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Photos: (Left) Cornell’s two-time NCAA champ Yianni Diakomihalis (center), whose season was cancelled last year by the Ivy League, spent much of his time competing in freestyle. The Big Red wrestler earned a spot on the 2021 U.S. World Team last month in Lincoln, Neb., and celebrated with his new college head coach Mike Grey. (Right) Princeton coach Chris Ayres returns four 2020 national qualifiers from a Tiger team that won the Ivy League regular season.
By Mike Finn
Chris Ayres has been credited for bringing the Princeton’s back from the dead especially after he led the once-discontinued Tiger program to an Ivy League championship in 2020.
But the 16-year head coach does not want to think that the only focus for the preseason is duplicating the team’s 2020 success … as his veteran wrestlers will have gone over two years since they competed in their last NCAA tournament.
That’s because the COVID pandemic cancelled the 2020 NCAAs and the Ivy League did the same to Princeton and five other schools — Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard and Penn — last year when the conference cancelled all Ivy League sports. That also meant that most of these schools that only allow eight semesters for athletes to compete saw many of their wrestler not enroll in school.
Both Princeton and Cornell did lose a former All-American in Pat Brucki and Max Dean, respectively, who transferred to Michigan and Penn State, where both could wrestle at 197 pounds this winter.
“Fortunately, most of our guys took the year off to save a year of (athletic) eligibility,” said Ayres, who returns four national qualifiers from the 2020 season, including All-American Pat Glory (125). “It’s not about rebuilding. It’s more about remembering how to do it. It was such an odd year last year when you couldn’t even see recruits. We felt homeless.”
Despite that, Ayres believes his team can once again be one of the top teams in the Ivy League, EIWA and the country by the time the 2021-22 season ends March 19 in Detroit, Mich.
“We need a national champion,” said Ayres. “And I’d like to get a trophy at the NCAAs, being one of the four teams.”
Mike Grey, the newly-named head coach at Cornell feels the same way about his Big Red program that he once earned two All-American honors for between 2006 and ‘11, and has now inherited from his former coach Rob Koll, who took the Stanford job.
“More than anything there is an excitement right now,” said Grey, who returns three All-Americans from past Nationals in two-time champ Yianni Diakomihalis (149), Vito Arujau (125) and Ben Darmstadt (197).
“This might even help my transition (to head coach) because people are so excited to reach out and chat with me to see what I need.
“Obviously, some people were not happy that we did not have a season last year. We were not happy but their commitment to Cornell wrestling has never been stronger.
“Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do. Our job now is to focus on this year.”
Fortunately for Grey, who served as an assistant or associate head coach since 2013, got a chance to spend time with many of his wrestlers who wrestled freestyle with the school’s RTC — the Spartan Wrestling Club — last winter. That including Diakomihalis, who recently qualified for the UWW World Championships in October.
Grey said he was not sure how much Diakomihalis and Arujau would compete in Cornell singlets this winter.
“They will be at big events and I’m sure they will also wrestle freestyle,” said Grey. “But they are big leaders for our program and good examples for our other guys.”
Ayres also got a chance to coach last year, his daughter, Chloe (a nationally-ranked wrestler) and his son Atticus. Chris last summer served as coach of the New Jersey girls Fargo team, which his wife Lori directs.
“Being a wrestling coach means that I’m always busy,” Ayres said. “If you take time off, someone is going to beat you. It’s a beautiful job, but I remember telling my wife before the pandemic that I wish I could take two weeks off.
“Once the pandemic hit, I said I’m going to make the best of this. After about two weeks, I was losing my mind and I dove into my kids a little bit. Every day, we work out once or twice a day on technique in our basement.
“I try to be an optimist and I think my family will always look back at this pandemic and remember how much time we spent together.
Grey, meanwhile, does not mind taking over a program with such a rich history that has won many Ivy League and EIWA team championships over the past 20 years.
“I was part of that legacy so I think it’s easier for me,” Grey said.
“There are two types of takeovers. One is taking over a program that is sinking and or taking over a program that has had success and now we are looking for new ways to continue that success.
“We are not recreating the wheel but there are things we are doing that will be helpful.”
For Cornell and Princeton and the other Ivy League schools, at least a wheel of wrestling is moving this season.