Cornell looks back after COVID-19 ends season

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What was supposed to be a down year for Cornell wrestling ended up being one of improbable success. Yes, the Big Red failed to win the Ivy League title for the first time in 18 years, but eight wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championships. That’s the highest number for Cornell since 2016.

At the start of the season, Cornell was already down four starters. Andrew Berreyesa, Max Dean, Vito Arujau and NCAA Champion Yianni Diakomihalis all redshirted in an attempt to make the Olympic roster. Diakomihalis and Arujau are still in the running to make it to Tokyo, but it is unknown how the postponement of the Olympics will affect their eligibility at Cornell next year.
Head coach Rob Koll would have loved to have those four on the roster this year, but is completely supportive of their Olympic journeys.

“We have unbelievable depth and we got lucky as heck,” Koll said. “It was a fun year. [The redshirts] are extremely respectful kids, and if we told them, ‘Hey, we need you to wrestle. We don’t want you taking the year off,’ they would have done it. They would have sacrificed their chances of making the Olympic team to help us out but we certainly didn’t want to do that to them. Although, there were times when I was tempted.”

Then the injuries happened. Ben Darmstadt, Brandon Womack and Colton Yapoujian all missed extended time, testing an already strained roster.

“At one point, we had six of our starters out, and we were winning. It was unbelievable,” Koll said. “I can’t tell you I was expecting it, but they did a great job. Every match, somebody else would be the hero. For an individual sport such as wrestling, it was really gratifying to have such a team effort. It was a very tight team.”

The rock of the team this year was senior Chas Tucker. He had never placed at the NCAA Championships, but was a force to be reckoned with this year at 31-0. He ended the season as the third-ranked wrestler in the nation at 133 pounds. Tucker is also one of eight nominees for the Dan Hodge Trophy, which is awarded to the most outstanding wrestler in the nation.

“If you’ve ever met Chas [Tucker], he’s probably got the nicest disposition of any human being on the face of the Earth,” Koll said. “Not only that - he’s a great wrestler. He’s a computer science major. There’s not a single negative thing you could possibly say about the guy. He’s the type of kid you’d want to marry your daughter. That poor kid went 31-0. This was his big shot.”

Of course, that big shot was taken away from him by COVID-19, which caused the cancellation of all winter and spring NCAA Championships.

“I don’t think it was a huge surprise for our guys,” Koll said. “We were hoping that they would go but once the NBA canceled. Cynically, I think the NCAA was holding on for dear life that they can get the basketball championships in, even without spectators. It’s billions of dollars of income. Once the NBA went, I knew that would put the pressure on the NCAA and we crumpled after that.”

With an early end to the season, there’s nothing left to do but acknowledge the success Cornell was able to have this year. The weekend Koll will remember most ended up being the final one.

“Although we didn’t win [the EIWAs], we felt like we did,” Koll said. “I walked out of that match and of all the matches we had, which was about 40, I don’t think there was one match we let slip away. We won every match we should have, and the matches we lost, we just weren’t as good as those kids. I’ve never had that experience in 31 years of wrestling. This was a meet where everyone wrestled above or to their seed.”

Looking forward, the future is incredibly bright for Cornell. With the redshirts expected to be back on the roster, the Big Red will be at full strength once again. They will also add Greg Diakomihalis, the younger brother of Yianni, who won the New York State Championship an incredible five times in high school.

“It’s going to be one of the top three teams we’ve ever put on the mat,” Koll said. “Time will tell if it’s one, two, or three. The good news is, everybody from that team will be back, plus others, the following year. That doesn’t occur very often. We’re very optimistic. It’s really exciting. I’m not going to deny it. I get to live vicariously through these guys every time they step on the mat.”

With the Friedman Wrestling Center at Cornell undergoing renovations, the Big Red will have brand new facilities to house one of the best teams in the nation. After overcoming the odds this year, there is plenty of momentum heading to next season.

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