February 8, 2023

Plagued by Inconsistency in Frustrating Campaign, Princeton Wrestling Determined to Produce Big Finish

HEAVY LIFTING: Princeton University wrestler Travis Stefanik, top, controls a foe in recent action. Last Saturday, senior Stefanik, ranked No. 33 at 285 pounds, earned a 5-3 sudden victory win over No. 18 Cory Day of Binghamton as the Tigers won the dual 28-10 over the Bearcats. Princeton, now 3-9 overall, has a dual at Penn on February 10 and then hosts Lehigh on February 11. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Chris Ayres went through slumps during his college wrestling career at Lehigh, and he’s expecting that his Princeton University team will come out of its slump soon.

The Tigers as individuals and as a team have shown their potential, it just hasn’t been as consistently displayed as they would like. Last weekend was more of the same as Princeton split its matches, losing 32-7 to No. 5 Cornell before topping Binghamton, 28-10.

“This year we’ve been in a little bit of a slump and I think it’s been reflected among some guys too,” said Princeton head coach Ayres. “For whatever reason, we are not finding the consistency we’ve had in the past.”

The Tigers have been steadily trending upwards as a program over the last 17 years with Ayres. Whether it’s been individuals making breakthroughs at the national level or the team competing better in the Ivy League or the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) tournament, Princeton has found something to build on each year. This year, the highlights may have to come at the end of the season when the tournaments are biggest.

“It’s challenging for sure but it’s one of those things when you’re in a slump,” said Ayres. “We haven’t faced it too often in recent history so we’re just trying to ride it out. We’re not doing anything different. We’re training the same. We still have the core values in the program. We just have to weather the storm a little bit and hopefully we come out of it at some point here where everyone is consistent at the right time.”

Junior Nate Dugan reflects what Princeton has been going through this year. Against Cornell, when even national contender Quincy Monday suffered his first defeat of the season since moving up from 157 to 165 pounds, Dugan picked up one of two Top-10 wins for the Tigers. Patrick Glory’s 10-2 major-decision win over No. 8 Brett Ungar at 125 was more expected given Glory’s No. 2 national ranking. Dugan picked up a 4-3 win over Jonathan Loew, and the win over the sixth-ranked Cornell wrestler was the highest ranked wrestler he has beaten in his college career. Later that day, however, the 32nd-ranked Dugan lost an 8-3 decision to 19th-ranked Binghamton’s Jacob Nolan.

“It’s huge,” Ayres said of the win over Loew. “He’s at that level. He’s been inconsistent. The match after, he was in on a shot, he got caught in a cement job so he’s down by a bunch. It’s tough to come back, especially with a four-point near-fall. It’s a shame that happened to him. I’m proud of him, he fought off his back. The guy had him so tight, he fought off his back and gave himself a chance. The Loew match was huge for him. He can be an All-American this year. But he has to do every second of every match to make that happen.”

Dugan was a starter last year for the Tigers. He had some significant wins, but would have liked to finish the season better. Princeton is hopeful that some of the keys to his win over Loew will be more often present in future matches.

“He had those moments last year where he had some great matches and then some matches where you’re like, ‘What happened?’” said Ayres. “He’s had some marquee wins. Other than Loew, he’s had some other great matches. The kid from Wisconsin. He has these matches and that puts him in position to believe in himself that it can happen.”

Dugan and Glory were the only wrestlers to earn wins against Cornell, which went on to earn a 19-15 win over Penn on Sunday. Princeton will wrestle at Penn on February 10 and then host Lehigh a day later in Jadwin Gym. They’ll face only one more match — Bucknell on February 17 — before gearing up for the EIWA Championships at Penn on March 4-5 with the NCAA Championships slated to begin March 16 in Tulsa, Okla.

