Harvard wrestling does not often garner as much attention as other sports on campus. But with an escape, a takedown, and a reverse, all of that changed this spring. Co-captain J.P. O’Connor claimed a national title for the Crimson at 157 lbs., making it clear that the small Harvard program belongs on the biggest stage.
“When Jesse [Jantzen ’04 won the national title], I remember him coming in and almost single-handedly raising the program to the next level. With J.P. it was exactly the same,” Crimson coach Jay Weiss said. “He made it clear that you can come [to Harvard] and win.”
Indeed, O’Connor made a habit of winning during the 2009-10 season, going 35-0 as the top-ranked wrestler in his weight class. His final victory, a 6-4 win over Chase Pami of Cal Poly, was a stellar conclusion to a season that often lacked team highlights. Still, although the Crimson (2-14-1, 0-5 Ivy) struggled in the dual season, the entire squad eagerly contributed to the success of all three of its NCAA qualifiers—O’Connor, co-captain Louis Caputo (184), and freshman Steven Keith (125).
“It takes more than one person to win [a championship],” Weiss said. “Guys did great job of staying focused. The dual meet season wasn’t the best, but for J.P. to represent us on the center mat [at nationals] was great for the program.”
Caputo and Keith did not fare as well—falling short of the All-American honors that accompany a top-eight finish—but the number of representatives from such a small team showed just how far Harvard has come.
“This year was a step in the right direction,” O’Connor said. “The sport is such a battle mentally...Everybody is talented and everybody at this level is physically gifted, but we did a better job of coaching on the mental game—going out there and pushing ourselves to be mentally tough.”
This toughness was crucial in a season once again marked by injuries. Although the Crimson opened the dual season with high hopes, when injuries felled senior Andrew Knapp, sophomore Walter Peppelman, and a number of talented freshmen, rookies were forced to step into starting roles immediately. The dual meet record reflected this inexperience, with Harvard falling to Princeton, Penn, Brown, Columbia, and Cornell by a combined score of 183-54 in a difficult Ivy slate. Still, O’Connor pointed out that getting back on the mat was the best way to change this result.
“A lot of guys can wrestle in the practice room...but it’s a different story when you step out on the mat and you’re one of the 10 guys,” the co-captain said. “[Competing] allows these guys to go out and gain that experience early on...With these freshman guys going in, you can only imagine what they’re going to do when they’re juniors and seniors and have 50 bouts under their belts.”
With Keith and former No. 1 junior Corey Jantzen (141) back to lead the way, along with a fully rehabilitated Peppelman, this experience may pay off sooner rather than later. Joined by six more talented recruits, the Crimson will look to rebound in 2011—as long as it can keep 10 grapplers healthy.
“It’s a numbers game,” Weiss said. “Our roster’s so small that when we get someone hurt, we can’t replace that. I think the guys we have on our team are quality people—we’re ranked No. 1 in the country in GPA—but it’s strictly a numbers game...Hopefully in the next couple of years we’re building that depth that we need.”
Certainly, if Harvard can stay on the mat it will have the coaching to become competitive. O’Connor will be joining Weiss on the staff as he trains for the 2012 Olympics, taking time to mentor other Crimson national-championship hopefuls.
“I’ll be doing my best to try to help achieve the goals we set as a team,” O’Connor said. “I’d love to see our team put together a season where we’re able to have our 10 starters step out on the mat together and really see what we can do. I really think we can compete with anybody in the country.”
—Staff writer Max N. Brondfield can be reached at email@example.com.