February 18, 2009

Wrestling Squad Values ‘Bench’

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Had you read the recap of the Red’s last home wrestling match this past weekend, a 26-9 win over Ivy rival Penn, you would have found three seniors mentioned in the match highlights. But had you actually attended the event at packed Friedman Wrestling Center, you would have watched five seniors step out into the center of the ring to be honored as Cornell’s Class of 2009. And while Tim Ironman and Drake Hovis may not be suited up and wrestling in official dual matches every weekend, they have played an integral part during their years with the squad, just as starters Jordan Leen, Steve Anceravage and Zach Hammond have.
On any given Saturday, only ten men will get to represent their team in head-to-head competition, each one entered in one of the ten weight classes. But there are 38 total men on the Red’s team, 38 student-athletes who go to every practice, who have each contributed their own sweat to the mat, who have felt the pain of one of head coach Rob Koll’s conditioning workouts. Just like the numerous varsity football, hockey and lacrosse athletes who must be content to sit on the bench week after week, wrestling’s “non-starters” play a special role for the Red, while always waiting, hoping for that one chance to break into the top-10.
Anceravage, an All-American and All-Ivy League caliber wrestler, who has been a member of the team since the 2004-2005 season, said that the non-starting members of the team actually give Cornell an edge over other comparable programs. [img_assist|nid=35236|title=Come one, come all|desc=Freshman Grant Daffin (left) competes at the Body Bar Invitational on Nov. 22, 2008. Daffin placed third at the event that is one of the few contests where non-starters get to both show off and polish their skills.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“The non-starters actually are one of the strengths Cornell has over other teams,” he said.
Koll affirmed Anceravage’s assertions. “If it weren’t for those guys, we’d never be any good,” he said. “You’re only as good as your workout partners. You have to train with the best to be the best.”
Those who don’t start still wrestle continuously with the starters in the semi-competitive environment of practices, but with all of the energy and skill of actual matches, and Koll said he tries to enter as many tournaments as possible that allow multiple wrestlers to enter at the same weight.
“To have that kind of competition day in and day out, it makes everybody much better,” Anceravage said. “Having a bunch of different people, all with different styles, and being competitive with all of them, that really helps out the starters.”
Many of the non-starters are freshman or sophomores who compete in weight classes already filled by seasoned veterans like Leen or Anceravage. These underclassmen work extremely hard, Anceravage said, in an attempt both to impress their coaches and peers, as well as to push themselves to the next level.
Some may never get the opportunity to start for Cornell, but others will one day either earn the spot in the wake of a departing senior, or wrestle the spot away from a former starter in a head-to-head competition known as a wrestle off.
There’s always “that chance,” Anceravage said. Anceravage himself was once a freshman, battling for a spot among the ranks of the starters.
“It definitely was not a certainty that I was going to start [as a freshman],” Anceravage said.
Koll said that he and his coaching staff recruit multiple athletes at the same weight class because you never know when a wrestler will get injured or have to stop wrestling for some other reason. Similarly, he said, you never know which high-school stars will shine — and which ones will crash and burn in the high-pressure NCAA environment.
But it’s not always easy to be buried down on the non-starting end of the bench.
Senior Hovis, who started as a freshman, has since seen limited playing time, and will probably finish out his career with the Red in the stands.
“It is hard,” Hovis said. “It’s tough to be motivated.”
But Hovis said that he understands the role he can play in helping to make his team stronger, and this attitude of sacrifice and teamwork keeps him coming back for more workouts and team meetings and lifting.
“I think about my friends,” he said. “I care about how the team does, how everyone does. My job is in the practice room.”
As a senior, Hovis is also in a position from which he can impart any and all bits of advice he has gleaned from his years with Cornell.
“I try to help the younger guys when I can,” he said. “I’ve had to take my lumps, and I try to help them avoid making the mistakes I made.”
While Koll agrees that wrestlers like Hovis can have a tough time, he maintains that he “never recruits anyone as a backup.” Koll is not the type to give up on any of his wrestlers. For him, and for the team’s under-recognized but invaluable non-starters, there is always hope.