Three of Cornell’s senior wrestlers, Chas Tucker, Noah Baughman and Brandon Womack were deprived of their final opportunity to compete for national titles, when NCAA officials canceled all remaining winter and spring championships due to the continued rise of COVID-19.
The early cancellation of the season came on March 12, just one week before the tournament was set to begin. While Baughman said that he braced himself for the worst after a flurry of nationwide disruptions, the NCAA’s official announcement still came as shock.
“There were a lot of emotions at the beginning, and I am still feeling different emotions about it everyday, but at first it really was just utter shock,” he said. “Maybe I was underestimating the seriousness of it at the time, but I never thought that canceling nationals would even really be an option.”
His teammate Womack offered a similar reaction of surprise, saying that the premature end to the season left him unable to end his illustrious Cornell career on a high-note.
“I am still kind of taking it all in,” Womack said. “[The cancellation] was really unfortunate and I think it made everything a little harder to swallow because I had already missed a lot of the year … I didn’t finish the way I wanted.”
Due to an injury, Womack missed a majority of the regular season, but devoted himself to healing, and eventually found himself back on the mat. Even despite losing several weeks of practice and competition, the seasoned wrestler quickly rebounded, and his dominant EIWA performance earned him a bid to the now called-off nationals.
However, the news perhaps affected Tucker most severely. The 133-pound senior, with his flawless 31-0 season record, would have entered nationals as the third-seeded wrestler — and when his opportunity for a national title slipped away, for reasons out of his control, the news was difficult for him to process.
“I was kind of in shock, but at the same time, with the progression of everything getting canceled, it was just a matter of time,” Tucker said. “It was definitely sad, and when it actually happened it was kind of surreal. I was upset… It just hurts, especially because I thought this year I could have gotten on the podium. I thought that I could become a national champion.”
The younger members of Cornell’s wrestling squad recognized the utter disappointment that these seniors face, particularly for Tucker, who was slated to finally stand on the podium.
“He’s made it to nationals before, and he’s been on track to All-American, but he never quite got there,” said freshman Nathan Thacker. “And this was his year — he was seeded third at nationals, and he was really in the running for a national title. So I really feel bad for guys like him on our team.”
Head coach Rob Koll shared similar sentiments about both Tucker and Baughman, and their seasons unexpectedly cut short.
“It’s guys like Chas [Tucker] that you feel the worst for. He’s 31-0, finally getting a shot,” Koll told The Sun. “For guys like Noah [Baughman], he had been disappointed two years prior and the year before that — he was the last guy not to make it in the weight class both times. So he finally busted through, and then to have this happen was such a bummer.”
The trio of seniors nevertheless celebrated the season’s accomplishments. For instance, the team’s loss of its star wrestlers — Yianni Diakomihalis, Vitali Arujau and Max Dean — to Olympic redshirt meant the Red faced low expectations heading into this year.
But under the tutelage of Koll and the leadership of the seniors, however, the Red defied these prospects — placing second overall in the EIWA championships and qualifying eight wrestlers for nationals.
“What we did as a team this year was pretty cool, especially because it was going to be considered an off-year for Cornell,” Womack said. “Everyone was wrestling for each other, for our team and not just for ourselves, and that really showed.”
The success of these three seniors is not limited to the 2019-2020 season. Tucker, Baughman, and Womack have been integral members of the program, not only contributing their athletic talent, but also their work ethic.
“The senior leadership this year was probably the best we have had since I arrived at Cornell,” said junior Hunter Richard, who praised the trio’s leadership skills.
“Noah was that guy who you always knew was giving his all no matter what we were doing,” Richard continued. “Chas led by example. He wasn’t crazy outspoken but he was always doing the right things the right way and showed the underclassmen what it takes to be successful. And Brandon was a vocal leader trying to push everyone to be the best they could.”
While the virus may have taken away the seniors’ chance at a satisfying send-off from collegiate athletics, they recognize that their time as Cornell wrestlers has been a journey defined by far more than the sudden effects of COVID-19.
According to Baughman, the cancelation of the tournament did not detract from the lessons they learned and growth they experienced over their four-year wrestling experience — from the countless hours spent on the mat to the time constantly surrounded by teammates and coaches.
“I just try to keep reminding myself that everything that I came to Cornell for has been achieved, and it turned out even better than I could have imagined,” Baughman said. “So while I didn’t get to live out the dream of wrestling in the national championships, I got to achieve even more than that.”
By appreciating his entire journey as a member of the Red wrestling program, Tucker, too, has found solace in this less-than-ideal ending to his Cornell athletic career.
“I’ve become such a better person because of my team and because of the experiences and hardships I’ve gone through at Cornell,” Tucker said. “I can’t be anything but grateful even though it had to end abruptly like this.”
Like many of the University’s seniors, Tucker, Baughman and Womack all saw their final Cornell glories slip through their fingers, falling victim to the impacts of a fast-ravaging coronavirus. But, according to Womack, COVID-19 cannot take away their achievements, character development and memories made as they move on to the next chapter of their lives.
“My teammates, my family, and every part of this journey that I was on teaches me more than I would be able to learn from one tournament,” he said. “Obviously I love wrestling, but more than anything, I think it’s the people that are a part of the program — the coaches, my teammates, and everyone else — they made the four years so amazing.”