Photos by BV
That’s become the theme for the Cornell wrestlers, according to NCAA champion Gabe Dean; a chant the team says at workouts and lives every day.
It has been an interesting offseason for the Big Red, with weight changes, impact freshmen and multiple wrestlers considering taking the year off, including Dean.
“I was thinking about doing an Olympic redshirt,” Dean said. “I watched the World Championships and I saw a little bit of an opportunity there. I had a couple of conversations and was gonna go for it, I was gonna try it. It was kind of a selfish act, but I didn’t want to have any regrets about not taking that opportunity.”
But some time went by and Dean said everything started to change.
“Something really special happened,” he said. “Everybody started doing unselfish things for the team - sacrificing for the team. It all hit at once. Everyone said they were willing to go wherever they needed to go to make the team better.”
What did that mean? A new lineup took shape with Nahshon Garrett to 133. Mark Grey to 141. Dylan Palacio to 157. Duke Pickett to 165. Brian Realbuto to 174.
“I started to see this special thing form and something I hadn’t felt before and that’s no disrespect to the past two Cornell teams I’ve been on,” Dean said. “I’ve never felt this special connection. It’s the definition of a true family for me. If guys are willing to sacrifice for this team to do something truly special this year - and I really believe we have that opportunity - then who am I to not want to be a part of it? At the beginning, I didn’t want to have regrets about not trying to make the Olympic team, but at the same time, I only get two more years to try to win a team national title. Everything seems to be lining up this year. I would definitely have a bigger regret if I didn’t go for it with these guys this year. It became an easy decision for me.”
The feeling Dean described was echoed by junior Mark Grey.
“This year, there’s so much accountability and everyone has really come together,” Grey added. “Last year, it was kind of forced and we didn’t click as well. But this year, pretty much everyone is making a sacrifice. We’re all giving something that I think is going to be huge in the end. We’re all looking at a common goal and ultimately we thrive off each other. There’s so much momentum being created right now. I think it will be hard to stop."
So, with three All-Americans, two others who have made the Round of 12 and two additional NCAA qualifiers back in the fold, Cornell wrestling looks ready for the 2015-16 campaign. New York Wrestling News caught up with head coach Rob Koll to talk about each weight class a little bit more.
Photo by BV
Freshman Dalton Macri had a strong year with the Finger Lakes Wrestling Club in 2014-15, capturing the Binghamton Open title with a finals victory over NCAA qualifier Ben Willeford and notching other quality wins during the campaign, including over 2014 All-American Darian Cruz of Lehigh. Cornell has had an All-American at 125 eight of the past 10 years with Troy Nickerson, Frank Perrelli and Nahshon Garrett. Will Macri keep that streak going?
“I absolutely, 100% believe that Dalton can and should be an All-American,” Koll said. “Dalton looked good last year and we’ve seen in the past that as well as they perform in their Finger Lakes year, our guys all ultimately do significantly better as part of the team.”
“Macri is going to make a huge impression,” added Grey. “He works his butt off every day; does whatever he can for the team. That’s what we ask for. Actually, all the freshmen guys are doing that, trying to get better every day, getting individual workouts with coaches or other guys, always learning.”
Photo by BV
Nahshon Garrett is a three-time All-American with finishes of third as a freshman, second as a sophomore and fifth as a junior. He will look to end his career at the top of the podium in a new weight class in his final year with the Big Red.
“Nahshon struggled with weight last year,” Koll said. “By the end of last year, the cutting took away his best attributes. When you’re athletic like he is, you don’t have to be bigger than everybody else. We all know how good he is; our goal is to keep him strong throughout the season.”
Photo by BV
Mark Grey began last year at 141 pounds and had victories over NCAA qualifiers Todd Preston of Harvard and Sam Speno of NC State. However, after suffering an injury at the Las Vegas Invitational, he missed time and went back down to 133 pounds (where he made the Round of 12 as a freshman). Grey revealed later that he was essentially wrestling with one arm last year, but after a neck surgery in the spring, he’s ready to go.
