March 25, 2008

Wrestling Takes Ninth at NCAAs

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When inopportune injuries to key starters and inconsistent performances at the EIWA tournament seemingly crippled the wrestling team’s chances of competing amongst the elite at the NCAA tournament, the Red refused to bow out quietly. Despite only qualifying six out of 10 starters for the event – two fewer than Cornell sent the past two seasons and three fewer than it sent in 2004-05 – the Red’s determination and lofty expectations allowed the team to crown four All-Americans and a national champion en route to a stunning ninth-place finish last weekend in St. Louis, Mo.
“We always expect to be in the top-10 nationally, so I wouldn’t say we were overly surprised with the results,” said junior captain Jordan Leen, who was the lowest seed in the tournament (No. 8) to capture an individual national championship. “But considering the fact that we had two returning All-Americans injured and only took six guys to the tournament, we are all pleased with how we performed. Everyone seemed to wrestle above his seed and given the circumstances, ninth place was a lot more meaningful than it might have been in years past.”
When all the dust settled, Cornell finished with 67 team points, only five behind fifth place Oklahoma State but over 50 away from the national champion Iowa Hawkeyes. With the win, the Hawkeyes picked up their 21st national team title.
In addition to Leen’s incredible run through the 157-pound bracket, three other Red grapplers earned All-American status (all for the first time) by finishing in the top-8 in their respective weight classes. Junior Steve Anceravage finished with an overall record of 4-2 to take sixth place at 174 pounds, freshman Mack Lewnes was the only true freshman to make it to the semifinals en route to a fourth place finish at 165 pounds and classmate Mike Grey made a solid debut with a sixth place finish of his own.
This is the third top-10 national finish for the team in the last four years and, even more impressively, marks the fourth straight season in which four Red grapplers qualified as individual All-Americans, an EIWA record.[img_assist|nid=29083|title=A fighting spirit|desc=Junior captain Jordan Leen (top) was seeded eighth heading into the tournament. He became the lowest seed ever to win an individual championship.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“[The EIWA record] is really just a tribute to how amazing [head coach] Rob Koll is,” Anceravage said. “It’s just such a positive thing for our program. He just keeps bringing in great recruiting classes and great coaches. … Many of his old assistants are now even head coaches at other big programs. Plus when you look at the facility we train in and compete in and the networking opportunities with our alumni, you just realize that coach Koll has built up a program that has so much to offer.”
After drawing a No. 8 seed, Leen began his run to a national championship by facing off against Ryan Hluschak of Drexel. Despite being unranked, Hluschak was a former All-American and had beaten Leen earlier in the season.
“I thought it was a tough draw for me in the first round, but that really helped me to be focused from the get-go,” Leen said. “I couldn’t overlook him and the match helped put me in the right frame of mind.”
With the score tied at 1-1 after two periods, Leen earned an escape to take a one-point lead. Hluschak took the lead with one minute left in the third with a takedown, but Leen pulled ahead 30 seconds later with a reversal and kept control the rest of the way to earn the 4-3 win.
After a 4-1 decision over Brian Letters of Maryland, Leen took on No. 1 seed Gregor Gillespie of Edinboro in the quarterfinals. The matchup was déjà vu for Leen as Gillespie had beaten him in the quarterfinals of last year’s NCAA tournament, knocking him out of championship contention.
This year the captain quickly took control of the match with two takedowns and significant riding time, seizing a commanding 4-1 lead in the first period. In the second, Gillespie escaped from the down position only to have Leen take him down yet again by grabbing his ankle. After another escape to make the score 6-3, Gillespie brought the match within a point after coming out on top of a scramble to earn a takedown. In the third, Leen was penalized for stalling but an escape and a riding time advantage gave the Cornell grappler a thrilling 8-6 upset victory.
“I just felt that the luck went my way this year,” he said. “I won a couple of the scrambles that he won last year.”
After a 9-2 win over Stanford’s No. 12-ranked Josh Zupancic, Leen met Illionois’ No. 2-ranked Michael Poeta in the finals. With 50 seconds left in the first period, Leen once again came out firing and took down Poeta to earn an early 2-0 advantage. Poeta then escaped with 10 seconds left to pull within one.
The Cornell grappler started the second in the down position and increased his lead with an escape. In a confusing series of events, Poeta looked as if he was about to takedown Leen on the outskirts of the circle when the referee penalized Poeta for fleeing the mat, thus giving Leen a 4-1 lead heading into the final frame. Refusing to go down without a fight, the Illinois wrestler earned a quick escape and then a takedown to tie the match at 4-4.
He then let Leen up looking for another takedown and the win but the energetic Tennessean rebuffed his repeated attacks to earn the coveted national championship with a 5-4 victory. Leen thus became the lowest seed in the NCAA tournament and only the second wrestler from Tennessee to become an NCAA champion. Furthermore, he became the ninth champion in Cornell history as well as the first since Travis Lee in 2005 at 133 pounds.
The captain chalked up his run to luck and a high level of comfort in the final match.
“I just felt lucky to have that opportunity,” he said. “I thought to myself before the match that in the grand scheme of things, this was just a wrestling match. So I think that calmed me down a lot and I just felt really comfortable up there, my nerves were not an issue at all. … It is still hard for me to say what [the national championship] feels like; it was just a mixture of a bunch of emotions. I just feel extremely blessed.”
Teammate and classmate Steve Anceravage credited Leen’s awe-inspiring work-ethic as the key to his success.
