December 13, 2023

Gaining Experience from Battles with Big 10 Teams, Young Princeton Wrestling Primed for Midlands Test

COVER UP: Princeton University wrestler Matt Cover enjoys the moment after he defeated Nick Wilhelm of Indiana on December 3 as the Tigers lost 18-15 to the Hoosiers in their opening dual. Last Friday as Princeton battled Rutgers, senior star Cover posted a 3-1 win over John O’Donnell at 285 pounds to provide a highlight as the Tigers fell 24-9 to the Scarlet Knights to move to 0-2 in duals. In upcoming action, Princeton wrestlers will be competing in the Midlands Championships from December 29-30 at Hoffman Estates, Ill. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

The Princeton University wrestling lineup is vastly different from a year ago, and the Tigers’ young and inexperienced wrestlers are benefiting from their early tests on the mat.

Princeton dropped a pair of decisions to Big Ten programs Indiana and Rutgers last week. The Tigers were edged by Indiana, 18-15, on December 3 at Jadwin Gym, then fell at Jersey Mike’s Arena to No. 13 Rutgers, 24-9, last Friday evening.

“All this stuff is getting us ready for the next week,” said Princeton head coach Joe Dubuque. “This Rutgers match is going to get us ready for Midlands. Midlands is going to get us ready for our next dual meet.”

Following the fall semester exam break, the Tigers will compete in the high-profile Midlands Championships at Hoffman Estates, Ill., from December 29-30. They won’t compete at home again until January 13 when they host Morgan State, which is coached by assistant coach Quincy Monday’s father, Olympic gold medalist Kenny Monday. Princeton does wrestle at nearby Rider on January 11 in their first dual meet after the New Year.

“We have a young, inexperienced team, which is fine and I actually like it,” said Dubuque, who was elevated from assistant to head coach in late September following the departure of Chris Ayres. “Our guys are going out there motivated and almost wanting to prove something every single match, which is what I love.”

Princeton has just three wrestlers back in the starting lineup from last year’s Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) Championships. Nate Dugan, Luke Stout, and Sean Pierson are all back. The rest are either freshmen in their first year of college wrestling, or older wrestlers that are now moving into starting roles.

“Seven weights are new guys from last year,” said Dubuque. “Matt] Cover was an NCAA qualifier a few years back. Blaine Bergey was a starter in the beginning of last year. He only wrestled five matches and then Quincy moved up, so Quincy wound up taking over at 165. Rocco Camillaci was at 149, but then didn’t compete second semester last year. So there’s definitely guys in new spots, there’s brand new faces to the team, there’s brand new faces to the lineup. Like Mikey Squires, our 174, this is his first time wrestling in dual meets for us.”

There is a natural period of adjustment for first-year wrestlers who are at the same time adjusting to the academic rigors of Princeton. The Tigers are still finding ways to be successful against a difficult schedule.

“D-I wrestling is tough, regardless of whether you’re 18 years old or 24 years old,” said Dubuque, a former standout at Indiana who won two NCAA championships in his college career. “For our guys, the easiest thing that they’ve done is buy in. I’m completely confident that our whole team has bought into our training philosophy, our competitive philosophy. In that regard, I think it’s easy for them to just go out there and compete. Then you have to find out the mental battles that you’re battling. When you’re a true freshman against a top-10 ranked guy, you don’t change anything. You just go out there and compete the same.”

The Tigers took on Rutgers before a large crowd that made for another important experience. Princeton has also competed in the Princeton Open and the Navy Classic before getting a pair of big dual meets under their belt.

“Friday night’s match against Rutgers, that’s a big rivalry match in a hostile environment,” said Dubuque. “They had over 5,000 fans. I guess Princeton is a pretty big draw, especially within New Jersey. That’s good for us. People want to come out and see us compete.”

Freshman Eligh Rivera continued his impressive start with one of Princeton’s three wins at Rutgers. The precocious Rivers earned a 3-1 sudden-victory win over Michael Cetta at 149 pounds. Rivera opened the dual meet season against Indiana with a 7-4 sudden-victory win over then-No. 8 ranked Graham Rooks.

“Eligh doing that against Indiana, against a top-10 guy, shows the other true freshmen this can be done, and what we’re doing from a training perspective is absolutely the right thing and it will come,” said Dubuque. “Either be patient and fall back on the idea that our training is working and you never know when you’re going to make that jump. That jump could be made in a practice. That jump could be made in a close loss. That jump could be made in a big win. Be patient and the time will come when you break through.”

