Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

In the face of adversity, the Red still qualified eight wrestlers for the NCAA Tournament, which was ultimately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

March 18, 2020

Despite Numerous Challenges, Senior Leadership Thrives in 2019-20 Wrestling Season

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From start to finish, the 2019-2020 Cornell wrestling campaign was accompanied by unusual circumstances. The Red ventured into uncharted territory without its star wrestlers, which it lost to the Olympic redshirt, and the team faced a premature conclusion to its season due to the mounting concerns over the novel coronavirus.

Such abnormalities presented the team with unprecedented challenges, but nothing that the seasoned athletes were not ready to face. Despite the season’s drawbacks, the Red achieved a season record of 11-7 and a conference record of 4-1. More importantly, Cornell accomplished its wins and suffered its losses as a team with humility and grit.

“In my 31 years of coaching, this was definitely one of my most enjoyable years,” said head coach Rob Koll. “In every single match, there was always the possibility of losing. We didn’t have the certainty of Yianni [Diakomihalis] and Max [Dean] — we didn’t have those guaranteed wins. There was no drama, no problems, so it really was just a coach’s dream come true.”

Two opening losses against North Carolina State and Ohio State revealed the Red’s vulnerabilities and left its future prospects shaky. However, the team found its groove at the South Beach Duals, where it went 4-1 against some of the nation’s top competition.

After the South Beach Duals, the team faced off against Ivy League competition, seamlessly toppling Columbia, Brown, Penn and Harvard. Cornell’s victory against Harvard marked the team’s 300th all-time Ivy League win and propelled it further down the path to its 17th consecutive Ivy League title.

However, Princeton stood as a roadblock. In a devastating 19-13 loss, the Tigers terminated the Red’s unblemished Ivy-League domination. Although the loss humbled the team — which had once been an Ivy-League powerhouse — the Red took it in its stride and used the loss as fuel leading up to the EIWA tournament.

The Red’s unwavering dedication throughout the season, especially in the absence of its top competitors, materialized in the EIWA tournament. Defying all preseason expectations, the Red earned second place, three spots above Princeton. Cornell’s performance secured eight bids into the NCAA tournament — a testament not only to the team’s talent, but also its growth.

“This team wrestled far over anyone’s expectations, and to qualify eight for the NCAA Tournament — and only two of those wrestlers had ever qualified — to get six new qualifiers was really a remarkable achievement,” Koll said.

Senior Chas Tucker echoed his coach’s sentiment.

“We didn’t necessarily have all of our superstars on the team this year, but we still finished second in the EIWA,” Tucker said. “Everyone else didn’t think that could happen, but we made it a reality. It was so cool just to see this growth.”

Unfortunately, the decision to cancel the NCAA Tournament amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic marked an abrupt end to the 2019-2020 season for the eight Cornell wrestlers who qualified: Tucker, senior Noah Baughman, senior Brandon Womack, junior Hunter Richard, sophomore Ben Darmstadt, sophomore Dom LaJoie, sophomore Brendan Furman and freshman Jonathan Loew. For the three seniors, this season marked their last opportunity to compete on the national stage.

“It was definitely sad to have the year end like this,” said freshman Nathan Thacker. “It was sad because the seniors have been wrestling all year to get ready for nationals, and it’s at the end that everything really counts … We all just felt really bad that the season had to end this way.”

Baughman — one of the three seniors who was slated to compete in nationals — has not let the news tarnish the accomplishments of the team for the 2019-20 season.

“We lost a lot of our go-to leaders and the faces of Cornell wrestling due to the Olympic redshirt, but I think our seniors did an unbelievable job of reorganizing and refocusing, and bringing this group together to achieve what we did this season,” Baughman said. “Although we didn’t have a season that will go down in Cornell wrestling history from an accomplishment standpoint because of the circumstances, I think the leadership was the best I have ever seen in my four years at Cornell.”

Looking at the abnormal season from a holistic perspective, the wrestlers recognized that their losses only stimulated their growth, their disappointments only made them stronger and the challenges they overcame only prepared them to be even more dominant on the mat next year.