“This year I think we’re going to win the national title.”
When asked to provide a forecast for the upcoming season for LighthouseWrestling.com, that was one of the first statements to come out of the mouth of Cornell University head coach Rob Koll.
In my years of interviewing Coach Koll, I have always appreciated his refreshing candor. In a sport where many coaches speak only in press-release platitudes, Koll can be counted on for honest assessments of his wrestlers and opponents, with quotes that are the dream of any wrestling writer – and fan.
Koll’s opening comment isn’t an idle boast. It was made quietly, without bragging. In fact, Koll tempered his statement by following up with, “I’m very optimistic. I’ve been here 22 years, and, this year, it’s a very different feeling.”
Wrestling media shares the optimism
It’s a feeling backed by at the wrestling media. At least four major amateur wrestling websites — WrestlingReport.com, TheOpenMat.com (TOM), D1CollegeWrestling.net (D1CW), and InterMat — have Cornell at the top of their preseason team rankings.
What’s more, these websites have two Big Red wrestlers at the top of their respective weight classes: senior Mack Lewnes is ranked No. 1 at 174 pounds, and Cam Simaz, a junior, is first at 197. The rest of the Cornell roster is well-represented in all three rankings as well:
- 125 pounds: Junior Frank Perrelli, ranked 11th by TOM, 12th by D1CW and WrestlingReport
- 133: Mike Grey, the senior, ranked 5th by TOM and WrestlingReport, 6th by D1CW
- 149: Sophomore Kyle Dake, second-ranked by all three websites
- 165: Justin Kerber, a senior, ranked 7th by TOM and D1CW, 9th by WrestlingReport
- 184: Sophomore Steve Bosek, listed 5th by WrestlingReport, 6th by TOM, 7th by D1CW
Cornell matmen also rank among the top in the nation in LighthouseWrestling.com’s unique Division I Power Rankings, which provide a single ranking for wrestlers across all weight classes, based on various performance factors using a proprietary formula. In its preseason Power Rankings of the top 25 wrestlers in the nation, Lighthouse has Mack Lewnes ranked second (with 17.28 Power Points)… Kyle Dake is third, with 16.79… and Cam Simaz is listed ninth, with 12.97.
Traditional wrestling magazines also expect great things from Cornell’s individual wrestlers and as a team. In its September 28, 2010 issue, WIN (Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine) has the Cornell program at the top of its preseason Tournament Power Index, saying, “Even with 2010 champ Kyle Dake moving up to 149, the Big Red will have three probable finalists (the others being Mack Lewnes and Cam Simaz.)”
As for individual wrestler rankings, WIN and Wrestling USA magazines are very much in sync with the major amateur wrestling websites. Both publications have Lewnes and Simaz at the top of their weight-by-weight listings… with Wrestling USA naming Kyle Dake as the top pick at 149 pounds. (They have Darrion Caldwell No. 1 at 157.) Other Cornell wrestlers making the magazines’ lists: Frank Perrelli (ranked 13th by WIN, 14th by Wrestling USA at 125 pounds)… Mike Grey (listed fifth by both magazines at 133)… Kyle Dake (ranked second by WIN at 149)… Justin Kerber (ranked 6th by WIN, 7th by Wrestling USA at 165), and, at 184, Steve Bosek (listed 5th by Wrestling USA, 9th by WIN.)
Big Red respect
Cornell has long been a highly respected wrestling program. The Ivy League school in Ithaca, New York has had four NCAA All-Americans each year for the past six years.
At the national championships the past half-dozen years, the Cornell program has earned a place among the top ten teams every year but one. Last season, the Big Red came in second in the team standings at the 2010 NCAA Division I championships in Omaha, behind the University of Iowa, who won its 22nd team title.
Last season was a magical one for Cornell in a number of ways. The team won the 2010 EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) team title with five individual champs: Troy Nickerson, Mike Grey, Kyle Dake, Mack Lewnes, and Cam Simaz. (All but Nickerson will be returning for the 2010-11 season.) In addition, the amateur wrestling website InterMat named Dake its Freshman of the Year for his tremendous rookie year capped by winning the 141-pound national title, becoming the first true freshman to win an NCAA crown since 2006. What’s more, InterMat honored Rob Koll as its 2010 Coach of the Year.
Building a successful team by building in character
Coach Koll has said, “We have all the planets and stars aligning for us right now.” However, the great expectations for Cornell for the 2010-11 season are not based solely on cosmic forces, but, instead, in large part, the result of hard work… and thoughtful recruiting.
“I always look ahead about 3-4 years,” Koll told LighthouseWrestling.com for this forecast. “Decisions made in the past are now reaping dividends.”
Decisions as to who to recruit are fundamental to the success of the program, not just in the short-term, but also for ensuring the long-range health of Cornell wrestling.
“In deciding whether to recruit a wrestler, I look at his character,” said Koll. “I don’t simply recruit for next year, but with long-range plans in mind. I don’t view this job as a stepping-stone. I know that I’ll be here in 20 years. I don’t want to do anything to compromise the future of this program.”
“This is a team that is built on talent and character. These are the kinds of young men that I would want my own children to be.”
Koll continued, “If you take care of each individual, the team will take care of itself… Goodness is contagious. Bring in guys with the right work ethic and character, and it attracts others just like them. It builds upon itself.”
The result? Wrestlers who are more content with where they are, and, therefore, work harder to make their team to be stronger and more successful today… and into the future. In commenting on the stability of the program, Koll said in a late September appearance on Takedown Radio, “We haven’t had a kid who’s quit our team in the past 4-5 years.”
Coach Koll likes to point out, as an Ivy League school, Cornell has recruiting challenges beyond those faced by wrestling programs at most other private colleges, not to mention large public universities with their more relaxed academic standards.