“You can’t just look at this tournament, you need to look at the way Jordan lives his life,” he said. “He’s very focused, disciplined, and dedicated. You always see him around the weight room or on the training mat just trying to get some extra work in. It just goes to show you what hard work can do for you in this sport. … No one would have picked him over Poeta coming out of high school, it’s just incredible.”
In the 165-pound bracket, freshman and No. 4-ranked Mack Lewnes cruised to a 5-3 victory over Old Dominion’s Chris Brown in the first round and pinned W. Virginia’s Donald Jones in the second. Against Nebraska’s No. 5 ranked Stephen Dwyer, Lewnes found himself below Dwyer and down two points with only 30 seconds left in the third period. But showing extraordinary resolve and composure for a freshman, Lewnes quickly scored a reversal as time ran out to send the match into overtime. Neither wrestler scored in overtime but Lewnes pulled out the match and secured his first All-American honors with a reversal in the first 30-second tiebreaker, eventually winning 6-5.
Although No. 1 seed Eric Tannenbaum of Michigan proceeded to shutout Lewnes in the next round, the Red grappler pinned American’s Michael Cannon in the wrestleback bracket to lock up a top-4 finish.
“I thought I wrestled pretty well but there a still a lot of things I need to work on,” Lewnes said.
Lewnes’ captain gave rave reviews for the performance of the freshman.
“It says something about Mack’s character and how good he really is that he comes away with fourth place in the country as a freshman and was disappointed,” Leen said. “He’s the total package and it is going to be three very long years for whoever is in his weight class in the future.”
At 174 pounds, junior and No. 11 ranked Steve Anceravage snuck by his first round foe, 7-6, and pinned No. 6 ranked Alton Lucas of Hofstra (his 17th pin of the season) before dropping a tight 3-2 match to Nebraska’s Brandon Browne in the quarterfinals. Anceravage’s next faced No. 9 Brandon Mason of Oklahoma State in the wrestleback bracket, with the winner determining who would become an All-American.
Anceravage looked for a takedown in the first but Mason continuously denied his attempts and the two went scoreless in the first period.
“My game plan was to try to get a takedown early because he is very good on top, but I just couldn’t do that,” he said. “So then my strategy was just to stay in control in the second, build up riding time and keep him from scoring in the third.”
The junior’s plan worked to perfection as Mason chose the down position in the second period and despite repeatedly rising to his feet, Anceravage never relinquished control and gained the full two minutes in riding time. In the third, the Red grappler chose neutral and evaded all of Mason’s attacks to get the 1-0 win by riding time as well as his first All-American honors.
“As soon as that match ended, I just felt like all of the pressure was off of me, because I was finally an All-American,” he said.
Using heightened confidence, Anceravage avenged his loss in the finals of the EIWA tournament to Navy’s Matt Stolpinski He used two takedowns, an escape and riding time to defeat the Midshipman, 6-1.
“Against Stolpiniski my adrenaline was so high and I just felt amazing, almost unstoppable,” he said. “It shows you how much of a mental game it is.”
With the win Anceravage secured at worst a sixth-place finish, which he eventually achieved after dropping his final two matches of the tournament.
“After I was knocked out of last year’s tournament, I felt that I had the ability to be an All-American and promised myself that I would be,” he said. “So I spent all summer training in Ithaca and it really showed in the NCAAs this year, I was very focused.”
Rounding out Cornell’s quadruplet of All-Americans was freshman and No. 7 ranked Mike Grey at 133 pounds. After a first round bye, Grey easily handled his next two opponents to reach the quarterfinals, where he took on No. 2 ranked James Kennedy of Illinois.
The pair traded blows in the first period, with Grey utilizing two takedowns and an escape to take a 5-3 lead into the second. Kennedy then came within a point with an escape and grabbed the lead with his first takedown of the match, but Grey also escaped to make the score 6-6 heading into the third.
Yet another series of takedowns and escapes left the match tied at the end of regulation, and the duo did not score in overtime. In sudden victory, Kennedy finished off the feisty freshman with a takedown to earn a trip to the semifinals. Grey went 2-2 the rest of the tournament to eventually take sixth place and earn his first All-American accolades.
Junior Adam Frey won his first match in the 141-pound bracket by a score of 17-1 but was pinned by No. 4 ranked Nathan Morgan in his next bout to drop into the wrestlebacks. He then stunned Ohio’s Germane Lindsey by pinning him in 22 seconds but lost to No. 12 ranked Garrett Scott to knock the junior out of the tournament.
Senior Mike Rodriquez lost his first match at 125 pounds, 11-0, to No. 8 ranked Brandon Precin but then beat Duquesne’s Jonathan Bittinger, 7-0, in the wrestlebacks for his first NCAA victory. After beating Brandon Zoeteway, 8-4, he was knocked out after losing a 10-8 decision to Arizona State’s Anthony Robles.
After the ninth place finish, the wrestlers related overwhelming optimism regarding the future of the program.
“It almost gets me too excited to think about next year,” Leen said. “We now have six returning All-Americans, our entire starting lineup back, and hopefully [junior] Zach Hammond back, who would have been an All-American this year if not for his injury. Potentially, we have the ability to finally piece together what we all want, which is a national team title.”
Anceravage echoed his captain’s positive sentiments.
“I’m more excited for next season than I have been for any other wrestling season in my life,” he said. “… I think it will be an unbelievable year for us and we can make a run at the national team title.”