Showing Leadership Through Total Commitment, PU Wrestler Brucki Emerging as Dominant Force
EYE OF THE TIGER: Princeton University wrestler Patrick Brucki eyes an opponent. Sophomore star Brucki is currently ranked fourth in the nation at 197 pounds and is looking forward to competing in the prestigious Midlands Championships from December 29-30 in Chicago. (Photo by Beverly Schaefer, provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Justin Feil
Patrick Brucki has taken on a new motto this year, one that dates back almost exactly 500 years.
Burn the ships.
In 1519, Hernan Cortes is said to have ordered his men to burn their ships upon arriving in Veracruz, Mexico, to conquer the Aztec Empire. It was a declaration by the Spanish conquistador that there would be no turning back, and Brucki is approaching his second season of wrestling at Princeton University the same way.
“If you’re going to do something, just put everything into it and eliminate all odds of failure because if you’re not committed to it, you’re not going to do it,” said sophomore Brucki, a native of Orland Park, Ill., who competes at 197 pounds.
“This year, it’s pretty much if something is there, I’m going to take it. If an opportunity presents itself, I’m going to jump on it. If I don’t that’s my fault. I’m trying to eliminate the hesitation, eliminate the timidness, enjoy the moment, and our coaching staff is so good at teaching us how to have fun out there and enjoy what we’re doing. I’m really happy with the transition I’ve had from last year to this in terms of being more open and having a more free mindset and wrestling style.”
Brucki enjoyed a great freshman season last winter but wanted more. He went 28-9, placed fifth in the EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) championships, and became just the third Princeton freshman to ever qualify for the NCAA Championships, where he won a match. He climbed as high as 12th in the national rankings.
“What a lot of people don’t know is he had a really bad injury right before Easterns but still was able to qualify for NCAAs and score us team points and he won a match at NCAAs,” said Princeton head coach Chris Ayres.
“He was hurt. He was hurt really bad. He didn’t wrestle for probably three months after that. He was super impressive. I thought, ‘We’ve got a good one here.’”
Ayres saw a leader, a Cortes for his still up-and-coming Tigers, even though Brucki was just a freshman. Knowing that captain Mike D’Angelo would be taking a gap year and not be wrestling this year, Ayres asked every Princeton wrestler in exit interviews after last season who was the best leader on the team.
“Ninety-five percent said Patrick Brucki,” said Ayres. “The other five percent said another name because they thought the answer was too obvious. There’s no controversy. Everyone knows he’s the leader.”
In addition, Brucki cuts an imposing figure to go with his leadership skills.
“And he’s big and jacked and scary,” added Ayres with a laugh. “No one’s going to challenge him.”
No one will challenge Brucki more than he does himself. He wasn’t satisfied with the ending to last year because, injury or not, he saw an opportunity.
“I still thought in the back of my mind I should have done what I could have done,” said Brucki. “I felt like I could have been an All-American. In a weight that was as open as it was, I felt like I could have made a run at that national title. I just didn’t prove it to myself. I kind of promised myself moving forward to just let it fly and have no regrets.”
Brucki has returned this year as an improved wrestler, and now with the increased role of captain of Princeton. He grew up in the Chicago area looking up at his two older siblings, a sister Jesselyn and a brother, who last year also reached the NCAA Championships for Central Michigan.
“I believe you earn everything you get and you get everything you earn,” said Brucki. “I am the youngest in my family. I think I was always getting picked on, which made me tougher. Even my older sister used to beat the crap out of me all the time. For that reason, I appreciate everything I have. That makes it easier to work hard and that makes it easier to defend it. You really have that honor and love for what you’re doing.”
Being Princeton’s captain is something that Brucki greatly appreciates.“I love the team; I would do anything for these guys,” asserted Brucki. “They’re a part of me and I hope I’m a part of them. It’s easy to work hard when I’m around them. I think we respond well to that.”
The Tigers have gotten off to a promising start this season. Brucki’s 7-4 comeback win gave Princeton a 21-19 win over then-No. 8 Lehigh on November 30. It was their first win since 1968 over Lehigh, where Ayres coached before coming to Princeton for the last 13 years. The win showed a lot about Princeton and about Brucki.
