Ivy League title? Check. EIWA championship? Check.
After winning its record 15th straight Ivy title and 11th consecutive conference title, Cornell wrestling has one more goal to check off its list this weekend in St. Louis — a trophy at NCAAs with a top-four finish.
Head coach Rob Koll is sticking to his early season aspirations, but acknowledged that cracking the top-four will be difficult.
With that goal in mind, the Red’s six NCAA qualifiers will head down to St. Louis for the three-day tournament against the best of the collegiate wrestling world. The contingent is primarily seniors — led by Mark Grey (133), Dylan Palacio (157), Brian Realbuto (174) and Gabe Dean (184), along with sophomores Brandon Womack (165) and Ben Honis (197).
Of the six, four are ranked in their respective brackets — Womack, Palacio, Realbuto and Dean — all of whom won EIWA individual titles. As an NCAA qualifier, each wrestler is entered into a 32-person bracket for his weight class, and the ultimate champion is crowned on Saturday night. Each victory earns points for the wrestler’s college, and the team competition is based on the accumulation of these points. Although there are no duels, the team component plays a key part in the event.
While some schools will take several more wrestlers to NCAAs than Cornell, the Red still has a shot to be competitive. However the smaller group adds pressure on each individual to perform.
“With only six guys headed to NCAAs, I’m not sure if we have the manpower to keep up with a few of the top schools,” Realbuto said. “However, with a solid performance from all of our guys, I see us in the top five.”
Dean is the undisputed leader of the group. The two-time defending NCAA champion is undefeated on the year, a favorite to win the Hodge trophy for the best pound-for-pound wrestler in the nation and the number one seed at 184. Dean is also a three-time all-American and a four-time EIWA champ.
The Lowell, Mich., native is taking nothing for granted, though, and is making sure to end his time at Cornell the right way. According to his coach, anything short of a national title for Dean would be both surprising and disappointing.
Dean’s season has been nothing less than perfect. 20 of his 31 match victories have come by fall, and he has earned bonus points in all but three. While Dean’s path to the championship is by no means easy, a third consecutive NCAA title would put him in quite an elite club.
Realbuto comes in as the No. 2 seed at 174 in his fourth appearance at the NCAA tournament. As only a sophomore, Realbuto was the national runner-up in 2015. This year, he has lost just one match, and earned a hard-fought upset victory over Ohio State’s then-No. 1 Bo Jordan. His one loss came against Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia who is now the top seed in the bracket.
“I’m definitely hungry to win this title,” Realbuto said. “I know what it’s like to be so close and not get it, and I’m really excited to get back to that stage and have a different outcome. I lost to Valencia in a close match at the beginning of the season, so I’m excited to get some revenge.”
Just like everyone else on the team, Realbuto knows better than to look past any early round matchup.
“Most importantly though, I’m taking it one match at a time,” he said. “I don’t want to overlook anyone because each match is just as important.”
Palacio is the Red’s next highest seeded wrestler. The all-American from last year is seeded No. 7 at 157, and will look to build off his second consecutive EIWA title. The senior from Long Beach, N.Y., has looked dominant at times after missing the fall semester and only wrestling in five meets all season. At EIWAs, Palacio set a Cornell record by pinning his first round opponent in 15 seconds.
According to Koll, if Palacio had not missed the fall semester, he would likely be a top-five seed at the tournament. Regardless, he is expecting big things out of his senior in his last crack at the national title.
The fourth and final EIWA champ making the trip to St. Louis is Womack. The sophomore was inconsistent in the season’s first few meets, but dominated the second half of the season and breezed through his EIWA draw. In his first appearance at NCAAs, Womack knows he will have to keep his emotions in check.
“I know the atmosphere will be different than I have ever experienced, but I’m excited,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s just another tournament, and I have to go out and wrestle my best and perform.”
Seeded 13th, Womack faces a potential second round matchup against No. 4 Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin. To keep his eight match win streak going, though, he will first need to knock off Iowa’s Joseph Gunther.
The final two wrestlers representing the Red are Honis and Grey. They are both unranked, but the pair is hoping to earn some points for their team and pull off a few upsets as well. Grey will be making his third appearance at NCAAs, while Honis’ first round matchup against No. 11 Shawn Scott of Northern Illinois will be his first ever at the national championships.
With fewer wrestlers than some of the other top schools, Koll and his team will rely on contributions from every qualifier.
The tournament lasts for five sessions over the course of three days. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights will all be broadcast live on ESPN.
“If everyone performs and has a good tournament we should be able to turn some heads,” Womack said. “It will be a fun week, and I’m excited to see what we can do.”
Realbuto echoed the enthusiasm of his younger teammate.
“The NCAA tournament is probably the best atmosphere in all of wrestling,” he said. “And I’m definitely looking to enjoy it!”