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Big Red come close but still have work to do

The Open Mat 

By Pat Bohn • Correspondent – Ithaca Journal, Original here 

“It would have been a good year to pull off the upset.”

Those were the words of Cornell wrestling coach Rob Koll when asked about the 2009 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships held last weekend in St. Louis, where the second-ranked Big Red came in fifth place in the team standings, 26 points behind repeat champion Iowa.

Cornell had high hopes to be the first Ivy League school to win a national championship, and looking back, the opportunity was there. No school had more than one individual champion or more than five All-Americans. The Big Red finished with one champion — junior Troy Nickerson — and four All-Americans: Nickerson, seniors Steve Anceravage and Jordan Leen, and freshman Cam Simaz.

But a rough first day doomed the Big Red’s chances for a team title. Sophomore Mack Lewnes, who was ranked No. 1 at 165 and 35-0, lost his opening match to Hofstra’s Ryan Patrovich and then was defeated by Purdue’s Luke Manuel in the wrestlebacks. The loss of one of its top wrestlers was too much to overcome.
“I’ve got to hope for guys to wrestle to their seed,” Koll said.

Lewnes had been hampered by illness prior to the tournament, which Koll felt affected his training regimen. Additionally, Patrovich had given Lewnes trouble before, taking him to OT in a match earlier this season.
So while the upset may not have been shocking, it was still damaging.

Even without a team title, the Big Red had plenty of reasons to cheer. Nickerson’s title was four years in the making.
“I’m just trying to enjoy it,” said Nickerson, who said he was flooded with phone messages following the win. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

After placing 2nd in the NCAA’s as a freshman, the Chenango Forks native said he wasn’t intimidated by his surroundings or his competition.

“It wasn’t really in my head,” he said. “I had beat (Indiana’s Angel Escabado) two years ago as a sophomore and I beat (Edinboro’s Paul Donahoe) numerous times in high school.

Koll was also pleased with the way Leen and Anceravage rebounded in the wrestlebacks to help Cornell climb from ninth to fifth in the standings. Leen, last year’s 157-pound champion, finished third while Anceravage was fifth at 174.

“(Leen) had a great tournament,” Koll said. “It would have been easy for him to say, ‘I’ve won my national championship’ and not wrestled as hard.”

Anceravage wrestled so well in the consolation matches — picking up two pins — Koll said he earned almost as many team points as Leen did, despite finishing two spots behind his classmate.

And while they may lament missing a shot a team title, no one at Cornell is scoffing at a Top 5 finish.
“We’re a perennial Top 5,” Koll said. “When ESPN puts up the top finishers, they don’t put up the Top 6. It makes a difference with recruiting and momentum.”

“I believe we’ll be in the hunt (for a championship) next year,” said Nickerson, who may have off-season shoulder surgery. “We have guys returning who are just as talented as the ones we’ve lost.”

Lewnes and Nickerson, arguably Cornell’s top two wrestlers, return next season, as does EIWA Freshman of the Year Simaz, who placed eighth at the NCAA’s. They are just some of the names looking to guide Cornell to the top of the wrestling world.

Fusilli enters the HallIt was nearly two decades ago, but former Ithaca College coach John Murray remembers when Mike Fusilli sealed the team’s national championship in 1990 with a victory in the heavyweight semifinals.

“It was a storybook performance in front of a packed home crowd,” Murray said of Fusilli’s match. “People were sitting on the floor, and (former Ithaca College President) James Whalen was standing behind the coaches. I’ve never seen Ben Light Gym so full.”

Fusilli would go on to win the championship, the only Ithaca wrestler to do so that year.

Little did those fans know, they were watching a Hall-of-Famer at his very best. Fusilli was inducted into the National Wrestling Coaches Association Division III Hall of Fame on March 5 in conjunction with the NCAA Championships. He joins Murray as the only two Bombers in the Hall.

