NEW YORK, N.Y. — With the lights at their brightest, senior Nahshon Garrett and junior Gabe Dean were at their best. Garrett and Dean both won national titles as Cornell wrestling placed seventh in the nation, at the 2016 NCAA Wrestling National Championships held at Madison Square Garden over the weekend.
Head coach Rob Koll said the three leaders of his team — Garrett, Dean and junior Brian Realbuto — set the tone throughout the weekend, each in his own way.
Garrett, the No. 1 seeded wrestler at the 133-lb weight class, faced his last shot to win a National Championship, a milestone many expected him to achieve last year. Dean, also seeded first, had a chance to repeat his championship in the 184-lb weight class, while also looking to avenge his loss in February against Oklahoma State’s Nolan Boyd, who had snapped Dean’s win streak at 52 matches. Realbuto, on the other hand, needed to fought through a torn ACL and MCL sustained during his first match of the weekend.
At the weekend’s conclusion, Garrett walked away from New York City with his first national championship, Dean secured his second with a victory over Boyd in Session III and Realbuto somehow fought on one leg to nearly win his match in Session II.
Cornell walked out of Madison Square Garden with two of the 10 national champions. Even with the team’s seventh-place finish, — the Red took fifth last year — Dean said he was really “fired up” about the results and what it meant for the future of Cornell wrestling.
“I’m containing myself because I have to be professional,” Dean said. “But, man, from where we started to where we are now as a group, I remember coming into Cornell when I was a kid, getting the crap kicked out of me every day by Cam Simaz [’12].”
Now a junior, Dean has become one of the leaders of the team and, unlike in his freshman season, is “not getting [his] head shoved into the bleachers every day.”
“The point was these kids, not just me but my whole class, we kept coming back and didn’t take no for an answer,” Dean said. “And you know what, we didn’t have the perfect NCAA Tournament, but we got a lot of fighters on our team and a lot of support. And I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
For Garrett, the championship match on Sunday represented both the emotional and physical peak for his entire college career, and something he’s worked towards his entire life.
“Well, I was thinking about having peace and calm myself in the midst of everything going on. I just really needed to show and express that I had a peaceless state when I was out there and that’s what I wrestled with and I wrestle with confidence,” Garrett said. “And I think I was just trying to portray that, express that to the best of my ability.”
Garrett, whose victory this weekend completes his undefeated season, finished his career at Cornell sporting a record of 149-12. He was also a four-time All-American and will compete in the 2016 Olympic trials, with a chance to represent the US in Rio de Janeiro this summer.
Realbuto, on the other hand, tore his ACL and MCL while looking to stave up off an upset from Iowa State’s Lelund Witherspoon when his knee gave out. The junior entered the match seeded second in his weight class, and finished as the national runner-up last year. Despite losing the match, Realbuto miraculously came back and decided to give his consolation match a go. Despite working off one leg, he almost won, only losing a 6-5 decision to Chattanooga’s Sean Mappes after a last-second takedown was called off.
“I don’t think people truly appreciate how frightening that experience is when you don’t have the use of one of your legs and you’re out there in front of 18,000 people and you’re almost embarrassing yourself, but he fought his ass off and I was proud of how he wrestled,” Koll said. “It was unfortunate that he didn’t win, but at the same time, I don’t think we would’ve put him out again.”
Beyond just Garrett, Dean and Realbuto, Koll said he was proud of the performance of all his wrestlers on the weekend, which included freshmen Dalton Macri, Joe Galasso and Jeramy Sweany, junior Dylan Palacio — who placed fourth at 157-lb — and seniors Duke Pickett and Owen Scott.
“When you have two of your top kids go down like that, it seems to represent the whole team, which is unfair, because overall, they’re not scoring tons of points, but they’re wrestling,” Koll said of Realbuto and Pickett’s first round losses. “When you look at the three freshmen we have here, our heavyweight gets caught and pinned late in the late period [on Friday], otherwise, they’re winning matches at the national championship and that really makes me feel good.”
Reacting to the show of support from many Cornellians who attended the tournament, Garrett found himself emotional speaking about finishing his collegiate wrestling career.
“It’s easy to get caught up in it when they were singing the National Anthem,” Garrett said. “I was in tears because I was overwhelmed by the glory of the spectating and just everything emanating from me and from everybody else and it was a pretty amazing thing. And I was a little emotional before my match. So I had to calm myself down and had to get slapped in the face a couple times before I actually went out there on the mat.”
The fight from the team, beyond just Garrett, Dean and Realbuto, is what makes Cornell wrestling the storied program that it is today, Koll said. That tradition is what will keep bringing competitive wrestlers into the program, year after year, according to Koll.
“Every single prospective student athlete will be watching this … and when they see that giant white C, it’s iconic. I like that,” Koll said. “They get to hear the kids speak and see them on video and they are like, ‘I want to be like Gabe Dean.’ Well, you can’t be like Gabe Dean or Nahshon Garrett unless you come to Cornell. And before them, we had Kyle Dake [’13]. Those guys are just passing on the tradition.”