Monday, December 3, 2018

Wrestling With Success

TigerBlog went to four Princeton athletic events this weekend, so naturally he wants to talk about one that he didn't attend.

The Princeton wrestling team had an extraordinary win Friday night, defeating No. 8 Lehigh 21-19 for the first win in that series since 1968 and first win ever at Lehigh. Yes, Lehigh is a Top 10 team, which makes it big, but Princeton head coach Chris Ayres is also a Lehigh alum, which adds to it.

When you look at the great coaching jobs at Princeton this century, you have to put what Ayres and his staff have done with the wrestling program up there with anything else anyone has done.

Wrestling has a great tradition at Princeton, dating all the way to the 1905-06 season and including 11 Ivy League titles, tied for the second-most by any school.  The program had fallen on hard times when Ayres came from the Lehigh coaching staff - after winning 120 matches when he wrestled for the Mountain Hawks - to take over as head coach in 2006.

Princeton was 3-53 in its 56 Ivy League meets before Ayres became the coach, and then 0-10 in his first two before Year 3 saw Princeton go 3-2 in the league. Since then? Princeton wrestling has become a national factor.

Each year it seems like Ayres sees more than half his team qualify for the NCAA championships, where none of them are ever an easy out. And each year, Princeton seems to inch closer and closer to chasing down Cornell in the Ivy League. Cornell, if you didn't know, has won the Ivy title each year since 2003.

The win Friday night showed how seriously Princeton is to be taken. If you think it wasn't important to Ayres, that it was just another night, read his quotes (and see some highlights) HERE.

If you're looking way ahead, then you have a little more than two months - Feb. 9 to be exact - for Princeton-Cornell wrestling this season. That match will be held in Ithaca.

Cornell was ranked ninth in Division I last week. Princeton was the first team in "others receiving votes." Much more immediately for the Tigers, there's a trip this weekend to Virginia Tech (ranked 13th) and Virginia.

So while there isn't much time to dwell on the win over Lehigh, it shouldn't be glossed over either. This was a major statement by the Tigers.

As for the games that TigerBlog did go to, there were two hockey and two basketball, one each for the men's team and women's team. Princeton went 3-1 in those games, with wins by women's hockey Friday night at Baker Rink over Quinnipiac (and Saturday at Quinnipiac to finish the sweep), men's basketball over George Washington and women's basketball over Davidson.

The last of the the games was yesterday's women's basketball game, where the Tigers pulled out a 65-57 win to end a very misleading seven-game losing streak. Misleading, because Princeton 1) has played a brutal schedule and 2) has done so with three potential starters, including the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Bella Alarie, out injured.

The game yesterday was close throughout, including when Davidson's Cassidy Gould put the Wildcats up 47-44 with 8:35 to go. Interestingly, it stayed that way for just short of four minutes, and it looked like it might be getting away when Davidson pushed it to 49-44.

Princeton had scored just those 44 points in the first 35-plus minutes of the game and then scored 21 more after that, of which 10 came from Carlie Littlefield, including a three that made it 49-47 and jump-started the Tigers.

For TigerBlog, the key sequence came once the Tigers went up 53-51 with 2:41 left. Davidson wanted to run Princeton's famous "center-forward" play from Pete Carril's playbook (and had earlier for a layup), but Tiger freshman Grace Stone wouldn't let the cutter get free. Stone's subtle play led to a Sydney Boyer block on that possession and then, after an offensive rebound off a missed layup, a Boyer three on the other end. Princeton 56, Davidson 51. Never closer than three after that.

It was a very good win for Princeton, who is off until Saturday night, when a very, very good Quinnipiac team is in Jadwin.

Meanwhile, back at women's hockey, Princeton won the game Friday night 3-2 after building a 3-0 lead and then holding off the Bobcats, who scored twice less than a minute apart with less than two minutes to play.

TigerBlog knows very little about hockey, though he could tell from watching it that No. 4 on Princeton was very, very good. That turned out to be defenseman Claire Thompson, who was a calming influence who helped keep Quinnipiac off the board for those first 58 minutes.

TB was impressed with how Thompson was playing, and that was before she scored Princeton's second and third goals of the night. The next night it was 4-1 Princeton in Connecticut, with Sarah Fillier with two goals and an assist for Thompson, who has five goals and seven assists to date.

Princeton is now 7-0-3 in its last 10 games and in first place in the ECAC at 6-0-2. Up next are Union and RPI on the road this weekend, and then it's a long break, with no games until Merrimack on Dec. 30 and 31 at home and no league games until Harvard and Dartmouth away Jan. 4 and 5.

Like TB said the other day, this has a chance to be a special year for Princeton women's hockey. And nothing that happened this weekend would make you think otherwise.

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