Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.
At least, that’s how it seemed after Cornell wrestling two-time National Champion and four-time All-American Gabe Dean fell in the 184 pound finals on Saturday night of the NCAA Championships, capping off a tough 24-hour stretch for the team from Ithaca.
The Red was in prime position to bring home some hardware going into the second day of competition Friday night. The team had put up big numbers during the opening sessions of the tournament and was solidly in contention for a top-five team finish. Its top three wrestlers — seniors Dean, Brian Realbuto (174) and Dylan Palacio (157) — were all in their bracket’s semifinals. Cornell had also already locked up four All-Americans with the three aforementioned seniors and sophomore Brandon Womack (165).
What transpired next was tough to swallow for anyone watching. Palacio and Realbuto lost on Friday night in the final minutes, followed by Dean’s defeat on Saturday. As a group, Cornell fell several spots to finish the tournament in eighth place.
“We were wrestling great, but we had a couple of guys who found ways to lose on Friday night which really just took the winds out of our sails,” said head coach Rob Koll.
Dean came out in the semifinals against Oklahoma’s Nolan Boyd, whom he had already beaten multiple times this season, and Friday night was no different. The four-time EIWA champion came out fighting and cruised to a 9-3 victory. Unlike his classmates, he was just one victory away from capping off an undefeated season and his third consecutive national title.
Dean’s semifinal win landed him a matchup with No. 2 Bo Nickal of Penn St. on Saturday night. The Nittany Lions’ sophomore had lost just once coming into the bout and was some experts’ pick to be the only one who could take down the seemingly unstoppable Dean.
“As we all know he’s a great wrestler, he’s very dangerous,” Dean said in an interview before the match. “As a senior, to have an opportunity to compete for your last title is really awesome. I’m just looking forward to the challenge that awaits me.”
In the end, however, that challenge proved to be too much for Dean.
The Red senior scored the match’s first two points on a takedown and appeared to hold on to that lead going into the second period. However, a challenge from the Penn St. staff ended up with Nickal being awarded a late takedown, giving the sophomore the 3-2 lead at first break.
After an escape point, Nickal led 4-2 and held off Dean for the remainder of the second. Dean escaped to open the third and had just under three minutes to land a takedown and win the match. But Nickal’s defense was just too good on Saturday night in front of the raucous Scottrade Center.
Dean did all that he could — nearly forcing his opponent to the mat multiple times — but the referees would not give Dean credit for a takedown, and the match ended 4-3. Just like that, the senior’s illustrious career at Cornell was over.
“Penn State had four consecutive championships before that one, and I think the kid was wrestling on a high,” Koll said. “It wasn’t like Gabe wrestled poorly, [Dean] actually took it to him. There were a couple of opportunities that could’ve gone his way depending on the refs, but his opponent did a good job of avoiding him. Gabe is relentless, but unfortunately wasn’t able to capitalize on a couple of opportunities.”
When all was said and done, and the undisputed favorite and Cornell’s all-time winningest wrestler had finally been defeated, Dean’s answer to a question from the day before seemed truer than ever.
“When you’re one of the top wrestlers in the country, people might put you up there like you’re indestructible, like you can’t even be touched, like you’re a machine, but that’s not true,” he said. “Every single one of us is a human being. We all have our shortcomings. We all don’t wrestle the way we play it out in our head every single time.”
But the disappointment for the Cornell team came much earlier than team’s finals match. Palacio entered the tournament as the No. 7 seed, yet the high-spirited middleweight was poised and ready for a deep run through the bracket. After dramatically upsetting No. 2 Michael Kemerer of Iowa on Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals, it seemed as if he might not be stopped.
Fast forward to Friday night, and with just over 10 seconds left in his semifinal match against No. 3 Joey Lavallee of Missouri, Palacio was closing in on the victory. Lavallee, however, responded with a late four-point nearfall to take the match in the waning moments and end Palacio’s title hopes.
“He wasn’t wrestling a typical Dylan match,” Koll said. “Normally he’s attacking and pushing the pace, but this time he was all defensive. A lot of the credit has to be given to the kid he was wrestling, though.”
About 20 minutes later, it was Realbuto’s turn to earn a spot in Saturday night’s finals.
Wrestling against No. 3 Bo Jordan of Ohio State — someone Realbuto upset in February — the former NCAA runner-up also jumped out to a quick lead. At one point, Realbuto led 7-2, but a rare mistake late in the third made the night that much worse for the Red.
“It’s an incredibly stressful situation there with 19,000 people all screaming at the same time … and it was one of the very times in his career he let the emotions get the best of him,” Koll said. “He made a very poor decision, and instead of being conservative and giving up a [two-point] takedown, he went for a big move and gave up four points.”
The way in which the losses came about made them that much tougher to deal with, according to Koll.
“It wasn’t just that they both lost, it was the dramatic fashion in which they lost,” he said. “Both let it slip away in the very last second, and it was just heart-wrenching.”
Despite the tough last two sessions, there are some positives the team hopes to take away. The eighth place finish makes Cornell and Iowa the only two schools to finish in the top-10 at NCAAs every year since 2008. The team also earned an impressive four All-American honors, including one from a standout in Womack.
“We did come away with an All-American with Brandon Womack as the 13th seed, and everyone won matches and scored some bonus points. So there were some real positives to be taken away,” Koll said. “It was just unfortunate that the seniors could not reach their ultimate goals.”
“Wrestling’s a grueling sport … but at the end here, I’m glad I made it out with three All-American honors,” Realbuto said in an interview after it was all said and done. He now plans to stay local for a year with Dean and coach a local youth program.
The remaining two wrestlers — senior Mark Grey (133) and sophomore Ben Honis (197) — did not place in the tournament, but competed hard nonetheless.
“Grey wrestled the best he’s wrestled all year long, and I was really proud of him,” Koll said. “And Honis won a match by major decision, and he’s back for two more years so we’re excited about that.”
With four of the six NCAA qualifiers graduating, younger wrestlers like Honis and Womack are the Red’s future, and the program’s winning tradition now depends on their success.
“We’ve got a great group of young guys coming back next year,” Koll said. “We recruit hard, and we’ve got a great room. That’s why these guys are where they are. They’re getting pushed every day.”
While Dean, Realbuto and Palacio have all donned the red and white singlet for the final time, their departure opens the door for the next class of Cornell greats.
“As sad as I am to lose our seniors, I’m also excited for the next generation of Cornell All-Americans and National Champions,” Koll said. “In the fall, we’re going to have the next generation of Gabe Dean’s and Brian Realbuto’s.”
Until then, Cornell wrestling fans will just have to be patient.