PRINCETON, N.J. (AP) — Coach Chris Ayres has taken Princeton from possibly the worst Division I wrestling program to a national ranking.
His goals are lofty and the next one within reach is winning the Ivy League title.
While it may not sound lofty, it is. To win, the No. 19 Tigers will have to knock off No. 10 Cornell. The Big Red have won the last 16 league titles under coach Rob Koll, the longest-running streak by any school in any sport in conference history. They are 3-0 in the league this season and now have won 86 straight Ivy matches dating to the 2001-02 season.
Ayres isn’t shy when asked what his team must do to win against Cornell on Saturday.
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“We have to be us,” said Ayres, who took over the program in 2006-07. “That’s it. We have a great team. I think if our guys wrestle to their ability and they wrestle the way we think they can and wrestle the way we want, the style we want them to wrestle, I think we will win. Here’s the thing, Cornell is a really good team, too. We can do all the right things and they can still win.”
Cornell (9-2) is led by sophomore Yianni Diakomihalis, the defending NCAA champion at 141 pounds. It returns seven wrestlers who went to the NCAAs last year.
Princeton is led by junior Matthew Kolodzik, who slipped to No. 2 nationally after losing to now No. 1 Anthony Ashnault of Rutgers at 149 pounds last weekend. The Tigers also have sophomore Patrick Brucki, who is ranked No. 3 at 197 pounds, and freshman Patrick Glory, No. 10 at 125.
“I don’t expect to walk out of that gym without the Ivy trophy,” Koll said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “I am not so arrogant to believe our reign will go into perpetuity. Things do change. My goal is to work as hard as I can to make sure they don’t do it in my lifetime.”
Now in his 13th season, Ayres has come a long way with a program that Princeton discontinued for the 1997-98 season and then brought back the following year. The former Lehigh wrestler and assistant coach didn’t win a match in his first two seasons (0-35) and watched the Tigers’ losing streak in the league grow to 33 straight before posting three league wins in 2009-10.
The second year was his toughest in sports. His team forfeited three or four matches a meet and his goal was simply to get one kid to buy in and fully commit to being a Division I All America. It was a learning experience, keeping his team engaged and drawing positives from as little as a good move in a match.
“When I took over, it was a bit of a fixer-upper you can say,” said Ayres, whose breakthrough came when he recruited highly regarded Daniel Kolodzik, Matthew’s brother, for the 2008-09 season. “It’s been kind of brick by brick. When I first got here I told the recruits there wasn’t a strong foundation for the program. Last year was the first year I felt we had all the pieces in place, structurally to do something special and I feel good about where we are.”
The goals now are to produce All-Americans and national champions, win conference and team titles, get ranked in the Top 10 and eventually the Top 5. Princeton has finished second the past three seasons in the Ivy League.
“Our coaching staff has taken this program from a dark place to a really bright place,” said Brucki, who is from the south side of Chicago. “We’re in a spot that is unique. We’re an up-and-coming team. We have gotten excellent wins under our belt. We have great guys, guys who are ranked No. 1 in the country, and we still don’t know what our potential is.”