Wrestling Faces Uphill Battle in Path for Success at NCAAs

Above a doorway in the Friedman Wrestling Center sits a digital clock that has, for months, counted down each second — some more excruciatingly slower than the others — until Cornell wrestling will return to the NCAA Championships.

Once the clock stops counting and before it resets ahead of the 2020 tournament, the glory and disappointment of the 2018-19 season for Cornell wrestling will become irrelevant. Every pin, every upset, every injury, every high and every low will become forgotten.

“A good national championship makes an Easterns go away real quickly,” head coach Rob Koll said after his team took second at the tournament.

That clock has been counting down for months, a reminder of the larger task at hand despite the minutiae of in-season adversity. On Thursday this week, when it finally flashes zeros across the board, seven Cornellians will kick off seven individual paths toward their respective goals at NCAA Championships in Pittsburgh: a national title for some, All-American status for many, a positive showing on the biggest stage for all.

But the route between Cornell and success at NCAAs is uncharacteristically daunting this go-around. Each of the seven qualified Cornellians — No. 8 seeded freshman Vitali Arujau (125), No. 9 junior Chas Tucker (133), No. 1 sophomore Yianni Diakomihalis (141), No. 16 junior Brandon Womack (174), No. 5 sophomore Max Dean (184), No. 9 senior Ben Honis and No. 24 Jeramy Sweany (285) — have been seeded in the top half of their bracket, making a meeting with the top seed something to fear sooner rather than later.

“I guess that’s the product of the seeding, and it was just very odd how it happened,” Koll said Tuesday. “We’re gonna have to wrestle extremely well if we want to get guys to the finals.”

Koll said after EIWAs that he believes all six of his program’s automatic qualifiers — Sweany earned an at-large bid — have it in them to place in the top eight for All-American status. Even with the uphill seeding battle now made clear, that confidence has perhaps waned a fraction but remains strong.

“A realist would say we have a better chance of getting less. Fortunately, I’m not a realist,” Koll said. “I’ve got a great deal of confidence in the team and our ability, and we always seem to save our best for the last. So hopefully this year is no different than the past.”

As for team success, Cornell is looking for a team finish inside the top 10 for the 12th consecutive season — one of only two teams to tout that streak.

“If we place in the top 10, I would be thrilled. If we place in the top seven, it would be miraculous. And if we place in the top five, I’m asking for a raise,” Koll joked. “But in order to do that we need to have four or five All-Americans.”

“If you look based on the beginning of this year how many guys we had ranking coming in at the top eight, we probably projected to have two,” he continued. “And now we are talking about four or five or even six. Very lofty goals, but we always do well this time of year, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

There is one wrestler, however, who need not worry about running into the No. 1 seed early —  because he is the No. 1 seed. For returning champion Diakomihalis, undefeated so far this season, anything short of his second national title would be a failure, Koll said.

“That’s a real simple one,” the head coach deadpanned. “There’s absolutely nothing but first place for Yianni. Anything else would obviously be a disappointment.”

No pressure, right?

“He’s used to this is. This is old hat for him,” Koll said of the two-time Cadet world champion and four-time New York state champion, who won last year’s title with a torn ACL. “I don’t think the nerves are going to play into whether he wins or loses.”

Expectations for the remaining six, however, are more tepid.

At 125, Koll believes Arujau falls within a tier of the top eight wrestlers who have a shot at making the finals come Saturday night. “One bad match last weekend is his only bad match of the year,” Koll said of the freshman’s 10-8 loss to Pat Glory in the EIWA finals. He meets Rico Montoya of Northern Colorado in the first round.

Tucker will be looking to improve upon a first-round loss at last year’s tournament. Koll said after EIWAs that Tucker is wrestling the best has in his career, and “he certainly has the capability of knocking off anybody” so long as he comes out on the right side of the close matches he partakes in seemingly every time he steps on the mat, Koll said. The junior takes on Lock Haven’s DJ Fehlman in the first round.

Both Tucker and Arajau could meet the No. 1 seed in their division as soon as the third round of action Friday morning.

An All-American two seasons ago, Womack, too, does not have much time to breathe before he meets the paragon at his weight. Penn State’s undefeated Mark Hall sits just one match away from the junior, who will take on Neal Richards of Virginia Military Institute in the opener. “He’s going to have to wrestle better than he’s ever wrestled in his life to get past that match,” Koll said of Womack’s potential second round.

Dean, the highest ranked Cornellian after Diakomihalis, sits at No. 5 and, on paper, has the next-easiest path for a deeper run in the tournament. After he takes on Noah Stewart of Army West Point in the opening round, he’d be looking at either the No. 12 or 21 seed before potentially meeting No. 4 Emery Parker of Illinois and then a rematch with runaway favorite No. 1 Myles Martin of Ohio State, who downed Dean, 13-6, in the semifinals last month.

“There are miles to go before we get to Myles,” Koll said of his message to the sophomore with a daunting No. 1 seed on the horizon.

The two seniors on the Cornell lineup sit at the heaviest weights, and each will be looking to go out as close to the top as they can.

Like Dean, the senior Honis, too, sits in a bracket with a runaway No. 1 in Bo Nickal of Penn State. Before he can worry about that, he will face Jake Jakobsen of Lehigh for the third time this season in the first round. Honis has won both decisions.

“He’s got two matches I expect him to win, and then he’s got the No. 1 seed and returning national champion,” Koll said of Honis, who is competing at NCAAs for the first time in two years despite originally being projected as the heavyweight entering the season. “If he can get by [Nickal], he’s in the finals, and if he can’t he’s got a good path to be an All-American.”

Koll added that Honis weighed between 235-40 pounds when the head coach made the call that he would cut down to 197 and replace reigning All-American sophomore Ben Darmstadt, who has been out for the year with an injury.

But as an undersized heavyweight, Sweany has very little room for error in his last hurrah, Koll said, and will take on No. 9 Matt Stencel of Central Michigan to open his tournament.

Action in the three-day tournament gets underway from Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena Thursday at noon.