Two weeks ago saw the conclusion of one of the best regular seasons in the history of Princeton wrestling. Head coach Chris Ayres’ grapplers not only went 11-4 in their dual schedule, but also beat Binghamton for the first time in program history, and defeated Hofstra for the first time in 25 years. With double-digit wins and less than five losses on their record, the Tigers accomplished a feat that the school’s wrestling team had not seen since the 1980-81 season.
While the team will go into the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Tournament this weekend as a team, and individual victories will count toward the team standings, the season has now transitioned from a team-based focus to a more individual spectrum. Each of the team’s 10 starters will go into the Palestra in Philadelphia looking to qualify at his individual weight class for the NCAA Tournament, which will occur from March 20-22 in Oklahoma City.
Each of Princeton’s wrestlers will face the same competition in each weight class, including tough opponents from Cornell, Lehigh, Navy and Penn, to name a few. But not each weight class is created equally, as the intensity of competition in each weight class dictates how many wrestlers will qualify for the NCAA Tournament from that group. For sophomore Abram Ayala, the road to making the NCAAs will be quite manageable, as the 23-8 sophomore only needs to place in the top seven at 197 pounds to make it out of the EIWAs. Senior Ryan Callahan, on the other hand, will have the toughest road to Oklahoma City, as he can do no worse than third place at 174 pounds in order to qualify for nationals.
Despite the Tigers’ tremendous regular season, each wrestler individually will be entering Philadelphia under the radar, for the most part. While the Tigers will bring two past NCAA qualifiers to compete in Philly, senior Garrett Frey and junior Adam Krop, both wrestlers are returning from a year away from school and EIWA competition. In addition, six of the Tigers’ 10 representatives are underclassmen, and only two of the 10 wrestled at their respective weights during last year’s EIWA Tournament at Rutgers.
A solid lineup from top to bottom, however, positions several Tigers to make a strong run this weekend that will hopefully book them a plane ticket to America’s heartland over spring break. Leading the charge for Princeton will be Krop, who will fight for one of four qualifying spots at 149 pounds. The Maryland native will roll into Philadelphia with a season record of 28-6, with his few losses all close and usually coming at the hands of nationally ranked opponents. As Krop entered the season nationally ranked at 141 pounds before jumping up a weight class, he will certainly be the Tigers’ front-runner for a possible spot not only in Oklahoma City, but also in the finals this weekend.
Ayala, currently ranked 20th in the nation at 197 pounds, will head into the weekend ranked fourth-highest nationally of the 197-pounders taking the mat in Philadelphia. But with 10 of the nation’s top 32 wrestlers at 197 hailing from the EIWA, Ayala will have to stay on top of his game at the Palestra if he wants to keep his season alive.
The Tigers’ biggest wildcard heading into the weekend will be senior Garrett Frey, who, after being on and off the mat this winter, has only wrestled eight matches. With a 5-3 record and a couple of close losses over the last few weeks, the outsider would not think much of Frey’s prospects of placing in the top four this weekend to qualify this weekend. While four other EIWA 133-pounders are currently ranked inside the top 20 in the country, Frey has also gone three-for-three in his last three seasons in qualifying for nationals, making him one of only seven Princeton wrestlers to accomplish the feat. A fourth and final time qualifying for the NCAA Tournament would make Frey the only wrestler in school history to accomplish the feat.
With six of Princeton’s wrestlers having notched over 20 wins this season, none of the Tigers are out of the running to continue onto the NCAAs. Sophomore Judd Ziegler and freshman Brett Harner have both notched 24 victories thus far, and sophomore Kevin Moylan and freshman Jordan Laster have both won 21 bouts. Despite unfavorable rankings at certain weight classes, the Tigers know that anything can happen once the postseason hits. And regardless of what rankings say, 24 to 48 hours is sometimes all that is necessary to elevate a wrestler to glory.