-captain Troy Nickerson (125) and classmate Adam Frey (133), each of whom captured individual titles in their respective weight classes. Nickerson cruised through his bracket, decisively beating every opponent he faced through the semifinals. In the finals, Nickerson faced No. 2 seed Tanner Gardner from Stanford and controlled the match from start to finish, shutting Gardner out, 3-0, to claim the title.
The Cinderella story of the tournament, however, was the improbable run by Frey. The nation’s top recruit at 130 pounds two years ago out of Blair Academy had never wrestled in a collegiate match before the tournament, yet still found a way to mow down the top-ranked wrestlers in the nation en route to the title.
After two easy victories in the early rounds, he faced No. 1 seed Matt Keller of Chattanooga in the quarterfinals. In an intense battle, Frey came out on top with a 10-9 decision. Frey wasn’t satisfied with just one upset, however, as he toughed out another 10-9 win over No. 4 seed Joe Baker of Navy in the semifinals as well as 4-2 win over No. 2 seed Evam Sola from UNC to take the 133 title.
“Frey really stepped up for us over the break,” said senior co-captain Jerry Rinaldi. “He just kept going out there and found a way to win every match. Obviously that was a big boost for us.”
Juniors Jordan Leen (149) and Steve Anceravage (165) also aided Cornell in its valiant third-place finish, placing second in their respective weight classes.
After the Southern Scuffle the Red was ravaged by injuries to many of its key starters — most notably to Rinaldi. The senior withdrew from the Scuffle after suffering a concussion in his semifinal bout.
“We were down to five starters for most of the matches after the Southern Scuffle,” Cooperman said. “When you work out as much as they do, you have to expect some injuries, but they just piled up. Guys went down with torn ACLs, concussions, shoulders slipping and all sorts of other stuff; it was just one thing after other.”
These injuries crippled the talented Cornell squad, playing a large factor in the team’s poor performance in dual matches following the tournament. Cornell fell to Penn State, 18-12; Minnesota, 32-11; and Northwestern, 25-15. The news was not all terrible, however, as the team did upset wrestling powerhouse Oklahoma, 23-15, at the NWCA National Duals.
“Although it was a tough break, we proved to ourselves that we are just as good as the best teams in the country,” Cooperman said. “We can definitely be one of the top-3 teams in the nation, and I anticipate a much better second half of the season.”