Monday, December 8, 2008

When A Win Is More Than Just A Win...

Over the last couple of weeks, the win-or-else nature of big-time college athletics has been on display. Longtime Tennessee head coach Phil Fulmer brought a national title to the Volunteer State, developed a quarterback named Peyton Manning (you might have heard of him) and posted only two losing seasons since 1992. He's looking for work.

He's not the only big-time coach in American collegiate athletics who has been fired for a bad season -- or pressured to resign -- nor will he be the last. If any B.C.S. football coach ever went his first two seasons without a win, he'd probably want to keep his resumé updated.

That brings us to Chris Ayres, head coach of Princeton wrestling. Over the weekend, his Tigers picked up a 25-14 EIWA win over Franklin & Marshall. It didn't exactly shake up the national landscape of college wrestling, but it matters here. It was Ayres' first win since taking over in the summer of 2006, and it's something the program has been building towards since he came here.

It didn't have to be this long. It wouldn't have been outrageous to schedule a couple of Division III opponents just to get a win on his record. But Ayres felt that his kids knew it wouldn't be the same as defeating a true Division I opponent, and he kept that as the goal. He stuck to his guns this year. Part of that security comes from the administration's belief in Ayres and his staff. If AD Gary Walters and his staff wasn't on board with the direction of the program, there might have been a bit more pushing to change the schedule a bit. But everybody was united in the belief that a win was less important than a sturdy foundation.

If you aren't a big fan of college wrestling, you might not be fully aware of the individual/team dynamic of the sport. One top recruit won't make you great overnight. A star running back, an ace pitcher and a hot goaltender can win games on their own. A superb wrestler can make sure you lose 54-6 instead of 60-0. However, bringing in one or two top competitors each year will draw others, and a once-stagnant program starts to gain momentum. Last year, 125-pound freshman Tony Comunale was an EIWA placewinner and stood about a minute away from NCAAs. Classmate Travis Erdman earned All-Ivy honors, the first for a Princeton wrestler in years.

On Saturday, two more freshmen picked up key wins. 141-pounder Daniel Kolodzik, who was hurt in the offseason and made his debut that day, picked up a technical fall victory. He was a two-time state champion in Ohio, a terrific area for high school wrestling, and was a nationally-ranked recruit. Classmate Kurt Brendel won both matches at 184 pounds, including a major decision at 184 pounds.

There are other talented competitors, but this is just an example of a group of underclassmen who could be legitimate scorers for Princeton over the next three years in 40% of the team's matches (a college wrestling match has 10 weight classes). Then you try to get a couple more freshmen who are immediately ready to compete, and you find a couple of upperclassmen who have figured it out and reached their potential... and you've found yourself a foundation to build upon. And win upon.

(One more thing about the F&M win. Wrestlers like Nikhil Pereira, Danny Scotton, Mike Alvarez and senior captain Marty Everin -- athletes not recruited Ayres -- picked up big wins. They have bought into the program, even though the better days will likely come after they graduate. That kind of character and leadership will only benefit the rest of the locker room and is to their credit.)

Winning simply hasn't been an option for Princeton. First of all, without enough wrestlers to fill all 10 weight classes, Princeton has been starting matches down 12-0 over the last two seasons. Unless you're loaded with All-Americas the rest of the way (and we're not), you aren't coming back. Princeton forfeited one match this weekend because heavyweight Stephen Turner was injured, but the Tigers overcame it. When Turner returns, and assuming (hoping?) the rest of the lineup stays healthy, Princeton will have a full 10 starters when it gets into the heart of the Ivy League season.

By no means is this team ready to challenge the likes of Cornell and Lehigh just yet. But maybe this year Princeton adds an Ivy League win. Maybe it will come next year. But TigerBlog was impressed with Ayres in 2006, and nothing has changed.

One win does not a program make, but it is another step forward. Not the only step forward in two and a half years. Just another one.

For more on Chris Ayres, Daily Princetonian writer Vikram Rao did a nice piece on the Tiger head coach last week. You can read it here.

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