In order to be inducted as a wrestler, you must be a three-time All-American and a national champion, or a two-time national champion. Fusilli’s 1990 victory put him in the first category.

Now a part-time assistant with the Bombers, Fusilli was surprised when he learned of his nomination, in part due to Ithaca’s rich wrestling history.

“It was very humbling because of all the great student athletes that have come through (Ithaca),” he said. “I knew I met the criteria, but you’re nominated against all these other wrestlers, and I had fallen out of touch with many of the coaches.”

Current Ithaca coach Marty Nichols, a teammate of Fusilli’s, and the one who nominated him, wasn’t as shocked.

“It’s awesome that he got in there,” Nichols said. “He’s certainly deserving.”

“I probably watched all his matches,” Nichols added. “He was a lot of fun to watch. He was a lightweight wrestling heavyweight.”

Although he’s now National Sales Manager for Worldwide Sports Supply in Vestal, Fusilli relishes the time he can spend with the current Ithaca team.

“I had a tremendous experience as a student and an athlete at IC,” he said. “I jumped at an opportunity to share that with the kids here.”

“(Leen) had a great tournament,” Koll said. “It would have been easy for him to say, ‘I’ve won my national championship’ and not wrestled as hard.”

Anceravage wrestled so well in the consolation matches — picking up two pins — Koll said he earned almost as many team points as Leen did, despite finishing two spots behind his classmate.

And while they may lament missing a shot a team title, no one at Cornell is scoffing at a Top 5 finish.
“We’re a perennial Top 5,” Koll said. “When ESPN puts up the top finishers, they don’t put up the Top 6. It makes a difference with recruiting and momentum.”

“I believe we’ll be in the hunt (for a championship) next year,” said Nickerson, who may have off-season shoulder surgery. “We have guys returning who are just as talented as the ones we’ve lost.”

Lewnes and Nickerson, arguably Cornell’s top two wrestlers, return next season, as does EIWA Freshman of the Year Simaz, who placed eighth at the NCAA’s. They are just some of the names looking to guide Cornell to the top of the wrestling world.

Fusilli enters the Hall
It was nearly two decades ago, but former Ithaca College coach John Murray remembers when Mike Fusilli sealed the team’s national championship in 1990 with a victory in the heavyweight semifinals.

“It was a storybook performance in front of a packed home crowd,” Murray said of Fusilli’s match. “People were sitting on the floor, and (former Ithaca College President) James Whalen was standing behind the coaches. I’ve never seen Ben Light Gym so full.”

Fusilli would go on to win the championship, the only Ithaca wrestler to do so that year.

Little did those fans know, they were watching a Hall-of-Famer at his very best. Fusilli was inducted into the National Wrestling Coaches Association Division III Hall of Fame on March 5 in conjunction with the NCAA Championships. He joins Murray as the only two Bombers in the Hall.

In order to be inducted as a wrestler, you must be a three-time All-American and a national champion, or a two-time national champion. Fusilli’s 1990 victory put him in the first category.

Now a part-time assistant with the Bombers, Fusilli was surprised when he learned of his nomination, in part due to Ithaca’s rich wrestling history.

“It was very humbling because of all the great student athletes that have come through (Ithaca),” he said. “I knew I met the criteria, but you’re nominated against all these other wrestlers, and I had fallen out of touch with many of the coaches.”

Current Ithaca coach Marty Nichols, a teammate of Fusilli’s, and the one who nominated him, wasn’t as shocked.

“It’s awesome that he got in there,” Nichols said. “He’s certainly deserving.”

“I probably watched all his matches,” Nichols added. “He was a lot of fun to watch. He was a lightweight wrestling heavyweight.”

Although he’s now National Sales Manager for Worldwide Sports Supply in Vestal, Fusilli relishes the time he can spend with the current Ithaca team.

“I had a tremendous experience as a student and an athlete at IC,” he said. “I jumped at an opportunity to share that with the kids here.”

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