“In terms of recruiting talented wrestlers, we have far more disadvantages than advantages,” Koll told LighthouseWrestling.com. “The financial issues for a student to go to Cornell are a big hurdle right off the bat, as well as the demanding academics.”
“That said, we know that our students can handle it; they can succeed academically, as well as on the mat. It shows you can win with students who can do the work.”
As Koll said in an interview with TheOpenMat.com in late April of this year, “For a school like Cornell to win the title, everything has to go right. We don’t have the depth that some other school might have, so there is simply no room for error. Next year is the first time that I feel we actually have a little depth and we also have the ‘star power’ to put more than a few into the finals. Obviously there are many obstacles that we need to hurdle, but it is an exciting time for everyone associated with our program.”
All that said, Koll acknowledges the advantages the Cornell wrestling program can claim. “We get great support from the administration, as well as from the alumni community,” Koll told LighthouseWrestling.com. “We have tremendous financial resources… We are blessed with great assistant coaches, too.”
“We work really hard to make our advantages work for us.”
Rob Koll’s candor and willingness to openly share his opinions extends to his roster of wrestlers. In his Cornell Wrestling News newsletter released in early September, Koll provided a weight-by-weight assessment for the upcoming season. Among the highlights:
- 125 pounds: “In last season’s preview, I said Frank Perrelli was an All-American caliber wrestler. He looked like one, as a part-time starter with a 21-5 record… I expect Frank will continue the streak of 125 pounders on the NCAA podium for Cornell.”
- 133: “Mike Grey accomplished several things last season, including his first EIWA title and 100th win… This year, I expect he will finish his career with a second All-American honor and be in the hunt for the title.”
- 149: “You might say Kyle Dake had a fabulous freshman year… He will be a very good-sized 149 pounder and there is no reason to expect anything less than the success he had last season.”
- 165: “Those who know Justin Kerber’s history on this team may be surprised that he will be at the same weight class for the second consecutive year. It took him a while to adjust to the 165 weight class as a junior but he really turned it on in March, especially at the NCAAs. He fell about one second short of his All-American goal, which I believe he will achieve.”
- 174: “All I can really say is Mack Lewnes is really, really, really good. We all know what he expects to do this year.”
- 184: “… Steve (Bosak) saw how good he could be at the NCAAs last year, and this should be a breakout season for him.”
- 197: “Cam Simaz had 32 bonus point victories last year… He was third at nationals in 2010 and should finish a few spots higher this time around.”
What the upcoming season holds for the team
Cornell’s 2010-11 season starts November 19 at home, when the Big Red welcomes Central Michigan University, currently the most successful program in the Mid-American Conference (MAC). Over the course of the season, Cornell’s wrestlers will take on a wide range of opponents in dual meets, and participate in tough tournaments such as the Las Vegas Invitational, the Southern Scuffle, and the 2011 National Duals.
When asked to talk about some of the tougher teams he expects his wrestlers to face during this season, coach Koll said, “Oklahoma State is very underrated – they have as much talent as anybody. Boise State has a heck of a team. Iowa has a lot of young kids but they’re underrated. Oklahoma has been quietly amassing some talent and power. Minnesota has some real holes, but considerable talent. Wisconsin will score a lot of points.”
The National Duals – held at the University of Northern Iowa January 8-9, 2011 — is one event where Cornell expects to face many of the traditional powers of NCAA Division I college wrestling… except the University of Iowa. In September, when the Hawkeyes unveiled their upcoming schedule, the National Duals were nowhere to be found. In explaining his decision not to have Iowa participate in the event for the first time in decades, head coach Tom Brands told Takedown Radio’s Scott Casber, “We support Mike Moyer (president of National Wrestling Coaches Association) and the NWCA in their energy to change to a real National Duals. Right now, it’s an invitational, and we’re not ready to commit to that kind of event.”
When asked for this article about Iowa’s decision, Rob Koll responded, “You’ve got every program, every organization, even Iowa fans asking for Iowa to be there. Everyone expects Iowa to be there. Iowa is the premiere program in college wrestling. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s a major event. It’s a huge moneymaker for the NWCA and for Northern Iowa. It gets TV coverage. What will it look like on TV to have 3,000 fans instead of 10,000?”
“It’s important to the sport of wrestling. It is the National Duals – THE national dual meet championship. Shame on any program that doesn’t participate.”
Not one to mince words, Koll concluded, “It’s a stupid decision, a short-sighted decision.”
Looking forward… by looking back
In his season preview newsletter, Koll expressed considerable optimism for his team’s situation: “I am certain no Cornell team has ever returned to campus in such great shape… No other Cornell team has had the luxury of such an abundance of talent. In the past we have spoken of having the ability to win the NCAA team championship. This year, we expect to win the NCAA team championship.”
Yet, after more than two decades of college coaching, Koll is very much a realist. As he told LighthouseWrestling.com, “We definitely have a target on our back. It’s the greatest thing for us. It doesn’t hurt. Winners thrive on pressure, losers use pressure as an excuse.”
Rob Koll is also something of a wrestling historian as well; after all, he is the son of Bill Koll, a legendary three-time NCAA champ at Northern Iowa in the late 1940s who went on to coach at his college alma mater and Penn State. With that legacy, the current Cornell coach realizes the historical implications if the Big Red wrestlers bring home the national mat title. It has been nearly 60 years since an Eastern team (Penn State) claimed the crown. As Koll told TheOpenMat.com, “The NCAA team title has not resided on the east coast since 1953 and I believe it would be a great thing, not only for Cornell but for wrestling in general, for Cornell to bring home the championship.”
Photos of 2010 EIWA Championships