Blaine Bergey also won by sudden victory against Rutgers. The junior captain held a second-period lead, and after being forced into extra time he upset No. 25 Anthony White at 165 pounds. Matt Cover gave the Tigers a win to end the meeting with Rutgers. The senior rallied from a 1-0 deficit with a reversal to take the lead and finished with a 3-1 victory over John O’Donnell.

“They have a pretty good dual meet team,” said Dubuque. “They’re pretty solid in almost every weight. We knew it was an uphill battle. I would have liked to have won a few more of those matches where we were right there to win.”

Freshman Drew Heethuis won a close decision, 10-8, in the Indiana match. Cover, and two ranked Tigers, Luke Stout and Nate Dugan, also picked up wins as Princeton and Indiana both won five matches apiece, but Indiana scored an 18-15 win thanks to more bonus points with their victories.

“I thought against Indiana we competed really well,” said Dubuque. “Just going in, from a ranking standpoint, they had more ranked guys than we did. That doesn’t always paint the picture, but it tells you from a strength perspective they’re pretty strong in the majority of the weight classes.”

The success of some of the younger wrestlers has been a bright spot for Princeton. Early challenges have given them a stage to demonstrate their abilities and how quickly they can adjust to wrestling at the college level.

“This was one of the best classes we’ve ever brought in just from a recruiting ranking standpoint,” said Dubuque. “All of them are very talented, had a tremendous amount of success coming to Princeton. So there’s definitely a level of expectation that we had. They all competed at a very high level and won national tournaments and things like that. I definitely expected them to transition, but I wasn’t foolish enough to think it would be easy. Some guys are going to transition sooner than others. Some guys are going to have to go through some growing pains. It’s all hands on deck. Guys on the team are helping these freshmen out. The coaches are obviously doing everything they can to minimize the stress of these guys. I think there were high expectations for this group and they embraced it.”

Princeton has been able to point to their progress to show the growth of their young group. While the overall score against Rutgers was more decided than against Indiana, the Tigers had several close matches against the Scarlet Knights that they just didn’t pull out. And against Indiana, when the Princeton coaching staff crunched some data, they found that they took more shots than did the Indiana wrestlers.

“It doesn’t always tell the story, but I like our aggression,” said Dubuque. “I like the way we’re going out there and we’re taking risks. We do have to do a better job of capitalizing when we’re in on legs. Our rate of finish to shot ratio is not good. We’re shooting a lot, but we’re not finishing a lot of those shots. I would like to make an adjustment in that area. Our young guys went out there and competed. Two of our three true freshmen won matches against Indiana with Eligh Rivera getting his first win over a top-10 opponent which is great. We just lost the bonus battle, which is big. We stress to our guys if you have an opportunity to get bonus points, you have to do it. Every point matters.”

Being aggressive is a point of emphasis for Dubuque. He has seen the team he helped to build and take over in September embrace it. The Tigers are looking for ways to give themselves more scoring opportunities as they go forward.

“Our style of wrestling, I am supremely confident it will allow us to get better and progress every single week,” said Dubuque. “If you’re focusing on the style — if you’re trying to change the style, that takes a long, long time because that’s a philosophy, a mentality. If we have that style and brand of exciting and aggressive wrestling and we can go back to the match and say you competed really hard, your effort was great, but we have to tweak a few things technically, those things can be done overnight. I’m confident we can get things straightened out and put us in position to have a great Midlands tournament.”

The Midlands tournament is one of the most competitive events that the Tigers enter in-season. Princeton will take 15 wrestlers to the invitation-only meet after they come out of their exam period plus a week of winter break. Dubuque has kept the focus on improvement for Princeton. He’s asking his wrestlers to handle wins and losses professionally and to assess where they can get better. The team has been responding to the new head coach’s messaging and is focused on continuing to develop together.

“I think it was an easy transition because all of these guys were either coached or recruited by me,” said Dubuque. “So they all felt pretty comfortable with me. That was an easy transition. And tweaking some things within the training plan, I didn’t blow anything up. I wanted to try to keep things very similar from a structure standpoint and just put my own little spin on things. We changed practices a little bit in the way they were structured and the skeleton of it, but a lot has kept the same. I’ve really just been harping on your attitude, your effort and energy are all things you have control over and all those areas should be at a high level when you step in the practice area.”