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For years, Chris Ayres viewed the EIWA Championships as the potential for salvation. Now, he is looking for continuation.
Now in his eighth season as head coach of the Princeton wrestling team, Ayres has worked tirelessly at building depth within this program. It has been a long, arduous process — more long and more arduous than the former Lehigh assistant could have ever imagined — but the results have been there over time.
Those results have typically come for at the EIWA Championships, though. Without a full, strong lineup, it's impossible to have much team success during the regular season. But Princeton has seen more placewinners, a couple finalists and a handful of NCAA qualifiers over the last five championship meets. They have eased the pain of tough regular seasons and kept Ayres' belief that the program was moving forward.
Then came the 2013-14 season.
Even though injuries caused some early-season havoc in the lineup, Princeton finally had the depth to put a strong team on the mat. Losing experiences in past seasons toughened up the returners, and a Top-20 recruiting class landed three starters in key weights. Close losses became narrow wins. Blown leads became incredible comebacks.
And the regular season became a lot more fun.
Princeton went 11-4 this season, marking its first season with both double-digit wins and fewer than five losses since 1980-81. The Tigers placed second in the Ivy League, recorded their first win ever over Binghamton and their first win over Hofstra since 1989. They rallied from 20-3 down for a win at Boston University, and came back from a 16-7 deficit the next week for only their second win in 12 tries against Columbia.
It was the best season during Ayres' tenure at Princeton, but it does not change the importance he puts on this weekend's EIWA Championships (March 8-9 at the Palestra in Philadelphia). Instead of changing the narrative, he wants his team to build on it.
And he wants to continue the program's best season to March 20-22, when the NCAA Championships are held in Oklahoma City.
Princeton will send six underclassmen among its 10 starters to Philadelphia this weekend. Here is a look at the probable Tiger lineup, along with the number of automatic berths to NCAAs available in each weight class. Check back later this week for a video interview with Ayres to provide more inight into both the regular season and the EIWA Championships.
125 (6) – Ryan Cash (6-12)
Cash took over in the middle of the season and won three dual matches during February, though he will enter the EIWA Championships on a four-match losing streak. Cash will fly under the radar in a bracket that offers six qualifying spots, so one significant upset on Day 1 could put him in an interesting position Sunday. After top-ranked Nahshon Garrett (Cornell) and No. 10 David Terao (American), nobody in the field will be in the InterMat Top 20.
133 (4) – Garrett Frey (5-3)
Frey will be one of the biggest wild cards in the entire tournament, much less in Princeton’s lineup. He is one of seven Princeton wrestlers ever to qualify for three NCAA Championships, and he can be the first to go all four years by reaching either the championship or third-place final. Frey has dealt with injuries all season, and that followed a missed 2012-13 season because of injury, so he has wrestled eight matches over the last 23 months. That is a significant layoff, and he has never wrestled at 133 in this tournament; on the other hand, he is a two-time finalist who can see the finish line and has thrived at this tournament.
141 (5) – Jordan Laster (21-19)
The first of three freshmen to make their EIWA debut this weekend, Laster has been a full-season starter at either 133 or 141 for Princeton. While he is one of the six Princeton wrestlers with at least 20 wins this season, Laster might have benefitted the most from the two-week break. He lost seven of his last 10 matches, all of which came by five points or fewer; an early win Saturday could be the shot of confidence he needs to make a push towards a top-five finish.
149 (4) – Adam Krop (28-6)
Krop opened the season as a nationally-ranked starter at 141, but he went 13-2 after being moved to 149 at the start of 2014. He trailed only No. 3 Chris Villalonga in the first set of pre-tournament rankings; Krop lost their regular-season matchup 4-2, and has won all seven of his matches since that defeat. He has the experience of reaching the 2012 NCAA Championships despite a torn ACL, and he has even greater aspirations heading into this weekend.
157 (5) – Kevin Moylan (21-9)
Quietly, Moylan turned an average start this season into a fantastic finish, winning 12 of his final 14 matches. His two losses come to guys who will likely be ranked ahead of him, including Penn’s Raamiah Bethea, who topped Moylan 9-7 in the season finale. That could be a potential quarterfinal matchup, based on the pre-tournament seedings, and Moylan has shown an ability to find the positive side of a close match; eight of his last 12 wins have come by four points or fewer.
165 (5) – Judd Ziegler (24-18)
Ziegler is one of two Princeton wrestlers who are competing at the same weight class in back-to-back EIWAs, and he should be able to build on the experiences of last season. Ziegler has had some important wins this year, including a pair at Harvard and Brown, but he hasn’t put together more than two straight wins since Jan. 4. If there is a time to put together a hot streak, it’s this weekend; furthermore, unlike last year, he won’t open the tournament against a three-time NCAA champion.
174 (3) – Ryan Callahan (17-10)
Callahan is the other same-weight starter at a second straight EIWA championship, and nobody came closer to Nationals last year than he did. After upsetting a Top 15 opponent in his opener, he ended up losing a consolation match by one point that would have sent him to NCAAs. After 11 straight wins, Callahan lost his final four matches of the season; now rested and healthy, he could be one of the most dangerous unseeded wrestlers in the draw.
184 (4) – Brett Harner (24-11)
Harner leads all Princeton freshmen with 24 wins, and he needs three to match Frey’s 2009-10 performance for the best over the last decade. He was fourth in the pre-tournament rankings, and he lost by only three points to Penn’s Lawrence Thomas, who was second in those same rankings. You never know how a freshman will react to EIWAs, but Harner has been in plenty of big competitions, and he could be primed for a breakout weekend.
197 (7) – Abram Ayala (23-8)
Ayala is in the weight class with the most NCAA tournament berths, though he played a big role in helping earn one of them. His bracket will be loaded with tough competitors, but he has shown a determined spirit all season and has been one of the biggest surprises throughout the league. He has lost only one match by more than three points since November, so he will be well suited to deal with a high-pressure, close match.
285 (4) – Ray O'Donnell (16-10)
O’Donnell took over the starting duties at 285 in early January, and he has lost two matches by a total of two points since then. He was injured for the Harvard weekend, which could have given him enough wins to earn a pre-tournament ranking, but his 11-2 major decision over Cornell’s Jacob Aiken-Phillips shows that he has the ability to compete with the best. Heavyweight can be an unpredictable bracket, and O’Donnell could be a tough quarterfinal draw for any higher-seeded opponent.