Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 52
 
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
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REASON TO CHEER: Princeton University wrestling head coach Chris Ayres encourages his team in recent action. Ayres, who took over the Princeton wrestling squad in 2006, achieved a breakthrough in his efforts to rebuild the program as the Tigers topped Franklin and Marshall 25-14 earlier this month to post their first dual match win since 2005.

Ayres’ Rebuilding Efforts Bear Fruit as PU Wrestlers Post Dual Match Wins

Bill Alden

When Chris Ayres took over the Princeton University wrestling program in 2006, he was giving up a plum position.

The former Lehigh University All-American at 157 pounds was a longtime assistant coach at his alma mater.

During his tenure with the Mountain Hawks, the program won five straight Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) team championships and produced 12 All-Americans, including two national champions.

While Ayres relished his role in helping Lehigh solidify its spot among the elite of college wrestling, he was ready for a change of scenery.

“At Lehigh, I was in a good situation,” said Ayres. “I had one of the best assistant coach jobs in the nation. I had been at the school 11 years and I needed to get out of my comfort level. I was not growing as much as I thought I should.”

In taking on the Princeton job, Ayres was entering an uncomfortable situation as the program has been struggling for years after the sport was nearly discontinued due to Title IX and financial constraints.

Despite Princeton’s lowly status in the world of college wrestling, Ayres saw potential. “I really liked Princeton,” said Ayres, who replaced Michael New. “I think it can be one of the best programs in the sport. It is the top school in the country and it’s in a location that fits wrestling.”

Once on the job, Ayres realized he faced an even more daunting task than he initially realized. “It has been real hard,” said Ayres. “It’s been a tough challenge.”

The Tigers experienced some more hard times in Ayres’ first two seasons, going winless in dual match competition.

But as the losses piled up, Ayres made inroads in changing the culture around the program and brought in some talented recruits. In addition, the holdover wrestlers got on board with Ayres’ approach.

Earlier this month, Princeton made an important breakthrough in the rebuilding process as it topped Franklin and Marshall 25-14 to post its first dual match win since 2005.

Senior leaders like Marty Everin and Danny Scotten together with talented freshmen Dan Kolodzik and Kurt Brendel came through in the victory, demonstrating Ayres’ ability to get through to different segments of the team.

A week later, Princeton posted its second win, an impressive 34-12 triumph over Delaware State University.

While Ayres was confident that the match against F & M was going to be special for his wrestlers, he had to hold his emotions in check.

“I did think that was going to be the day but I had to be the guy that wasn’t overly excited because we had a dual meet against a real good league team, Rutgers, right after that,” recalled Ayres.

“I also told them that this is what is supposed to happen so I didn’t expect them to celebrate too much. They stepped up; the match could have gone either way. I was real excited for the kids; they needed that.”

The wrestlers needed the victory to validate the efforts they had put in over the last two seasons.

“They had been working hard; they had tons of adversity with not having a few weight classes and taking forfeits,” said Ayres, noting Princeton is still behind in the numbers game with 18 wrestlers compared to the 30 or so carried by most Division I teams.

“The work was bound to pay off; we have made some pretty big jumps. We actually made some jumps last year but they didn’t get as much attention.”

Senior captain Everin has jumped into a leading role for the Tigers. “Marty has been really good,” asserted Ayres of his 157-pound star.

“We talk about taking on the lifestyle of a D-1 All-American and he has really adopted that. It takes more than working hard in practice; it involves walking the walk 24 hours a day. He is a vocal leader, he leads by example.”

In Ayres’ view, the Tigers need one of their wrestlers to achieve All-American status to help the program make another jump.

“We need to have someone win the Easterns and qualify for the NCAAs,” said Ayres, who won an EIWA title on his way to All-American status.

“We need someone to step up and prove to the rest of the group that they can win Easterns and become an All-American by following our approach.”

Ayres, though, isn’t sure whether that will happen this season. “Everyone has a ways to go,” acknowledged Ayres, whose team dropped to 2-8 last Saturday after falling 34-7 to Millersville and 40-6 to Lock Haven.

“Everin has a good chance but he is in one of the toughest weight classes in the league. Kolodzik has the high school accolades that predict that he could do well but he is a freshman and there is a gap. Travis Erdman was All-Ivy and Brendel has been our best freshman so far. He is 9-3.”

The Princeton wrestlers need to develop a winning mentality if they are to excel come tournament time.

“They need to have the mindset of a champion; they have to know how to win,” said Ayres, whose team is next in action when it takes part in the Southern Scuffle in Greeensboro, N.C. on December 29-30.

“We need to get them believing they should win rather than just thinking they should win.”

Ayres has the mindset to take the Tigers to new heights. “I have learned a lot about coaching and myself,” said Ayres.

“I enjoy this kind of challenge; it has been a whole lot of fun in a sick sort of way. The three years have gone by so quickly; it feels like I came here a week ago. These wins don’t excite me; I have my eye on bigger things. I want to put people on podiums; that’s what will get the program where it needs to be. It will be so much sweeter after what we have gone through.”

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