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After starting the season with a less-than-stellar record and several injuries, the Harvard wrestling team has finally recovered and is now peaking at the most crucial time of its season.
This weekend is the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) championship tournament, which will be held in Ivy-champion Cornell’s brand new Friedman Wrestling Center. The competition is the finale of a tumultuous season.
The Crimson began the year with high expectations. Ranked third in the EIWA and 25th in the nation, the team felt its strong senior core and possible future Olympian—junior co-captain No. 3 Jesse Jantzen (149 lbs.)—would lead it to its second-ever conference championship.
But then again, things don’t always turn out as expected.
Early, season-ending injuries to several wrestlers, including sophomore Dan Sirotkin, fellow 197-pounder freshman Danny Jones and junior Max Odom (157 lbs.)—who reinjured the same shoulder that forced him to take a year off the 2001-02 season—stifled the Crimson’s chances to explode out of the gate.
The loss of such important team members was made all the more devastating when the team began the season 0-5, including a loss to a consistently weak Army team.
But when Harvard returned to Cambridge in early February for its first home meet—against East Stroudsburg and No. 24 Hofstra—it finally turned a corner. Led by such late-season standouts such as freshman Max Meltzer (133 lbs.) and senior Robbie Griffin (165 lbs.), the Crimson dominated both teams and left the Malkin Athletic Center confident.
Since that day, the Crimson has gone 4-3 to close out the year with an overall record of 6-8 and a 3-5 conference mark.
But with the weekend’s competition at hand, Harvard has shifted its focus to upstate N.Y.
“Everything depends on this weekend,” said Harvard coach Jay Weiss. “You can throw everything else out because the only thing that matters is this Saturday and Sunday.”
Currently sixth in the conference, the Crimson will have its work cut out. The 13-team conference boasts 18 nationally-ranked wrestlers this season—including Jantzen—and three nationally-ranked teams, No. 4 Lehigh, No. 5 Cornell and No. 21 Penn.
These three teams finished in the top three spots last year, with Harvard trailing as a close fourth.
Still, the tournament is often more about the success of each wrestler than team achievements.
“Bottom line, it is individual,” Weiss said.
Part of the reason the season-ending tournament is so important, is its implications for the NCAA tournament.
This year, the EIWA will send 36 wrestlers to the NCAA championships. The top two finishers in each weight class receive automatic bids and the remaining 16 bids are chosen by the coaches. For Harvard, Jantzen is likely the only wrestler who will not have to have a very strong weekend in order to advance.
This system means that every weight class sends a minimum of two wrestlers to NCAAs, but most send three or four.
125 lbs.—David Germakian
EIWA-No. 5 Germakian (12-7), who finished fifth in last year’s tourney, has proven himself to be a consistent competitor for the Crimson. The senior has never been pinned or lost on a technical fall. So far this year, he has faced all four of his EIWA opponents ranked ahead of him in the conference, and only won once. The victory came in a forfeit from Lehigh’s Mario Stuart. Cornell’s No. 2 Travis Lee will most likely take the crown in this category, and Germakian will have to score several upsets in order to get an automatic bid. There is little chance he will receive a nod from the coaches. Last year, Germakian lost to Lee 10-2 in the quarterfinals.
133 lbs.—Max Meltzer
Meltzer (16-9) has shown the inconsistency common among freshman at times—he pinned Hofstra’s No. 13 Ricky La Forge and was pinned by East Stroudsburg’s Jeff Smith in the same day. But Meltzer, now No. 4 in the conference, seems to have grown steadier. This year he has faced six nationally-ranked opponents, and beaten two of them. His first such victory came against North Carolina’s No. 17 Evan Sola, whom Meltzer defeated 4-3 in the East Stroudsburg Open. Meltzer has also defeated two opponents ranked in the EIWA, including Cornell’s Alejandro Alvarez, who is No. 2 in the conference. Despite his inexperience, Meltzer has a strong shot of making it to the championship match. Neither Penn’s Matt Eveleth or Lehigh’s No. 6 Cory Cooperman were able to score more than a major decision over Meltzer, both of whom he saw early in the year.
141 lbs.—Joe Turilli
The loss of freshman Mike Baria to a leg injury in the team’s final day of competition against Brown provided an unexpected setback. Like Meltzer, Baria struggled early before coming into his own late in the year. Turilli (1-2) has only seen competition once this season. At the East Stroudsburg Open, he defeated Joey Camacho 13-2 in his first match, but lost in the next round and in the consolation match by scores of 7-4 and 7-3, respectively. Still, the weight class remains wide open, with just one EIWA opponent—Army’s No. 12 Phil Sampson—nationally ranked.
