After 2 Runner-Up Finishes at NCAA Finals Last Year, Princeton Wrestling Determined to Take Next Step
EYEING SUCCESS: Princeton University wrestling head coach Chris Ayres, right, and associate head coach Joe Dubuque display their intensity in a 2020 dual match. Ayres and Dubuque are expecting big things from their wrestlers this winter as Princeton comes off a historic 2021-22 campaign that saw Patrick Glory take second in the NCAA Championships at 125 pounds and Quincy Monday place second at 157. The Tigers have their first dual of the 2022-23 season when they wrestle at Indiana on November 18. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
For Chris Ayres, falling short of his goal to win an NCAA title during his Lehigh University wrestling career put him on the path to coaching.
“It was an ending goal and then when I didn’t do it; I felt I had more to do in the sport and now I think I am where I belong,” said Princeton University wrestling head coach Ayres, who placed sixth at 157 pounds at the NCAAs in his senior season at Lehigh. “I think I am very analytical in the areas that I failed in. I worked on them to teach other people so maybe they wouldn’t make those mistakes. I am still chasing it. We had some national champs at Lehigh when I coached there. Here at Princeton, it feels like it is a little more invested because I have been here so long and it has been such an uphill climb. Not doing it helped me become a really good coach.”
Last winter, Ayres nearly guided two of his wrestlers to NCAA titles as Patrick Glory took second at 125 pounds in the national final and Quincy Monday was the runner-up at 157.
“It is proof of concept; I know we do the right things, we can produce Olympic champions and national champions,” said Ayres. “Quincy and Pat proved it to themselves because we hadn’t had anyone in the finals. It has been year after year, we keep doing things we haven’t done before. Those guys getting to the finals was one of those things. One of the interesting things is that we have never really taken steps backwards where we didn’t do things we hadn’t done before. That should just make everyone excited that we are going to do something bigger this year and what that bigger thing is.”
With Princeton opening its dual match season by wrestling at Indiana this Friday, Ayres believes his squad will make an early statement.
“We have a good team, there haven’t been too many changes,” said Ayres, whose squad features a special group of seniors including Marshall Keller, Travis
Stefanik, Grant Cuomo, and Jake Marsh in addition to Glory and Monday. “It feels really good. It was tough going in the beginning. It has been widely advertised that we were about 0-37. The beginning was tough but the motto is “gentle pressure relentlessly applied” which we have done. We are in an amazing spot, it is like this brick-by-brick thing. This is my 17th year, this is what I have expected.”
The vibe in the Tiger wrestling room during preseason has Ayres feeling very good.
“It is amazing; I feel like this in the best Princeton team in terms of just the collective movement towards a certain goal,” said Ayres. “Everyone is rowing in the right direction, not that other teams weren’t doing that. It is just we are going a little faster, that is the thing.”
There is no mystery as to Princeton’s goals this winter.
“We need to win Easterns, I am tired of taking third,” said Ayres, whose team took third at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) Championships last winter, tying its best finish since its 1978 title, along with third-place finishes in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
“The last year we won it was ’78, so it has been a while. We need a national champion or national champions, we haven’t done that in a while. It is a storied program, there are tons of success but we need to start having national champions. We can take home a trophy, we can be top four. If we have multiple national champions, you are in the mix literally. We talk about it, why not us. We could win a national title. It is not like hey, we want to be competitive, we want to win national titles. That is what this thing is about. We work hard. Everybody in the program and all of the coaches, that is what we expect.”
In order to be battle-tested as it pursues those goals, Princeton has put together a challenging non-conference schedule, featuring four Big Ten foes (Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Rutgers) along with Oregon State, Arizona State, Rider, Lehigh, and Bucknell.
“Our goal every year is to wrestle the best teams in the country; it is getting more challenging just because we are really good,” said Ayres. “Big Ten teams have tough schedules and I think a lot of time they have to question if they want to schedule us because they could lose. So to get teams that we got, we are grateful for that. There are teams that didn’t get on our schedule that we wanted on our schedule and we will keep trying. But we are happy with our schedule. It is a very good schedule, we have some great home matches. This is the first year we are all in Jadwin, we are fully ticketed. That is really important for our program’s development. Back in the 0-17 days we were in a small gym with not that many fans. We just hope to continue that growth.”
As Princeton has grown into a power, it has earned a higher profile in the college wrestling world.
“The perception has changed, I think that is by design,” said Ayres. “We have a brand. Our guys believe in our system. We believe in what we say and we try to bring a good product to the table. This is a sports but we also believe that it is entertainment. We want to put people in the stands, we want people to come and be about Princeton wrestling, If you follow social media, you see we work hard at it and we have fun with it. That draws people in. There are a lot of people who want to be part of this program now.”
The duals at Jadwin Gym have become must-see events, drawing fired up crowds in the 2,000 range.
“We are a hot ticket,” said Ayres. “We view this as a sport where we want put on a show. We just have to win, people like coming to watch winners. Early on when we had a dual, the coaching staff did everything. We did the promotions, the coaches were throwing shirts into the stands. We are a thing now. When people look at the growth of the program, they want to point to one thing that changes everything. It is not one thing, it is everything. Every single day we work to promote the program.”
Ayres is looking for his stellar crew of seniors to make an indelible impact on the program in their final campaign.
“There has been a couple of classes like this; Brett Harner’s class was very similar, getting us to a new place,” said Ayres, who believes this year’s freshman class has the potential to do some big things as well, starting this winter.
“This one is special though with the amount of All-Americans, the placements in Easterns and what they have done individually. I think they are carrying the program to a new level and this is their last year to put a stamp on something, but I think there is legacy. It is not the end of an era, what they give back to the younger kids and what they set in their mind is legacy. It is not really the end of anything. They are going to pass the torch to the next set of kids and I think those kids are going to keep it rolling.”