“Last year, the progression was pretty interesting,” said Ayres. “A lot of freshmen can wrestle without pressure and it frees them up a little bit. He was really open in the beginning of the season. Then he started to get ranked and he beat some good guys, and I think he tightened up a little bit. He was protecting the ranking a little bit. I don’t know if it’s consciously thinking that, but you sort of tighten up once you get known. The second half of the year, especially after Midlands, he was a little tight and it carried throughout.”
With that experience under his belt, Brucki is wrestling freer again. “This year he’s different,” added Ayres.
“He just doesn’t care. He wants to get as much done during the matches as possible, and that’s awesome to watch. He’s a scary guy right now to wrestle. He’s been in situations like Lehigh, he gave up a point because he unintentionally hit the guy in the face, which gives up a point and is equivalent to a takedown. That was a big match. If he wins, we win the dual, and I was so confident. He just kept wrestling and kept wrestling and won.”
Brucki has returned healthy at 197 and improved to 11-0 as he posted a 12-5 win over Ethan Laird to clinch a 23-21 win over Rider last Thursday and end Princeton’s 18-match losing streak against the Broncs. Beyond that is the prestigious Midlands Championships from December 29-30 in Chicago, where Brucki started climb in the rankings last year after a win over then-No. 5 Jake Smith of West Virginia.
“It’s pretty much a practice, everything is practice for the NCAA tournament,” said Brucki. “It’s another opportunity to see some highly ranked guys and guys that have great wins under their own belts. They have reputations too. That’s what you want to see. That’s the competition you’re going to see in March. That’s why our coaches give us the schedule they do.”
For Brucki, Midlands is an annual tradition. “I love that tournament. I’ve gone to that tournament when I was a kid,” said Brucki.
“Being from Chicago, it’s in my backyard practically. It was a great experience going there last year, especially as a true freshman. I was in high school watching that, and eight months later I was in it. It’s a cool opportunity. Like everything this year, I feel more comfortable, I feel more ready. I feel like I’ve been around the block before and that eases my mind and I’m ready to do what I do.”
Brucki came to Princeton as a strong wrestler, and he’s gotten stronger while also tweaking his wrestling style. He’s been consistent about being the aggressor.
“He’s just trying to break people,” said Ayres. “He gets them so tired, and he’s so strong that guys are just withering a little bit. Even those better guys, they hang for a bit in the front of the match. The last two minutes, he puts them away. That’s his mindset, it’s his strategy: he’s going to hurt really bad doing what he’s doing, but he’s going to make the other guy hurt worse so he quits. He’s been doing a good job of it. He can’t tighten up with it. The style he’s wrestling now could win the national title.”
Brucki is currently ranked fourth at 197 after pinning 11th-ranked Jay Aiello of Virginia in the first period on December 8. Brucki has solidified that ranking with wins over seven ranked opponents, but isn’t getting wrapped up in his rankings after learning a lesson last year.
“A ranking doesn’t change the person that you are,” said Brucki. “A ranking doesn’t define a person. So last year, Coach was right, I was timid, I closed my mind and I thought, I have to defend this ranking that I had. It was an immaturity honestly. Once I grew out of it, now I don’t even care. I just want to go out and score points, I want to impose my will on somebody.”
It’s the same for the Princeton team. The Tigers are making noise, but can’t get caught up in where they are ranked. They have Midlands ahead.
“We have a really good team, we have a young team,” said Ayres. “By FloWrestling, our tournament team is ranked 9th in the country right now. I expect our guys who are really good, who are really highly ranked – Pat Glory, Patrick Brucki, Matthew Kolodzik – I expect those guys to be in the hunt for a title, and Kevin Parker is ranked. And I expect someone to break through. We need a Quincy Monday to break through, we need a Dale Tiongson to break through. We need about two more guys to really break through and then I think we’ll have the team we need to beat Cornell.”
Topping perennial Ivy champion Cornell would be a big conquest, and the Tigers have followed the example of their young leader. There is no turning back for Patrick Brucki and Princeton.
“I feel a lot more at home and a lot more comfortable with the athlete I want to be and the wrestler I want to be and the teammate I want to be,” said Brucki.
“That eases the transition in so many ways. And the team aspect is huge. I think we have a really tight knit group – not that we didn’t last year, we had a great group last year – and we’re all in this year and it’s great to see.”