EIWA PREVIEW: Big Red Machine just keeps rolling along

By John Harmon EIWA | March 06, 2014, 11:08 a.m. (ET)
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Cornell. After all, former national champions Kyle Dake and Steve Bosak were lost to graduation, and coach Rob Koll would be hard pressed to fill their shoes. Either Lehigh or a couple of other teams were given a 50-50 chance of halting the 7-year streak of team champions rolled up by the Big Red.

But Cornell enters the 2014 tournament as a heavy favorite to win an unprecedented eighth straight team championship.

So what happened?

It seems Coach Koll has developed an annoying habit (to his opponents) of bringing in freshmen who are ready to step in and wrestle at an elite Division-1 level.

Last year it was lightweight Nahshon Garrett, who seemingly came out of nowhere to place third nationally after winning an EIWA title at 125. This year Garrett has only an early season loss and is ranked #1 by many polls at 125.

This year, Koll has recruited no fewer than four elite freshmen in Mark Grey (133), Brian Realbuto (157), Dylan Palacio (165), and Gabe Dean (184). Dean, ranked either second or third in the nation, may be the pick of the class, but all have been highly ranked nationally all season. All will be seeded either first or second in the EIWA tournament.

Add in upper classmen Chris Villalonga (149), with only two losses on the season, Jace Bennett (197), who recently broke into the national rankings, and two-time All-American Mike Nevinger (141) and you have a juggernaut that opponents will be hard to stop.

Cornell has only two “weak” weights. Jacob Aiken-Phillips has won the spot at heavyweight, while at press time it seemed like either Duke Pickett or Jesse Shanaman would get the nod at 174.

Lehigh will once again be the top contender for the runner-up spot in the team race.

Mason Beckman returns from a year off, and will earn the #1 seed at 133. Freshman Elliot Riddick sits on top of a balanced 174-pound weight class. There is upside potential at 141, where sophomore Laike Gardner has had some impressive wins, and 149, manned by freshman Midlands champion Mitch Minotti.

Defending champion Joey Napoli returns at 157, while John Bolish could reach the finals in an evenly balanced 197-pound class.

There is also upside potential at heavyweight, where a healthy Max Wessell, out with injuries for much of the season, could make some noise.

Hofstra, Navy, Penn and Rutgers could also place very high in the tournament, which has been enlarged this year to 18 teams with the addition of Binghamton, Boston University, Drexel and Hofstra.

The Pride have at least four wrestlers who should be seeded third or higher. Graduate student Joe Booth (165) is arguably the best wrestler on the team. Upperclassmen Jamie Franco (125), Luke Vaith (141) and Cody Ruggirello (149) will all get high seeds. Good upside potential exists from freshman Jamel Hudson at 133.

Navy returns EIWA runner-up Mat Miller at 174. Other team leaders are Bobby Burg at 157, Peyton Walsh at 165 and Paul Rands at 197. The Mids are famous for being tough from top to bottom, and if a couple of guys get hot, Navy could be in the thick of the race.

Don’t underestimate the Quakers, who have good tournament strength in spite of a disappointing dual meet season. The team leader is senior Lorenzo Thomas, who will get the #2 seed at 184. Sophomores Casey Kent and Ray Bethea have had outstanding seasons. Freshman Caleb Richardson has been battling injuries and the scale all season, but he is a blue chip recruit who could place very high at 125.

Rutgers has been up and down all season, but if the Scarlet Knights can peak at the right time, they could be well up in the team standings. Team leader is heavyweight Billy Smith, who will be the #2 seed. Freshman Phil Bakuckas will be a factor at 165, while pinner Ken Theobold could make some noise at 149. Sean McCabe could be a sleeper candidate at 125.

Kudos go to Princeton, who placed second in the Ivy League (tied with Penn) after being the league doormat for many years. Chris Ayers has recruited well, and one more good recruiting year could get the Tigers up with the leaders.

Up for grabs this year will be approximately 60 berths to the NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City.

With 18 wrestlers at each weight class, it will be necessary to have two pigtail bouts to get to a round of 16. It is anticipated that the coaches will approve keeping the eight seeded wrestlers out of the pigtails. In that case, there would be no automatic advancement point for a wrestler receiving a bye into the round of 16.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the prospects for each weight class.
125-Garrett is almost unbeatable, even by American’s David Terao, who is having an excellent year. There will be a spirited battle for third place among at least four competitors. Binghamton’s David White had a late-season win over Hofstra’s Jamie Franco, Bucknell’s Paul Petrov has 27 wins, while undersized Darian Cruz of Lehigh will get his share of wins.

133-Beckman will get the #1 seed, but he will be strongly challenged by Grey. The two have not met this season, but they met three times a year ago in open tournaments, with Grey winning twice. The rubber match went into double overtime, Like 125, four wrestlers will battle it out for third place, with Navy’s Colton Rasche likely to get the #3 seed. Hofstra’s Hudson is a real threat, along with Angelo Amenta of Columbia and Rutgers senior Vinnie Dellefave.

