Commentary

Cornell offers best of both worlds

Originally Published: January 10, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- There's a mindset that holds that wrestling is an art for which one simply must suffer. A lot, in fact. That misery is essentially half the fun.

[+] EnlargeDake Champ Podium
Lindsey Mechalik Kyle Dake is hoping to make a return trip to the top of the podium at this year's NCAA championships.

Cornell's Rob Koll said he used to coach that way, because that's how he himself had been coached. But it occurred to him that he really wasn't being true to his own personality. He didn't want his wrestlers to run shrieking into spring break, just relieved to get away from the sport that was supposed to be enriching their college experience.

"We're not singing 'kumbaya' every day; it is a brutal sport and practices are darn tough," Koll said. "But if you can add some levity, have some fun, it makes a difference.

"A lot of coaches have adapted the in-your-face, scream-at-your-kid approach. If he continues to struggle, scream louder. It never motivated me as an athlete."

Koll's No. 1-ranked Cornell squad certainly doesn't lack motivation. Sunday, the Big Red won the Division I title at the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals at Northern Iowa's UNI-Dome.

Cornell won 25-10 in the final over No. 7 seed Virginia Tech, which previously had upset No. 2 seed Oklahoma State and No. 3 seed Wisconsin. Defending NCAA champion Iowa -- the powerhouse just 90 miles away in Iowa City -- opted not to compete in the National Duals, a decision that wasn't very popular with the rest of the participants. (More on that in a bit.)

With the Hawkeyes absent, Cornell was the clear favorite. And the Big Red delivered convincingly, beating Ohio State 27-6 and No. 8 seed Missouri 18-15 on Saturday, then No. 4 seed Minnesota 20-16 and the Hokies 25-10 on Sunday.

Cornell, picked as the preseason No. 1, hopes to become the first Ivy League school to win the team title at the NCAA championships, which date back to 1928. The Big Red were second to Iowa last season and return an individual national champion in sophomore Kyle Dake. He's a native of Ithaca, N.Y., growing up in nearby Lansing.

"I've lived 5 miles from the Cornell campus my entire life," said Dake, who won his NCAA title at 141 pounds in 2010 and now wrestles at 149. "I pretty much always knew I wanted to go there."

Meanwhile, another Cornell wrestler, senior Justin Kerber, grew up in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and appeared poised to follow his parents in competing for the Hawkeyes. His father, Jeff, wrestled for Iowa after an undefeated prep career in which he won four state titles. His mother was a gymnast at Iowa. Justin had been a Hawkeyes fan all his life.

"I was basically sure, before my senior year, I was going to wrestle at Iowa," he said. "But I figured if I even looked elsewhere, they had to have something that set them apart. And that was academics. Coach Koll is a fantastic recruiter, and he convinced me to take a visit."

It's paid off for Kerber, who already has a job lined up at Goldman Sachs in New York when he graduates. Kerber's parents are able to attend most meets no matter where the meets are, but having the National Duals in Iowa meant his sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins could come watch him, as well.

"The Cornell wrestling community really is a family, too," Kerber said. "This year, especially, has been really special to be a part of. We're having a blast. Coach Koll has done a good job of emphasizing, 'Why do we wrestle? It's because we get so much enjoyment out of it.'

"He keeps that at the forefront of our minds, because it is a long, grueling season. So we have a joke of the day; practice cannot start until there is one."

[+] EnlargeKoll and Dake Tournament
Lindsey MechalikDake and coach Rob Koll have teamed up to make Cornell the nation's best squad.

Cornell got individual victories in Sunday's final by Dake (149), Kerber (165), Frank Perrelli (125), Corey Manson (141), Mack Lewnes (174), Steve Bosak (184) and Maciej Jochym (197). The Big Red will get even stronger as a team with the return of starters Mike Grey (133) and Cam Simaz (197), currently out with injuries.

Cornell, Oklahoma State, Minnesota and Wisconsin came into the National Duals the top four ranked teams in the National Wrestling Coaches Association/USA Today poll. Iowa, ranked No. 7, has won the past three NCAA team titles, but has a little more inexperienced squad -- by Hawkeyes standards -- this season.

Iowa coach Tom Brands opted not to compete in the National Duals, saying that was best for his team. Nobody could say it was best for the event, though, as the UNI-Dome would have been far more energized with the Hawkeyes faithful present.

"It's a great event," said Boise State wrestler Adam Hall. "But I wish Iowa was here. Their fans would take up that whole section of stands. They bring so much enthusiasm."

As it was, the Hawkeyes had a dual meet at home Friday, sweeping Southern Illinois-Edwardsville 49-0 in a matchup less challenging than an intrasquad competition. It's Brands' prerogative to prepare his team as he sees fit, and the Hawkeyes do have a high-profile dual meet coming up at Oklahoma State on Jan. 16.

Meanwhile, the National Duals went on without them, and the future of this event is uncertain. The NWCA's contract with Northern Iowa ends this year, and there's no doubt Iowa skipping the meet cost the host school financially because it meant fewer tickets were sold.

Furthermore, there has been a lot of discussion about the National Duals -- which currently includes Divisions I, II and III, plus NAIA, junior college and women's divisions -- breaking up and having a Division I-only sanctioned event that would be sponsored by the NCAA.

Some coaches see that as a great way to elevate the National Duals; others prefer to keep all the levels together in the event as sort of a celebration of the nationwide wrestling community.

Koll, whose Cornell teams have won 11 Ivy League titles and produced six NCAA individual champions, acknowledged he was disappointed that Iowa didn't compete this year -- both because of the Hawkeyes' fan support and the program's towering status in the sport. Iowa is always a measuring stick.

Still, Koll enjoyed the chance to compete in Cedar Falls, where his late father, Bill, was a three-time NCAA wrestling champion at Northern Iowa, which was then still known as Iowa State Teachers College.

Rob Koll grew up in State College, Pa., where his father coached at Penn State, and then won an NCAA title himself in 1988 while wrestling at North Carolina. Koll said he'd wanted to go away from home for college, but that it was a jolt to realize that on Tobacco Road, wrestling's prestige wasn't remotely comparable to what it was in the Big Ten.

Koll, in his 18th season as Big Red head coach, has tried to recreate the best of the Midwestern wrestling culture at Cornell … minus a bit of the angst. It's still a long road to an NCAA team championship this season. But if Cornell gets there, it will be particularly gratifying for Koll. He works his wrestlers hard, but with a realistic eye on what is best for them. He doesn't have crack-of-dawn practices. His wrestlers don't need that for discipline.

"I've got kids who are going to be engineers, who are in pre-med, who are studying until 3 or 4 in the morning," he said. "They are going to school for what school is all about, and wrestling is an enhancement to that.

"The two aren't mutually exclusive. You can have wrestling at the highest level and a world-class education. A championship would just be further proof that what we're doing is working."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.