"We just need to keep Mark healthy this year," Koll said. "He had some good wins at 141 last year and has the ability to do very well at this weight."
“I’m still rehabbing every day, but I’m going live and feeling strong,” Grey said. “I’m trying to get bigger and stay strong throughout the season. I’m not really used to that. I want to keep it rolling the whole way. I’m excited to be back at 141 and be fully committed. Last year, I certified at 133 and I kind of had a picture in my mind that if it didn’t work out, I could always go down. But that’s not the case this year. I’m certifying at 141 and riding it out. I’ll make the best of the situation and get on the podium and try to win that national title for myself and for the team. I’ll help in any way I can.”
Photo by BV
Two wrestlers are battling for this spot - Joey Galasso and Taylor Simaz. Galasso wrestled well for Finger Lakes last year, winning the Millersville Open and taking third at the Edinboro Open. Simaz came out on top in his last two dual meet appearances at 149 pounds for the Big Red last season with wins over opponents from Hofstra and Columbia.
“Joey is extremely physical; he’ll beat you up,” Koll said. “He recovered from a stabbing as a senior in high school. He’s the kind of kid who comes out of the hospital and is wrestling a couple of months later. Just a tough, tough kid. Taylor Simaz has a great pedigree and wrestled well for us. I feel really good at that weight class.”
Photo by BV
It was rumored before the 2014-15 season that Dylan Palacio might be transitioning to 157 pounds. It didn’t happen then, but now the junior is planning to make the move down. A two-time NCAA qualifier at 165, Palacio made the Round of 12 as a freshman and after missing the first part of the season while playing soccer for Cornell, he was eliminated from Nationals in 2015 following a controversial last second takedown call for multi-time medalist Nick Sulzer of Virginia.
“Dylan isn't fully back from surgery yet, but his weight is in a good place,” Koll said. “We have great depth at this class. We have some additional guys we really like there with Jon Jay Chavez and Chris Dowdy.”
Dowdy won last year's Binghamton Open and the NYS Intercollegiate Open division, while Chavez, a member of Team USA in Greco Roman at the Junior World Championships, had top three finishes last year for Finger Lakes at the Mat Town, Clarion and Binghamton Opens.
Palacio offered a little more insight into what his last few months have been like.
“I had a pretty major surgery done in the spring,” he said. “I got hurt at the EIWAs and I had to forfeit out of the finals. I tried to make something happen out of nothing at Nationals. I went in with one injury and came out with more. Could I have taken down Bo Jordan with two arms? Possibly. Could I have beaten Nick Sulzer convincingly with two arms? Absolutely. It was hard to get through that. I experienced it my freshman year and it didn’t make it any easier this time. Some people don’t even come back from that, being so close and not getting through. I’m a believer that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be at every single moment. Things happen for a reason. Minor setbacks stage major comebacks.”
Palacio said his rehab was recently interrupted by another hospital visit (appendix). He’s spent time supporting the soccer team (although he said he isn’t cleared to play) and thinking about the possibilities ahead, which he says are “endless on paper.”
“The lineup we have - it will be really, really tough to beat,” he said. “I feel great; fantastic. I’m eating right and I’m excited.”
When asked if he considered taking the year off, he said he was similar to some of his teammates in that regard.
“I’ve thought about representing Colombia in the Olympics,” he said. “My father came from there with all the turmoil and corruption and now I could go back and represent something different, something greater than that. That would be insane, a kid from Long Beach going up against the best the world has to offer.”
For now, he’s doing conditioning and waiting to find out when he’ll return to the mat.
“I don’t know when I’ll be back,” he said. “It’s the million dollar question. I don’t want to miss anything, especially where I could make the difference for the team. I’m just staying the course and trying to remain optimistic about the whole thing. It’s like I’m riding the bike, waiting in the shadows; waiting very patiently to prove the world wrong.”