141-Defending champion Richard Durso of Franklin & Marshall returns to defend his title, but Nevinger, who has been ranked higher nationally most of the season, may steal the #1 seed. Nevinger has been in and out of the lineup all season, but could win it if he stays healthy. Hofstra senior Luke Vaith and Lehigh’s Gardner have the capability to pull the upsets necessary to win the title. But Harvard sophomore upset Gardner in the last dual meet of the season, and will get a higher seed.

149-Villalonga will be the #1 seed, but could be challenged by Minotti, who has been inconsistent at times. Either Hofstra junior Cody Ruggirello or Princeton senior Adam Krop could mount a challenge.

157-Boston U senior Nestor Taffur has been ranked high nationally all season, and has over 30 wins. Realbuto owns a mid-season decisive win over Napoli, but either one of them could end up facing Taffur for the title. Bobby Burg of Navy or Paul Hancock of Army could challenge for a high place here.

165-Either Palacio or Booth could be the #1 seed here. Penn’s Casey Kent will lead the challengers, which include Peyton Walsh of Navy and returning finalist Josh Houldsworth of Columbia.

174-Riddick will be the #1 seed by virtue of an early season win over Columbia’s Shane Hughes and a close win over returning finalist Mat Miller of Navy. But Hughes will first have to fend off Miller in what could be one of the most exciting semifinal matches between two active competitors.

184-Dean will be the #1 seed. His challenger will be either Thomas or Ophir Bernstein of Brown, with Thomas getting the higher seed with a late season victory over Bernstein.

197-This looks like a wide open weight class. Drexel senior Brandon Palik appears to be a good bet to cop the #1 seed, especially with a late season injury suffered by American senior Danny Mitchell. Mitchell’s status for the tournament was unknown at press time. Bennett’s name has recently appeared in the national rankings, and a host of competitors are standing by to mount a challenge.

285-The leaders are Joe Stolfi of Bucknell, who is the pin leader in the EIWA, and Billy Smith of Rutgers. The two have not met during the past two seasons. Predicting a winner here could be hazardous. Tyler Deuel of Binghamton and Jacob Aiken-Smith of Cornell have been impressive in the late season. Keep an eye on Wessell, who is on the Olympic ladder in Judo.

EIWA Team Ranking (Tournament Ranking), published Feb. 24
Points based on theoretical placement

1. Cornell 128
2. Lehigh 70
3. Hofstra 50
4. Columbia 43
5. Rutgers 42
6. Princeton 35
T7. American 31
T7. Penn 31

125 pounds
1. Nahshon Garrett, Cornell
2. David Terao, American
3. Jamie Franco, Hofstra
4. Paul Petrov, Bucknell
5. Darian Cruz, Lehigh
6. David White, Binghamton

133 pounds
1. Mason Beckman, Lehigh
2. Mark Grey, Cornell
3. Colton Rasche, Navy
4. Jamel Hudson, Hofstra
5. Vinnie Dellefave, Rutgers
6. Angelo Amenta, Columbia

141 pounds
1. Richard Durso, F&M
2. Mike Nevinger, Cornell
3. Luke Vaith, Hofstra
4. Laike Gardner, Lehigh
5. Todd Preston, Harvard
6. Tyson Dippery, Rutgers

149 pounds
1. Chris Villalonga, Cornell
2. Adam Krop, Princeton
3. Mitch Minotti, Lehigh
4. Cofy Ruggirello, Hofstra
5. Ken Theobold, Rutgers
6. Victor Lopez, Bucknell

157 pounds
1. Nestor Taffur, Boston U
2. Brian Realbuto, Cornell
3. Joey Napoli, Lehigh
4. Ray Bethea, Penn
5. Kevin Moylan, Princeton
6. Marcus Scheidel, Columbia

165 pounds
1. Dylan Palacio, Cornell
2. Joe Booth, Hofstra
3. Casey Kent, Penn
4. Josh Houldsworth, Columbia
5. Peyton Walsh, Navy
6. Mitchell Wightman, Boston U

174 pounds
1. Shane Hughes, Columbia
2. Elliot Riddick, Lehigh
3. Mat Miller, Navy
4. Duke Pickett, Cornell
5. Brian Harvey, Army
6. Phil Bakuckas, Rutgers

184 pounds
1. Gabe Dean, Cornell
2. Lorenzo Thomas, Penn
3. Ophir Bernstein, Brown
4. Brett Harner, Princeton
5. Ryan Topkins, Army
6. Zach Hernandez, Columbia

197 pounds
1. Brandon Palik, Drexel
2. Jace Bennett, Cornell
3. Danny Mitchell, American
4. Cody Reed, Binghamton
5. Abe Ayala, Princeton
6. James Fox, Harvard

285 pounds
1. Billy Smith, Rutgers
2. Joe Stolfi, Bucknell
3. Tyler Deuel, Binghamton
4. Blake Herrin, American
5. Jacob Aiken-Phillips, Cornell
6. Max Wessell, Lehigh