Cornell wrestling has won the EIWA Championship the past 11-straight years and the Ivy League the past 15.
But this year, nothing is certain.
The No. 19 Red will get its first crack at the 2017-18 season with Friday’s dual meet against No. 13 Northern Iowa at home. This will be the first of many challenges for head coach Rob Koll’s squad, which is coming off an eighth place finish at the 2017 NCAA Championship.
In the first national poll, Cornell, which has not finished outside the top 10 in 15 years, was ranked 32nd. A chip on the shoulder? Maybe. But the team knows it has plenty to prove this upcoming season.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Koll said, bluntly, about the upcoming season.
With two-time NCAA champion Gabe Dean ’17 and multi-year All-Americans Brian Realbuto ’17 and Dylan Palacio ’17 no longer wrestling for Cornell, there are big holes to fill in the lineup.
But Koll is reassured by some of the talent and improvements he has seen so far in his young crop.
“We have a lot of young guys who I have absolutely no idea how they are going to perform,” Koll said. “But last week … we had a lot of questions answered, and they were mostly of the affirmative, so I’m feeling a little better.”
After a successful outing at Binghamton in a preseason tournament, the Red heads into the weekend sitting at No. 19, still a relatively low ranking for the historically dominant program.
“There are reasons for that [ranking],” Koll said. “We have a lot of young kids; but they are not normal young kids. [Freshman] Yianni Diakomihalis is a two-time junior world champ; just because he is 18 or 19 years old doesn’t mean he can’t beat a 23 year old. He will.”
In addition to the two-time cadet world champion Diakomihalis at 141 pounds, there is another notable newcomer in Max Dean (184), brother of the program’s winningest wrestler and current volunteer coach Gabe.
While walking in the footsteps of a Cornell wrestling legend is a tall order, Koll and the coaching staff have nothing less than confidence in the freshman out of Michigan, describing him as “lights out.”
“We don’t have Gabe Dean but we’ve got his younger twin brother basically,” Koll added. “Everyone knows how tough Max is; he’s a mirror image of Gabe as a freshman.”
Alongside the new faces are a handful of strong returning wrestlers including 2017 All-American junior Brandon Womack (174) and 2017 NCAA qualifier junior Ben Honis (197).
Cornell will get to see what its wrestlers, old and new, are capable of against a formidable opponent in Northern Iowa this weekend in the friendly confines of Newman Arena.
“It’s a significantly much more difficult [opening match than last year],” Koll said. “This is a really good team we are wrestling off the bat and we don’t have as tough of a schedule later, so we wanted … [to] get some better teams in here.”
And despite residing in Ithaca, Koll is no stranger to this midwest squad as an Iowa native.
“I know the school,” he said. “They are just a really hard-nosed team.”
Following UNI, the Red will cap off its weekend with the New York State Intercollegiate Championship, which the team placed first in last year and is a useful warm-up for the perennially top-ranked program.
“It’s not a particularly tough tournament, but you get a lot of matches and even if they are not the toughest kids in the country, wins are wins.” Koll said.
Cornell will not have Gabe Dean and Brian Realbuto on the mat this year. Yet these alumni and others are very much present off the mat.
Dean, Realbuto and four-time NCAA Champion Kyle Dake have been on campus training with the team in practices. To have such high-caliber wrestlers — specifically those from the program — train and inspire these wrestlers is an invaluable asset.
“We have a lot of our homegrown talent still here,” Koll said. “It helps because you can go out and hire people, but they are very mercenary. If you can keep your own, they just have a different vested interested in developing the kids and helping them grow.”
With Friday’s dual meet, the Red will begin its campaign for the program’s 12th and 16th-straight EIWA and Ivy titles, respectively.
Wrestlers take the mat against Northern Iowa at 6:30 p.m. on Friday in Bartels Hall. The New York State Intercollegiate Championship will run all day Saturday in Barton Hall.