Photo by BV
Duke Pickett made his first appearance at the NCAA tournament last year at 174 pounds, pushing seeded Cody Walters to the limit in his opener before falling in overtime.
Pickett took third at the EIWAs during a 25-plus win season and will be dropping down a weight class for his final campaign with the Big Red.
“Duke was at 174 because that’s where we needed him,” Koll said. “I think 165 is a better class for him. We also have some talented young men who will compete with Duke, but as a fifth-year senior, he has the edge.”
Photo by BV
Junior Brian Realbuto made the podium in both of his seasons, injury defaulting to sixth as a freshman and following up with a second place showing in 2015.
Those performances came at 157 pounds, but Realbuto will be moving up two classes to 174 for the upcoming campaign. Despite the 17 pound jump, Koll expects him to pick up where he left off.
“Brian has been an All-American both years but that’s obviously not his goal,” Koll said. “He’s a title contender at 174.”
Photo by BV
As discussed, Dean is back. The 2015 NCAA champion will look for title #2 in a weight that brings back all eight All-Americans from last season.
“There’s only one expectation for Gabe,” Koll said. “It’s just a matter of how he goes about getting another championship.”
What are Dean's thoughts about his title defense?
“What drives me and motivates me this year is doing this for 35 other guys and everyone involved with Cornell wrestling,” he said. “I’ve never claimed I’m gonna win anything. I’ll just say that every other guy on this team can always count on me to lay everything on the line for them and everyone I love. And I love this team, there’s something so special about it. I'll lay it all on the line and winning or losing will take care of itself.”
Photo by BV
Who will it be for the Big Red at 197? Koll said it isn’t clear, but he’s pleased with the options.
Owen Scott defeated Jace Bennett last year at the Binghamton Open and was the Cornell starter for the opening dual meet with Oklahoma. He has endured a number of injuries, but looks to have a memorable senior season.
He’ll face plenty of competition, however, as Jake Taylor and Jake Anderson have impressed, while Steve Congenie, currently dealing with injuries, could emerge.
“I’m very, very excited about this weight class,” Koll said. “I’m not remotely worried about it anymore. Owen Scott was thinking about going to 184, but is now back at 197. He’s really good. Jake Taylor is an incredibly tough and hard nosed kid. We have a lot of guys we like at this weight.”
Jeramy Sweany notched second in both Freestyle and Greco at the UWW Junior Nationals at 120 kg. The freshman also topped NCAA qualifier Jacob Aiken-Phillips at the Binghamton Open last season. Aiken-Phillips is set to return for the Big Red in the second semester.
“Jeramy is at 245 pounds - up from 220 last year,” Koll said. “He was respectable last year and he’ll be a lot better this year. We’re excited to see what we can do at heavyweight this year.”
With all the changes, there’s a buzz around the Cornell program, which has finished in the top five at the NCAAs six of the past seven years.
A 10th straight EIWA title is on the line, and, of course, the season ends in New York City with the Nationals taking place in the Empire State.
“We’re going on this journey this year which pretty much ends in our backyard,” Dean said. “I want the guys to enjoy the process this year, enjoy the journey they’re going on with this family. It’s the first time as a family. We have a bunch of guys, not just the starters, ready to do whatever it takes. I can’t tell you this team is favored or has a shot to do this or that in March, but I will say we’re all in and we’re gonna go after it. At the end of the day, win or lose, we won’t have any regrets. We’ll know we gave everything we had. That’s the mentality of every guy on our team. We'll have a good time doing it and see what happens.”
Koll's excitement about what could happen is palpable.
“We believe we will make a real run at Nationals this year,” he said. “Everybody is completely on board. We’re putting all our eggs into this basket. People don’t mention us as a contender, but we have really special kids on this team. I don’t think people realize how good they can be. I’m obviously biased because I see them every day and think the world of them. With this team, we believe we have a real shot to win Nationals.”