149 lbs.—Jesse Jantzen
The record speaks for itself. Jantzen (24-1), the third-ranked wrestler in the nation, has lost just once this season. It came at the hands of Arizona State’s No. 1 Eric Larkin in the semifinals of the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. Jantzen lost to the No. 2 wrestler in the nation—Minnesota’s Jared Lawrence—during the NCAA tournament last season, where he placed third. This was the best finish for a Harvard wrestler since 1953. Last year’s EIWA champion, Jantzen should have no problem repeating the feat. He has only trailed an EIWA opponent once this year and has defeated five nationally-ranked wrestlers. Even if Jantzen does not get the automatic bid, he will almost assuredly receive the nod from the coaches. His biggest threats are Cornell’s No. 9 Dustin Manotti and Penn’s No. 19 Jody Gluricich, whom Jantzen beat by major decision and technical fall, respectively.
157 lbs.—Jon Mankovich
The emergence of Mankovich (4-3) as the go-to guy at this weight class has been a bit of a surprise for the Crimson. The team originally expected Odom to fill the spot, but lost him to a shoulder injury incurred during a preseason tournament several Harvard wrestlers participated in. Following Odom was freshman J.T. Young, who was also injured in the early going. Co-captain Nick Picarsic quickly filled the void, but Weiss opted to go with Mankovich, a sophomore, at the weight class after the two split time on the mat. So far this year, Mankovich’s toughest conference opponent has been Cornell’s Gabe Webster, who defeated Mankovich 7-2 and is third in the EIWA. Despite his short tenure, Mankovich still had time to defeat Columbia’s EIWA-No. 5 Dustin Tillman. Mankovich benefis from the lack of a dominant force in this weigt class. There is only one nationally-ranked wrestler at 157, Lehigh’s Derek Zinck, but Mankovich must advance deep into the tournament to wrestle beyond this weekend.
165 lbs.—Robbie Griffin
In his last tournament, the senior Griffin (8-11) will look to improve on last year’s fifth-place performance. But such an accomplishment will be extremely tough. He has only beaten one conference-ranked wrestler this year, Cornell’s Scott Roth. Like the team, Griffin has improved dramatically as the season has progressed, but still remains inconsistent and has lost several close bouts, including one to Brown’s Chris Ayer’s 6-4 in OT two weeks ago. Lehigh’s No. 3 Troy Letters should win this category, and Cornell’s No. 14 Matt Palmer will probably meet him in the championship bout. Griffin will probably have to upset one of these wrestlers to make it to the NCAAs.
174 lbs.—Pat O’Donnell
Last year, O’Donnell (16-8) was a coaches’ selection for the NCAA tourney after finishing third in the EIWA tournament at 165 lbs. Currently ranked fifth in the EIWA, the Harvard senior has only won one of four matches against other conference-ranked opponents. The weight class features two national contenders in Lehigh’s No. 7 Brad Dillon and Penn’s No. 20 Matt Herrington. O’Donnell has a lot to prove to the coaches this year and will need a finish similar to last year’s to move on to the next round of competition.
184 lbs.—Eddie Jones
Its been a bit confusing at the top of the wrestling lineup for the past couple of months. Following the injuries to Sirotkin and Daniel Jones (Eddie’s little brother), P.J. Jones (no relation) and Eddie (4-7) have been switching match time between the 184 and 197 lbs. classes. Eddie, a sophomore, will have a very tough time in this year’s tourney. There are four nationally-ranked opponents in this weight class—including two in the top five. Though Eddie did send his match against one of them—Brown’s No. 19 Nick Ciarcia—into overtime, he will have one of the hardest times of all the wrestlers to advance.
197 lbs.—P.J. Jones
In last year’s conference tournament, P.J. (8-12) was elimanted in the first round but did win once in the consolations at 174 lbs. But the jump to 197 may be too difficult. At this weight class, the Harvard junior has won just twice, though he did spend a large portion of the year wrestling at 184 lbs. In his way to a bid, stand Lehigh’s No. 1 Jon Trenge, Cornell’s No. 19 Matt Greenberg and Rutgers’ No. 20 Ryan McGrath.
Following Dawid Rechul’s ’01 EIWA championship and 7th place finish in the national tournament will not be easy. Corl (14-8) must make up for his huge size disadvantage, but is aided by a relatively weak weight class. There is just one ranked opponent in the conference, Penn’s No. 8 Matt Feast. Against wrestlers ranked in the conference, Corl—last week’s Athlete of the Week—has gone 0-4. Though the Crimson sophomore has come on strong in recent weeks—becoming the sixth-ranked wrestler in the conference—he will need to have an outstanding weekend to advance.
—Staff writer Evan R. Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.
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