“We’re hoping to get things right at the right time of the year,” said Ayres. “We’re good in the postseason. We do well at nationals, we outperform our seeds generally. Part of it is we train through these matches. We’re in a seriously hard training phase to get ready for the NCAAs. They don’t feel great when we roll into these matches. That’s part of the plan. Then probably after this weekend, we start to pull back pretty hard and start to get our guys ready for the NCAAs and start our taper.”

Princeton has been tested with every match this year. The Tigers are 3-9 after splitting Saturday’s action. They are 1-3 in the Ivy League. Princeton’s season only proves how difficult sustaining success is at the college level.

“There are just so many good kids in high school now that you can recruit so all teams have dangerous people on them,” said Ayres, who got wins against Binghamton from Glory at 125, Christopher Martino at 141, Ty Whalen at 157, Monday at 165, Kole Mulhauser at 174, Luke Stout at 197, and Travis Stefanik at 285.

“I’m nervous before I go into the Binghamton match and I’m nervous before I go into every match. And considering we haven’t been very consistent with how we’ve competed, there’s reason to be nervous. But this team is good. We have pretty much all the starters back that were on the team last year.”

Princeton has a number of nationally ranked individuals that have been competing for years. They have established themselves as strong EIWA and national contenders for All-American status. The Tigers also have a blend of youthful wrestlers that are sorting through their college debut season. Princeton had three freshmen in the lineup against Cornell.

“They’re doing a pretty good job,” said Ayres. “They’re getting better week to week. That’s what you want to see out of your freshmen. Next year will be the first time in a very long time you won’t see Pat Glory or Quincy Monday and Travis Stefanik so we need to develop our talent. And fortunately we have some good recruits coming in — the class that will be in next year is very good. We’ve started four true freshmen at times this year, so we’re youthful too and we hope to build on that. They get better with every week.”

Ayres and his staff are still learning about each of their freshmen and finding out how to motivate them best. It’s a challenge at times with having to throw them into the fire in their first year. Princeton does not have the luxury to redshirt wrestlers like many big Division 1 programs. The Tigers have been able to show their future is bright.

“Ty Whalen is on track at 157,” said Ayres. “Quincy moving up gave him that opportunity to be in the lineup consistently. He’s a Fargo finalist and state champ of New Jersey. He’s good. Then we have Kole Mulhauser wrestling 174 for us. He’s won a lot of matches. He’s got some good wins earlier in the year. The D-1 season got to him a little bit. There’s no breathing room, there’s a tough guy every day in practice and competition. Around every corner, there’s danger when you’re D-1. You have to get accustomed to that, knowing that everyone is tough. He’s progressed well. (Rocco) Camillaci is doing a good job too.”

The progress that Princeton’s new crew has been showing is more reason for hope for the future. And each day is a chance for more learning and growth. Their early experiences are going to benefit them.

“I’m excited about these guys,” said Ayres. “What’s going to be really good for these guys is they have big goals for this year, but the six months after this season ends is going to be pretty important for them. Once you have a framework for danger is around every corner, your training becomes so much more focused. You have a greater sense of urgency. You don’t know what it’s like when you come in as a freshman.”

Princeton is balanced between its experienced and inexperienced wrestlers. They are at different levels and realistically have different goals, but Ayres is hopeful that the new members can pick up on what enabled his top wrestlers to develop well.

“All the guys are doing the same things training-wise,” said Ayres. “How you compete determines what makes them better. Our guys need to take notes. They may stay for a year to train, but those examples aren’t in the room forever.”

Princeton has had enough bright spots to know it could finish the season on a huge high. The Tigers are focused on being more consistent down the stretch, and bringing to the mat the mentality that they can beat anyone, just as they saw in Nate Dugan as he picked up his biggest win of his career against Cornell.

“We’re hoping it catches on,” said Ayres. “We’re wishing it happened a little sooner. The inconsistencies are killing us. But I think we can beat Penn. We want to be a disrupter. We could win that match even though we’re not supposed to. We have some more things ahead us and we’ll see what we can do.”