Had three of Cornell wrestling’s top grapplers not gritted down for three tough-fought victories against ranked opponents, no one would have blamed those in attendance at Newman Arena Friday night should they have headed home distraught. Head coach Rob Koll was chief among those holding that sentiment.
“I was trying to melt into my chair after the heavyweight match. I was hoping I could get into a time machine and fast forward,” Koll said. “It was not how I envisioned [the dual] starting off.”
Without a win entering the final three matches against No. 6 Ohio State — all which were between ranked wrestlers on either side — Cornell was facing the chance of perhaps just two decisions in their favor a week removed from dual wins over nationally-ranked Virginia Tech and North Carolina.
But the lightweights — No. 8 Vitali Arujau at 125 pounds, No. 13 Chas Tucker at 133 and reigning national champion No. 1 Yianni Diakomihalis at 141 — all salvaged some happy faces and cheers in an otherwise tough night for the Red, which fell to the Buckeyes, 25-9, on Friday in the final tune-up before postseason action.
“We won a few of the most important matches, but certainly I feel we had the capability to win that dual meet,” Koll said. “We had a couple guys who just weren’t able to finish their matches.”
Diakomihalis, who was handed the primetime final showdown against No. 3 Joey McKenna, handled one of his top threats to a second consecutive title rather easily to stay undefeated on the year with NCAAs just four weeks away.
In the 7-5 decision, Diakomihalis showcased much of the same flexibility and swagger he possessed in the memorable 2018 run after an ACL tear in last year’s NCAA tournament may have worried onlookers if the now-sophomore could return to form. Outside of one McKenna reversal, no shot was too tough to break out of, no awkward position was too uncomfortable to scramble out of and no evasions were too fast to bring the Buckeye down.
“It doesn’t matter who he wrestles, we expect him to win every time he steps on the mat,” Koll said of Diakomihalis.
But while Diakomihalis’ win was the night’s most reputable, Tucker’s was the most memorable. After no offensive points in regulation and no points in sudden victory, Tucker and higher-ranked No. 6 Luke Pletcher — who took fourth in last year’s NCAA tournament — entered rideouts tied at one apiece.
But the pair of 30-second periods did not come without some controversy. With nine seconds left in the first rideout period and Tucker starting on top, Pletcher was awarded an escape point before an incensed Cornell coaches corner threw a challenge cube and argued that both wrestlers were out of bounds before Pletcher escaped. The officials took the escape point away from Pletcher after review, and shortly thereafter, Ohio State issued a challenge of their own for locked hands on Tucker.
The review went in favor of Cornell once again, and after escaping in the second rideout period, Tucker secured his third consecutive victory over a ranked opponent to move to 23-4 on the year.
“This was the biggest win of his career,” Koll said of Tucker, who lost to Pletcher earlier in the season, 4-3.
Arujau, who kicked off Cornell’s three-decision streak, dominated No. 17 Malik Heinselman, 6-0, and continued his torrid rise after moving down to the 125-pound weight in December. The freshman’s only loss on the season comes at the hands of his teammate Tucker, when both wrestled at 133 in the Jonathan Kaloust Bearcat Open back in November.
“I would like to see him be a little bit more aggressive,” Koll said of Arujau. “He could have won 12-0. The better the opponent does, the better he wrestles. Sometimes he needs to be challenged.”
Before Arajau’s domination came the less-than-ideal portion of Cornell’s night. Most notably, No. 7 Max Dean (184), fresh off wins against two nationally-ranked opponents — including then-No. 3 Zack Zavatsky of Virginia Tech — had the chance to make it three straight against undefeated No. 1 Myles Martin.
But Martin, the overwhelming favorite for his second national title, showed why that belief in him is true and blew by Dean, 13-6.
“Max wrestled a superior opponent both athletically and technically,” Koll said. “He’s going to have to be beyond perfect to knock someone like that off. … Despite the score, I thought Max wrestled well.”
Both No. 14 Brandon Womack (174) and No. 7 Ben Honis (197) had the chance to notch one more quality win to bolster their résumés with postseason action on the horizon, but Womack was outlasted by No. 19 Ethan Smith, 5-4, and Honis couldn’t topple No. 2 Kollin Moore, 14-4.
“He didn’t deserve to win the match, he didn’t do enough to win the match,” Koll added of Womack. “If he doesn’t want to be disappointed, he’s going to have to be a lot more aggressive. He can’t sit back and expect the wrestler to beat himself.”
The pair of decisions sandwiched a few less remarkable losses for Cornell on the night. At 149 pounds, the debut weight in the dual, Will Koll fell to No. 3 Micah Jordan via tech fall, Adam Santoro (165) fell by major decision to No. 6 Ke-Shawn Hayes, Andrew Berryessa (165) held his own but was topped by No. 12 Te’Shan Campbell and Jeramy Sweany (285) was 30 seconds away from overtime before a late takedown from No. 11 Chase Singletary sealed the deal in an eventual 6-5 decision.
“He’s a senior, he knows better than to take the foot off the gas,” Koll said of Sweany. “He has to wrestle moving forward the whole time, he’s not a great defensive wrestler, and he backed off and he paid the consequences.
“It’s not as if you want to yell at these guys — they feel worse than I feel for them,” Koll added. “… Sometimes a painful loss is the best thing to stop it from happening again.”
The victory was vengeance for Ohio State, which fell to the Red, 19-18, when the foes last met two years ago in Ithaca. Also this time, the Newman crowd not only supported the Red wrestlers but also Ithaca Hospicare, as funds were raised for the cause based on attendance and fan pledges.
Over $8,000 had been raised by Saturday afternoon, Koll said, and attendance was somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000.
“A lot of those little kids who were in that audience hopefully will want to come wrestle for Cornell in a couple years,” Koll added.
Now done with the regular season at 13-3 in dual meets, Cornell sets its sights on the EIWA tournament, scheduled for March 8-9 at Binghamton, and later the NCAA tournament, set for March 21-23 in Pittsburgh.