Monday, February 8, 2010

Riding Time

Back in junior high, TigerBlog spent one season on the wrestling team. At the time, TB was too small for basketball, checking in at around 5-1 and weighing a little under 90 pounds at the age of 13.

The junior high wrestling team had nobody to wrestle at 98 pounds, so the coach asked if anyone would be interested in trying out. TB was the only one who responded, so the spot was his.

The weight classes started in the 70-pound range back then, so TB wasn't the lightest on the team. When everyone else was desperately trying to make weight, TB was trying to gain a few pounds so he wasn't giving away nearly 10 pounds every time out. He'd weigh in wearing his full uniform and wrestling shoes and have no problem making weight.

TigerBlog had never wrestled before, and that combined with the weight disadvantage led to a perfect record - TB lost every single match he wrestled. It was probably somewhere in the range of 0-14.

After awhile, it became TB's goal not to get pinned, so that his effort would be more valuable than simply forfeiting at 98 pounds. TB became pretty good at keeping his shoulders off the mat and tying his opponent up, even scoring some reverses.

It also didn't help that wrestling at the Jersey Shore is big, big, big-time. One of the opponents who had no trouble pinning TB was a kid from Long Branch named Luke Skove, who went on to go 119-1-1 while winning three state high school championships. TB was proud to have actually made it into the second period against Skove.

As for our team, the junior high wrestling team that TB was on produced two New Jersey state high school individual champions. None of them would be TB, who gave up on the sport after his one season.

The experience left TigerBlog with some basic knowledge of the sport and a general interest in it. Through the years, TB has followed other sports much, more closer, but he's never forgotten that he does have some wrestling roots.

On top of that, you can't help but like Chris Ayres, the Princeton wrestling coach, who walked into a situation in 2006 that was not easy. For starters, Princeton wrestling had struggled considerably for years since the glory days under legendary coach John Johnston (as an aside, one of the nicer people TB has met at Princeton).

Wrestling at Princeton dates to 1905 and has produced 11 Ivy League championships (most recently in 1986), but it looked as though the program wasn't going to get a chance to make it to its 90th birthday, as it was on the verge of being discontinued in the early 1990s.

TigerBlog's last days in the newspaper business overlapped with the athletic director search that brought Gary Walters to Princeton in 1994. TB remembers the introductory press conference for Walters, at which he was peppered with questions about what he intended to do about the wrestling program.

Princeton wrestling, with a supportive alumni group, survived under Eric Pearson and Mike New, and now it is Ayres who is rebuilding the program. This would be easier in leagues other than the Ivy League, which routinely produces Top 20 team and has two of the premiere wrestling programs in the nation in Cornell and Penn.

Still, as tough as it is to compete in the league, the message is sent that Ivy League wrestling is legit. With that background, Ayres went about recruiting his first few classes, and the results are now being seen.

So on a weekend when the men's and women's basketball teams both swept their two games to stay unbeaten in the league, the men's hockey team knocked off No. 5 Cornell, the men's track and field team had a strong showing and the squash teams played for Ivy titles, it was the success of the wrestling team that really made TB smile.

Princeton entered the weekend without an Ivy League win since 2003 and with three Ivy wins since the 1992-93 season. The Tigers then went out and defeated Harvard Saturday morning and Brown Saturday afternoon to go to 2-0 on the season, joining Penn and Cornell as Ivy unbeatens. Princeton then defeated Sacred Heart yesterday, giving the Tigers four straight wins over Division I opponents for the first time since 1989.

The team that Ayres puts on the mat is heavy in freshmen and sophomores, and better days appear to be coming for Princeton wrestling. If any team deserves it, it's the wrestling team, which has gone longer than any other Princeton program without an Ivy title and has been through more than most of the other programs have gone through.

This weekend Princeton will host Columbia Saturday at 1 and then Cornell at 6. The Cornell match in Dillon Gym will be the same time as the men's basketball game between Princeton and Cornell, who came out of this weekend as the lone unbeatens in Ivy men's basketball as well.

The basketball game will draw a larger crowd and get much more attention than its wrestling counterpart. And, to be honest, the wrestling team is a prohibitive underdog to the Big Red.

Still, after years of being something of an afterthought, Princeton wrestling had its best day in a long, long time with its two wins on Saturday.

TB, more than 30 years later, remembers everything about his wrestling experience, right down to the smell of the mat itself. It's a different sport, one with a distinct and unique culture.

Chris Ayres is turning Princeton's into a winning culture.


Anonymous said...

I find it remarkable that the wrestling team had a meet AT Harvard at 10:00 am and AT Brown at 3:00 pm on the same day. It's about an hour and a half drive. So the team had to shower, change, drive to Brown and then wrestle again, all in the span of about three hours? That sounds like a pretty big disadvantage for the visiting team in the afternoon meet.

Why the jam-packed schedule?

Anonymous said...

TB: I was hoping your post today would discuss wrestling and the job Ayres is doing. He is first-rate, entusiastic, committed to success, has set up a team site on the web, and is really doing everything he appropriately can to make Princeton wrestling a winning program again. He needs some cooperation from Admissions on a sustained basis. If we can repeat this year's frosh class for a couple of more years, we will be back where we were in the glory days. And thanks to Mike New and his predecessor for keeping the program going forward.

I think the tough schedule, wrestling four teams in 3 days in 3different locations, is to get the squad used to the adversities and pace of high-level competition and post-season compettion. They came through.

Princeton OAC said...

Agreed that it is somewhat remarkable, considering the physical nature of the sport, but it really isn't all that uncommon in wrestling. Penn did the exact same schedule in reverse last weekend, and both Cornell and Columbia will travel between Princeton and Philadelphia for a pair of matches this Saturday.

Whether it's because of weigh-ins or something else, the sport doesn't lend itself to midweek matches. Princeton's only event between Monday and Thursday came during the winter break, and nothing happened on the previous or following weekends. So to get as many matches as possible, you need to pack them pretty tightly.

For the wrestlers themselves, it shouldn't make a huge difference. During tournaments, it isn't uncommon to wrestle 3-4 matches in one day. So two matches with a five-hour break, including a bus ride, isn't a major handicap for the road team.

Anonymous said...

I saw somewhere that Princeton had a national Top 20 recruiting class coming in, so it looks like there are even better days ahead.

Anonymous said...

TB: A nice piece. As you know, wrestlers see themselves as a fraternity where the sport itself is the ongoing initiation. Just as everyone who matriculates at Princeton is always a member of his class, anyone who wrestles is always a wrestler.

BTW, Princeton's Johnny Orr took care of Luke Skove for you in the NCAA semifinals of 1984.

how to wrestle in college said...

What do you think the Tigers are going to do this year in wrestling?