With 30 seconds left in the national championship bout at the 141-pound weight class, Cornell wrestling head coach Rob Koll felt something he almost never feels when sophomore Yianni Diakomihalis is on the mat: doubt.
“We never worry about Yianni because we know he’s always gonna win,” Koll said Sunday.
Down by one to Joey McKenna of Ohio State — a wrestler Diakomihalis smoothly sailed by when they last met in February — the coaches in Diakomihalis’ corner became uneasy even knowing Diakomihalis won his first national title last year on a four-point cradle with 20 seconds left.
“Thirty seconds left the match and I started saying, ‘Well, this is not normal,’” Koll recalled. “We gotta hurry up. When is Yianni going to pull out his bag of tricks?”
“And then he got down to about 15 seconds, and for the first time in his entire career I actually started to worry.”
But Diakomihalis made lightning strike twice in two separate national finals, scoring a takedown with six seconds left in the third period before McKenna quickly escaped to send the match to overtime. And in sudden-death overtime, Diakomihalis showcased his second-to-none scrambling skills to secure McKenna’s left leg before sweeping the right to defend his title and cap off an undefeated sophomore campaign after undergoing ACL surgery in the offseason.
“Don’t scare me like that!” teammate Vito Arujau yelled to his close friend in a video captured by FloWrestling when the two embraced after the victory.
But what’s scariest for competition: The head coach doesn’t even believe his premier wrestler performed at peak capacity this weekend, even though he fended off four soon-to-be All-Americans in his five-match route to the title.
“I don’t even think now he was perfect. He’s finally getting back to where it needs to be,” Koll said. “His goal is not to win the National Championship. His goals are ultimately to win the World Championships.”
“Can’t say I wrestled to the best of my ability this weekend, but I’m proud that even when I wasn’t wrestling my best, the will to win that my coaches have trained into me won me those matches,” Diakomihalis wrote on Instagram.
Dean pulls off upset of the tourney
While Diakomihalis brought home Cornell’s biggest trophy, it was another teammate that set the wrestling world on fire.
Sophomore Max Dean (184) upset undefeated and runaway favorite No. 1 Myles Martin of Ohio State in the semifinals, 5-4, thanks to a takedown with 12 seconds left in the match. With brother and coach Gabe Dean ’18 — a former nemesis of Martin’s — advising from the corner, Max re-solidified the Dean name in the 184 finals.
Dean would ultimately fall in the finals to Drew Foster of Northern Iowa — a wrestler he entered Saturday with a 3-1 record against — and Koll said he thought the gold medal moment might have been too much for his sophomore a night removed from the viral upset.
“I thought he was going to win it, but I thought, maybe, he got a little bit caught up in the moment,” Koll said of the title loss. “I’ve never seen Max get tired in his life. He looked off.”
Regardless, Dean had still pulled off “by far the biggest upset of that tournament,” Koll said, to make it there in the first place. There are few sure things in college wrestling, and the common adage is to not be surprised by anything the sport throws at you.
“I would say it’s, arguably, the biggest upset that I’ve ever seen a Cornell wrestler accomplish,” Koll said.
What made it all the more impressive is the evolution Dean took against Martin from earlier bouts in the season. In the first meeting at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, Martin took Dean to the mat eight different times for a 17-7 major decision. And in the second, Dean kept it marginally closer but still fell, 13-6.
“Like a college wrestler taking on a high schooler,” Koll recalled.
But on Friday, Dean changed the narrative, and he ran directly to the only person more excited about the win than him: Gabe.
“They really worked on a plan to slow the match down and to try to take him deep and steal it at the end,” Koll said of the Dean brothers conceptualizing a blueprint for the upset. “And it worked brilliantly.”
Now four of the last five finals at the 184-pound weight class have featured a Dean brother.
Rest of team supports No. 7 finish
Both Diakomihalis and Dean represented Cornell in the championship bouts Saturday night, but a seventh-place team finish — which made it Cornell’s 12th year in a row inside the top 10 — would not have been possible without the help from the remaining five wrestlers.
The next-highest placer for Cornell was the freshman Arujau at 125 pounds. Entering the tournament with just one loss at 125 after moving down from 133 earlier in the year, there was just one thorn in the freshman’s side in Pittsburgh.
No. 1 ranked Sebastian Rivera of Northwestern got the best of Arujau twice in the tournament — once in the quarterfinals and once in the third-place consolation match. But before getting to the second meeting, Arujau — ranked No. 8 entering the weekend — toppled the No. 4 and No. 2 wrestlers to earn himself All-American status and the fourth-place trophy his first go-around at the national tournament.
“It’s easy to make it once, but to have the discipline for months to keep your weight at an unnaturally low level and to do it in a healthy manner … he was incredibly disciplined,” Koll said of Arujau.
But perhaps no wrestler stole Koll’s eye more than senior Ben Honis (197). After being upset in his first match by Jake Jakobsen of Lehigh to fall out of the championship bracket, Honis needed four consecutive victories to finish an All-American in his final hurrah.
He did just that.
“After he lost the first day, he was inconsolable,” Koll said of Honis, who made the tough transition from heavyweight back down to 197 over the offseason. “So hard, and to have it ripped away because he makes one bad move against someone who’s kind of handled over the course of a career.
“[But] I was probably more pleased for Ben than any of the wrestlers this weekend,” Koll added.
Junior Chas Tucker (133), too, was upset in the first round, and the game of matchups did not go in his favor all weekend, Koll said. He won his first consolation bout before being bounced out the ensuing match to go 1-2 once again in his second national appearance.
“If he gets the wrong matchups, he struggles,” Koll said. “A little bit of that for Chas was styles, and it was very unfortunate how that worked out.”
Junior Brandon Womack (174) won a hard-fought first-round matchup in overtime over Neal Richards of Virginia Military Institute, but he had to immediately meet a returning national champion and No. 1 seed Mark Hall of Penn State, who took the 8-3 decision. He won his first consolation match before falling and missing out on his second All-American season.
Still, it was “probably as well as he’s wrestled all year long,” Koll said.
The lone Cornellian who didn’t take home a win on the weekend was senior Jeramy Sweany (285), an at-large selection to the championships who found himself ranked No. 23. But he fell in his first match and first consolation match to end his career 70-45 and a three-time NCAA qualifier.
“Didn’t talk about this publicly because it doesn’t didn’t help him, but Jeramy’s had a lot of health issues all year long,” Koll said. “And hasn’t been able to get back to where he was last year. And I feel bad for him, but he had a great career for us. And he’ll do just fine in life.”
Even if there were a few matches or calls that Cornell would have liked to have seen go its way, the Red returns to Ithaca exuberant about the weekend it had down in Pittsburgh — especially considering how dismal things looked with No. 9’s Honis and Tucker falling the first day.
“It’s not by luck that we have this kind of success. Nobody quits the team and they all help each other, and they get better,” Koll said. “And I think that’s probably the difference between our team and a lot of others — is a consistency of the type of athlete we have in the room.”
And come Monday, some of those athletes will take a day to reset while others will be back at Friedman Wrestling Center, training under a reset countdown clock with its sights set for March 19-21, 2020 at Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium.