Thursday, February 13, 2020

Guest TigerBlog - Craig Sachson On Chris Ayres

TigerBlog remembers a head coaches' meeting a long time ago when Chris Ayres talked about the day his team would be the one that ended Cornell's run as Ivy League wrestling champion.

He was either so sure that the day would come eventually or he was fooling himself into thinking it. Either way, it seemed so far in the future that day at that meeting.

The day finally arrived Sunday, when Ayres led his Tigers to a 19-13 win over Cornell at a rowdy Jadwin Gym. It was the Ivy title that resulted in the #Princeton500, and it was also the Ivy title that no coach ever deserved more.

The celebration was extraordinary. For TB, who observed it from the side, the highlight was the hug between Ayres and Craig Sachson, who was the Office of Athletics Communications wrestling contact for the first 13 of Ayres' Princeton seasons, before Craig left a year ago.

As TB said earlier this week, Craig would be offering his thoughts on his time with Ayres and what Sunday meant in that context. Today the floor belongs to Craig:

Early in Chris Ayres era, Princeton had a consistent presence in the lineup who had the versatility to wrestle at almost any weight (and sometimes at multiple weights in the same match!). Somehow he managed to extend his stay in Orange and Black beyond the traditional four years.

His name? Johnny Forfeit.

I worked with Chris for the first 13 years of his Princeton tenure, which likely aged like dog years for somebody whose entire collegiate wrestling experience happened at Lehigh, a perennial national power. When I would ask him for his weekend probables during those first few years, good ol’ Johnny almost always made an appearance.

For whatever reason, that line always made me smile. It even made Chris laugh now and then, even if those fleeting moments of humor likely came between soul-searching questions about the decision to take on the greatest challenge in collegiate wrestling. I can’t imagine he didn’t have moments of regret, but they seemed to pass quickly. Day after day, following loss after loss, Chris walked down to the bowels of Jadwin with the same positive spirit and tried to get one step closer to the impossible dream.

There have already been other goals — all of which also seemed laughable about a decade ago — that Ayres and this program have checked off the list. All-Americans? Several. EIWA champions? A bunch (even one at Jadwin, which Ayres fought to have host the championships twice). Midlands champions? Done. Top-3 EIWA finishes? Twice. Top-15 NCAA finishes? Last year? Top-10 or Top-5? Stay tuned.

But on this campus, winning an Ivy League championship matters. Princeton teams had won 499 of them before the Tigers took the mat against a Cornell team that had outscored them 248-3 in the first five dual matches of the Ayres era (Johnny Forfeit struggled to an 0-7 record in those matches). It’s been one of the burning goals for Ayres. He wanted wrestling to win the Princeton title party, and he wanted to be the team that ended Cornell’s long reign.

That reign may have ended Sunday in thrilling fashion, but it was every small step that Ayres (and the best coaching staff in the country, at least in my opinion) took from 2006 through the past weekend that made it all possible. It was his relentless spirit, his unwillingness to lower his standards, and his refusal to let the losing break him that steered (and then burned) the ship. I can remember two times in 13 years when I thought he looked or sounded close enough to broken that I shared some added encouragement, but both times he bounced back quickly and decisively.

And then he did what he’s always done. He took the next step. He took it with determination to turn this around, with pride in where the program had come, and with an absolute belief that a day like Sunday would, eventually, arrive.

He didn’t do it alone, and he’ll be the first to make that message clear. His guys won the match. His guys won matches before the match — some weeks before, some months before, some years before — that helped set the culture for an eventual championship program. His staff recruited relentlessly, worked tirelessly, and laughed endlessly in a coaching office with more chemistry than any I have experienced in college athletics.

Every bit of it mattered, but every bit of it started with Chris Ayres.

Johnny Forfeit couldn’t make it to Jadwin Sunday. His time, mercifully, has ended.

Johnny Championship? He arrived in Orange and Black glory, in the middle of a celebration that might still be ongoing for alumni, family and supporters of the program.

For Chris, that celebration was Sunday. He’s taken more steps since then.

His journey continues, and we are lucky to follow his lead.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Well deserved and well said!