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After injuries, a rough road back to the mat

The injury of the most talented individual affects the performance of any team. But when only 10 take the mat in a given dual meet, a season-ending injury seriously hurts a wrestling squad. And it hurts even more when not one, not two, but three of the best wrestlers sit out for an entire season due to injury.

This is what head coach Chris Ayres and his Tigers faced last season. Three EIWA place winners, two of whom qualified for the 2012 NCAA Tournament, found themselves unable to compete for the Tigers due to injuries before the beginning of the 2012-13 season. But now, after taking time off from school, the gang’s all on campus again: sophomore Chris Perez, junior Adam Krop and senior Garrett Frey return to the mat after missing a full year of competition.

Perez, initially a member of the Class of 2015, put up the best performance of any freshman during the 2011-12 season. A native of Levittown, N.Y., Perez put up 19 wins during his freshman campaign and placed eighth at 133 pounds at the EIWA Championships — an impressive feat considering he had torn his ACL weeks before.

“I tore my ACL in February of my freshman year,” Perez said. “I came back and wrestled at the EIWAs knowing it was torn, but injury held me back wrestling-wise so I didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament. I got surgery after the season and started rehabbing.”

Ultimately, Perez decided not to return to Princeton in the fall of 2012 so his knee could heal. But in the midst of his year of rest and rehabilitation, things only became worse.

“I decided to take the year off because I wouldn’t be able to wrestle until next January and didn’t want to wrestle half a season again,” Perez said. “But then I went through a couple [of] hardships, particularly the loss of my dad. I just stayed at home and didn’t do much for a while. But eventually I started to help coach my high school wrestling team. I then tore my ACL again during rehab and had surgery on it this past January.”

After his physical and emotional struggles, Perez returns to Old Nassau a changed man. He believes he is ready to return to the mat after an absence of nearly two years.

“I’ve been on strict rehab since my surgery; I’ve been able to run and lift the last few months. I just got cleared to wrestle,” he said before the season. “There’s obviously a lot of excitement to compete again because I haven’t in almost two years. But there’s an underlying feeling of uncertainty to see how I hold up and feel. It’s a totally different dynamic when you’re out on the mat than when you’re just in the practice room against your teammates.”

During the 2011-12 season, sophomore Adam Krop was in the midst of a remarkable 31-win campaign. It was not until the last regular season match that things went south.

“In February in our last regular season match against Lehigh, I tore my ACL and partially tore my meniscus,” Krop said. “I decided at that point to continue wrestling with a brace. It was so late in the season and I’d done well so far, and I thought I had a chance to make it to nationals.”

It didn’t take long for Krop to realize that his return for the 2012-13 year at Princeton was unlikely — having wrestled through March, his surgery would come too late for him to get back on the mat in the fall.

Krop kept busy during his year off, as he interned in New York City for five months and then spent two months training and intensively rehabbing at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It was his time out west that had the biggest impact on his recovery.

“Going to the Olympic Training Center was really critical for my comeback,” Krop said. “In the two months after my surgery, I had really good physical therapy on campus. But during the summer when I was home and working, I didn’t have access to good resources. So when I went to Colorado Springs, I met with the physical therapists out there and went through pretty aggressive rehab to stabilize the muscles in my injured leg.”

After going out west, Krop returned to Princeton for the entirety of last summer and continued to train regularly. After an impressive third-place finish at the Binghamton Open and an appearance in the finals at the Navy Invitational, Krop seems to be back at home on the mat.

“My right leg actually feels stronger than my left at the moment. I’ve had really no issues at all, and I felt strong at Binghamton,” Krop said. “I can still get in aggressive scrambles, which people thought I’d have to change after my injury. But I feel largely uninhibited, although I’m still cautious and a lot smarter now.”

Unlike Perez and Krop, Garrett Frey enrolled for his senior year last fall. All-American honors were in sight as he prepared to jump from the 125-pound to 133-pound weight class, but neck problems brought his season to a sudden end after just three matches. He decided to leave Princeton before the end of the fall semester so he would be eligible to return this fall.

“I’d been struggling with some neck injuries, and, really, I just needed time to heal,” Frey said. “Trying to wrestle last year was not a great idea because I needed time off, a chance to rehab and the ability to come back strong. Last year my neck was pretty weak from getting worn down, particularly from stenosis, caused by a bulging disc that was narrowing some nerve passageways in my neck. So I had to strengthen muscles around that area specifically.”

Despite taking the year off, Frey stayed local as a financial planning intern at Northwestern Mutual in Princeton. He made the finals at Navy, kicking off an effort to qualify for the NCAA Championships for the fourth and final time.

The Tigers are off to a good start, with two wins at the Grapple at the Garden over Drexel and Army at Madison Square Garden. The first home match of the season will be in Jadwin Gymnasium on Dec. 14 against in-state rival Rutgers.

But while the returning grapplers have eagerly awaited their return to the mat, the mat has not welcomed them back with open arms. In the first few matches of the season, injuries have continued to threaten the Tigers’ leaders. In his second tournament at the Naval Academy, Krop ended his strong start with an injury default due to aggravation in his knee. Likewise, Perez is facing some trouble. During the Grapple at the Garden at Madison Square Garden last weekend, Perez’s second match against Army’s Tyler Rauenzahn resulted in an injury that may have affected his ACL. An MRI over the next week will determine the extent of Perez’s injury.

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