November 21, 2008

Penn St. Defeat Integral To National Title Goal

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Senior captain Jordan Leen is confident about tonight’s season opener match against Penn St. Head coach Rob Koll said he feels confident, too. No. 4 Cornell (0-0) hasn’t beaten No. 8 Penn St. (0-1) in its last five tries in dual-meet play and the Nittany Lions lead the two clubs’ 97-year rivalry 56-10-2.
The Red, however, have good reason to feel like this year is finally the year.
“This year we probably have one of our best teams ever,” said assistant coach Damion Hahn. “We’re really looking forward to [the match].”
Leen, one of the team’s six returning All-Americans and the current National champion at 157 pounds, understands the history between the two teams, but thinks the Nittany Lions’ streak is ready to be broken.
“This is my fifth year on the team,” he said. “And we haven’t yet beaten Penn St.”
Koll said that in past years Cornell has come into its matches against Penn St. at less than full strength. Not so this year.[img_assist|nid=33800|title=Someone’s been eating his Wheaties|desc=Senior captain Jordan Leen thows a competitor nonchalantly over one shoulder during a win over Brown on Feb. 22.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“I don’t have any excuses this year,” he said. “If we lose, we lose to them.”
The match is more than just a tuneup for the Ivies, it is a test for the team that has won the last six Ivy titles, but has not yet brought home an NCAA team championship.
“An Ivy title for this team is absolutely expected,” Leen said. “If we want to win a National title, we have to beat Penn St.”
Hahn said that this point has already been made clear to the team — as the Red is paying more attention to the contest than is usual for a match this early in the season.
“The guys know the emphasis put on this match,” he said. “They know how much it means. It’s all a stepping stone to the National tournament.”
The question for the Red this year is not if the team will win Ivies, but what it will do after conquering the Ancient Eight. Koll’s infamous countdown clock, mounted on the wall directly above the entrance to the team’s locker rooms in the Friedman Wrestling Center is a constant, an LCD reminder of the team’s ultimate goal. Day after day, it counts down the days until the NCAAs — which are exactly 112 days from today’s match.
Penn St. is coming off of a close, 18-15 loss at home to Hofstra in its season opener on Nov. 16. The Nittany Lions actually led the match through six bouts before the Pride surged back, winning three of the last four bouts, including two by major decision.
Penn St. will be bringing four nationally-ranked wrestlers to Ithaca — Bubba Kenkins, second at 149 pounds; Dan Vallimont, second at 157 pounds; Quentin Wright, 16th at 184 pounds and Phil Bomberger, ranked 13th at 184 pounds as well.
Penn St. has a strong personal tie with Koll, as well. His father, Robert, was head coach for the Nittany Lions for thirteen years. There is a room named for him, in fact.
“I grew up at State College, Pennsylvania,” Koll the younger said. “My brothers and sisters went there, and so did my wife. So yes, I want to beat Penn St., so I can rub each and every one of their noses in it.”
One recurring problem for the Red is its tendency to start the season a little slow. Koll has continually emphasized the concept of peaking at the right time — Nationals. In the past, Cornell has lost matches early in the season that it may not have lost a month later. The Red will also be competing without All-American junior Josh Arnone and sophomore Cory Manson. Both are still recuperating from rehabilitative surgery performed over summer.
“We have been known to start slow,” Leen said. “And we don’t have all of our starters back … but with the team we have right now, we still think we can get the ‘W’”
Arnone and Manson will be replaced by a pair of freshman. Grant Daffin — three-time state champion from Oklahoma — will start for the Red at 149, and Cam Simaz — a three-time state champion from Michigan — will be wrestling at 184 pounds in place of Manson.
Leen said that match time would be a great learning opportunity for the pair, especially since the Red has a fairly established starting roster of upperclassmen.
Wrestling at 125 pounds is junior All-American Troy Nickerson. Freshman Quin Leith is slated to wrestle at 133 pounds. Sophomore All-American Mike Grey will start at 141 pounds, followed by Daffin at 149 and then Leen at 157. Sophomore All-American Mack Lewnes will wrestle at 165, followed by senior All-American Steve Anceravage at 174, Simaz at 184 and junior Matt Panasevich or classmate Taylor Moore will take the mat at 197. Senior Zach Hammond will finish out the card at Heavyweight.
In terms of the rest of the incoming class of 2012, Leen said that although it would be difficult to match the star power of last year’s one-two freshman punch of Mack Lewnes and Mike Grey, this year’s freshmen “are pretty impressive.”
Tonight’s match has special significance that goes beyond a win or loss. The team is using its opener as a fundraiser for junior Adam Frey, the Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2007, as well as a two-time NCAA Qualifier — Frey was diagnosed with cancer in March of last year.
For every fan in attendance at tonight’s free match, private sponsors will donate five dollars to the Adam Frey Cancer Fund. The fund helps Frey and his family cope with the wrestler’s medical expenses.
“Obviously, we want to do everything we can to help Adam,” Koll said. “This is a way our team can rally around Adam. This is a very tangible way the team can show their support.”
“We are all on the same page with this,” Leen said of the fundraiser for his friend and teammate. “The stuff that Adam’s going through is so much tougher than any dual match. We’re looking to put a dent in his cancer debts so finances are not an issue in the recovery process.”
The team has done extensive publicizing for the match, including reaching out to the Greek community, as well as area high school and middle school students through various community clinics that the team puts on.
“In the happenstance that we don’t attract a lot of students [to the match], I will be tremendously disappointed,” Koll said.
The Red is hoping for a big turnout, despite the fan-favorite men’s hockey match between Cornell and Harvard going on a couple hundred feet down the road.
“We’re not Cornell hockey, yet,” Leen said. “Hopefully, it will just be a great night for Cornell Athletics.”
A season-opening win against a team that hasn’t lost a dual match to Cornell in four years would be nice, too.