March 14, 2008

Red’s NCAA Hopes Pinned on Six Wrestlers

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Following a slim and bittersweet win at the EIWA championships last weekend, six grapplers on the No. 16 wrestling team will represent the team’s only hope of achieving its third top-5 national finish in the last four years at next week’s NCAA championships in St. Louis, Mo.
“[The EIWA tournament] was a disappointing performance for us as a team, although some individuals like [senior] Mike [Rodriguez] and [freshman Mack] Lewnes really stepped up,” said junior Steve Anceravage. “I’m feeling pretty lucky that we came away with a victory.”
Though the Red dominated the first day of EIWA compeitition last weekend in Lancaster, Pa., only three grapplers made it to the finals of their respective weight classes while only one, Lewnes, earned an individual title.
While Cornell inched out Penn by one- half of a point to earn its second consecutive team title, the squad only qualified six wrestlers for the NCAA championships, which take place from March 20-22. By contrast, the Red sent at least eight competitors each of the last three seasons, including a program-record nine in 2004-05.[img_assist|nid=28832|title=Human knot|desc=Senior 125-pounder Mike Rodriguez (left) has had a breakout season, qualifying for his first NCAA tournament at last weekend’s EIWA championships.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The fewer the number of athletes that Cornell takes to the NCAAs, the fewer chances there are for a Red wrestler to make it deep into the tournament and rack up team points. As such, it will be much more difficult for this year’s squad to attain a top-5 finish than in years past.
“I’m obviously all about national qualifiers,” said head coach Rob Koll. “But it was still nice to get the win [at the EIWAs]. We were actually very close to getting all 10 guys to qualify [for the NCAAs]. It was the first time in our history that all 10 wrestlers placed in the top-6, so they were all on the bubble. We just caught a few bad breaks in the end.”
According to Koll, the most devastating blow to the team was the injury of junior and returning All-American Josh Arnone. After pinning his first two opponents, Arnone severely injured his surgically repaired shoulder against Penn’s Lior Zamir in the quarterfinal match, forcing him to forfeit his remaining matches and take sixth place.
“It was frustrating losing Josh because if he doesn’t get injured, we take seven guys to the NCAAs, all of whom can do some serious damage there. He was just starting to really wrestle well, too.”
“[Arnone is] probably the most mentally tough kid I know,” Anceravage said, “and for him not to go back out there tells you how bad he was hurt.”
With the injury to Arnone, the six grapplers who will represent the Red in Missouri are Lewnes at 165 pounds, Anceravage at 174, Rodriguez at 125, sophomore Adam Frey at 141, junior captain Jordan Leen at 157 and freshman Mike Grey at 133 pounds. Among this group, only Leen and Anceravage have been to the NCAAs before, and Leen is the only returning All-American.
Taking the place of injured former national runner-up Troy Nickerson, Rodriguez won an 11-6 decision in the EIWA’s third-place match over American’s Jason Borshoff to qualify for his first NCAA tournament.
“Mike has been such a pleasant surprise for us this year,” Koll said. “He will have to wrestle better than he ever has before to [place in the top-8], but stranger things have happened.”
Lewnes has lost only three matches all year and surprised no one when he emerged victorious at the EIWAs.
“He doesn’t wrestle like a freshman,” Anceravage said. “He is very composed and, despite some things going against him late in that tournament, he didn’t let them affect his focus. We jokingly call him our savior because without him winning in the finals, we don’t win the tournament.”
Anceravage himself, a runner-up at the EIWAs, qualified for his third consecutive NCAA tournament but will look to improve upon his 2-4 all-time record at the event.
Frey recovered from losing his first match back from a team-imposed suspension at the EIWA tournament to eventually place third in the event. Although he also qualified for Nationals last year, he failed to make weight and was not allowed to compete.
Leen lost to Lehigh’s David Nakasone in the finals of the EIWA tournament to qualify and is looking to improve on an eighth place finish in last year’s NCAAs. Grey continued his fantastic freshman season by winning a 10-4 decision over Brown’s Jeffrey Schell to place third at the EIWA and also looks poised to make a deep run.
Despite the squad’s relative inexperience at the NCAA tournament, Koll remains very optimistic regarding his team’s chances, hoping to improve on last year’s 12th-place finish.
“All six guys have the ability to place [in the top-8],” Koll said about the cutoff for All-American honors. “And if they all do that, our team will also place in the top-5 nationally. But that’s a lot to ask for from a group that has two freshman and only two guys with real experience. I would be happy to get four All-Americans again this year.”
The tournament consists of roughly 30 of the best wrestlers in the nation at each weight class and pits them against each other in a double-elimination bracket. In order to achieve All-American status, a wrestler must win at least three matches in a row to start the tournament or make it to the semifinals of the consolation bracket.
Cornell’s six competing wrestlers will continue to train before flying out to St. Louis next Tuesday. They will then workout at the local facilities on Wednesday and start the competition early on Thursday morning.