February 21, 2001: Sports

Getting off the mat Wrestling reverses fortunes of program; again garners top academic honors

X-tremely Elias

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Ryan Bonfiglio locks up the competition. Photography: Beverly Schaeffer

Getting off the mat
Wrestling reverses fortunes of program; again garners top academic honors

In 1993, Princeton announced that it would discontinue the school's varsity wrestling program. Tiger wrestlers had grappled formidably with opponents since 1905, but the university's decision appeared to be the lone adversary
capable of pinning the proud program to the mat.

Soon after, Princeton alumni stepped forward and rallied to support the program, raising sufficient funds to keep the program afloat. And the university trustees allowed the team to maintain its varsity status and continue to compete in the Ivy League, without the financial backing of the university. Eric Pearson '87 assumed the role of head coach, and the wrestling program was credited with an escape. (See story on page 18 for more details.)

In 1997, Pearson and the alumni handed the coaching reins over to Mike New. Now in his fifth season as head coach, New has seen his Tigers muster a 7--4 record heading into Ivy competition this season. Though the team's recent successes highlight a remarkable comeback, New claims he never doubted that the program would eventually flourish. He reflects with tremendous gratitude on the support alumni have provided, but prefers to remain in the present when discussing his wrestlers.

"Our object is to be the very best we can," New, who graduated from Cornell in 1992, says. "To wrestle at Princeton is an opportunity, not a foregone conclusion. We expect success because that is the way we approach things. We work hard to get stronger. We work hard to get quicker. We work hard to get better. Fortunately, we have great kids in our program who belong at Princeton.

"Our alumni have been huge. Their support has been phenomenal. They are hard-core, dedicated alumni who are very thankful for the experience they had at Princeton. I hope I can make the alumni as proud of me as I am to be representing them."

Last year's team struggled through a 3--10 season. Two of its top wrestlers, Juan Venturi '02 and Ryan Bonfiglio '01, took a year off -- Venturi in Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Center -- while veterans Chris McLaughlin '01 and Joe Rybacki '01 lost most of the season to injury. With those four back in the fold, Princeton is poised for a strong year.
Bonfiglio, a first-team All-Ivy selection in 1998, was recently named the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Wrestler of the Week. He upset Matt Lackey (ranked ninth nationally) of the University of Illinois 3--2 in the 165-pound weight class at the North Carolina State dual meets. Bonfiglio went on to post a 3--0 record at N.C. State and is 15--5 overall this season.

"Having Bonfiglio and Venturi back obviously helps, but I think everyone being a year older and more mature has made the biggest difference," New says. "The approach guys like [Jeff] Bernd '01, [Scott] Pasquini '01, [Joe] Clarke '03, and [Greg] Parker '03 take to practice every day manufactures success.

"Last year we took a lateral step instead of a step forward. Without those four guys, who were starters the year before, it was tough. But this year, it's as if we've taken a leap forward. That's due to young wrestlers getting experience last season."

Though claiming its first Ivy League championship since 1986 would give the team and its supporters a fresh taste of satisfaction, the wrestling program has a more significant title to defend. For the past four seasons, they've been wrestling's academic national champions. The 1999--2000 Tiger grapplers posted a team grade-point-average of 3.3735 -- tops in the country for the fourth consecutive year. This achievement proves that the intense work ethic and tenacity of New's squad isn't restricted to the confines of the Class of '58 Wrestling Room.

New plans on using his top wrestlers for all Ivy League competition, but will allow some younger talent to compete in nonconference matches, hoping to pursue the Ivy League championship while at the same time building the overall strength of the program.

"Maybe I'm not the best guy to give predictions, but I expect to win the Ivy and EIWA championships," New says. "I want to produce some All-Americas and have kids wrestling for the national championship. These kids deserve it, as do all the alumni who have supported us -- guys like Clay McEldowney '69, John Orr '85, and Bill Fortenbaugh '58, just to name a few.
"This university should be proud of our program. We produce great student-athletes."

By Mark Gola
Mark Gola is a frequent contributor to PAW.


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Photography: Larry French

X-tremely Elias

Former Ivy League Player of the Year and five-year NFL veteran Keith Elias '94 completed a four-week training camp for the New York/New Jersey Hitmen on January 29. While the name sounds like a spin-off from the HBO series The Sopranos, the Hitmen are one of eight teams in the XFL, a brand-new professional football league co-owned by NBC and the World Wrestling Federation.

According to the commercials on NBC, the XFL is "the toughest football ever played." According to Vince McMahon, the creative force behind both the WWF and XFL, "this will not be a league for pantywaists and sissies." According to Elias, who served as a backup running back for the NFL's New York Giants and the Indianapolis Colts from 1994 to 1999, it's a chance to impact a football team again.

"I'm really excited to play again," the former Tiger says. "It was great to play in the NFL, but in the NFL my career has been characterized by backing up Hall of Fame running backs. This is a situation where it will be fun just to be able to play again and be able to get on the field and actually contribute offensively."

Elias, a two-time consensus first-team All-America who set 21 school records at Princeton, was not picked in the 1994 NFL draft, but he signed with the Giants and made the roster because coach Dan Reeves liked his intensity. His stint with the Giants ended in December 1996, when the running back tore a ligament in his knee. In 1998 he resurfaced with the Colts, playing primarily on special teams. But on February 11, 2000, Elias's NFL career came to a crashing halt. Four days after he, his two brothers, and New York Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet were arrested in connection with a bar fight in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, the Colts released Elias from his contract. Though the timing seems to indicate otherwise, Elias says he was a victim more of the NFL's salary cap than the incident at the bar.

"It really had nothing to do with [the fight]," Elias explains. "In the NFL, they have minimum salaries based on years in the league. Now that I've reached veteran status, my minimum salary was really too high for teams to be able to fit me under the cap as a nonstarter. I talked to [Colts president] Bill Polian during the year, and I asked him point-blank when and if he was going to bring me back, and he told me the reason why he couldn't bring me back was the salary cap."

So Elias is taking his game to the XFL, where he says the quality of play is fairly high. "Pretty much everybody that's here has either been in an NFL camp or been on an NFL roster for a while," Elias says. "The quality level is far beyond college. The guys who start in the NFL are the greatest players in the world. But basically, the guys in this league are every bit as good as any backup in the NFL. It's a much quicker game, in terms of the pace of the game . . . we have a 35-second (play) clock, not a 40-second clock. They never rekick a punt or a kickoff; they just assess the penalty and keep the game going. I love it."

The XFL promises to offer an in-your-face brand of football. The league has made alterations to several NFL rules that govern on-field play and celebration. The most publicized rule change has been the abolition of the fair catch on punt returns, where in the NFL a player can raise his hand and the coverage team must allow the player to catch the ball unfettered. It sounds like a minor change, but not to Elias, who caught one punt in an XFL preseason game. "It is unreal," Elias says. "The punt that I caught was a real short punt, and I ran up to get it and got absolutely blasted. I actually believe that my particular punt is going to be the commercial for the no fair-catch rule."

Unlike many in the XFL, Elias is not playing for a chance to return to the NFL, but he wants to always stay involved in football in some way. "The younger guys are looking for this to be a stepping-stone into the NFL." Elias explains. "But a guy like me, I'm looking at it to have fun. Whatever happens for me happens. If the NFL happens, I certainly wouldn't balk at that, but it's not something that's on my mind."

By Phillip R. Thune ‘92

Phillip Thune is a freelance writer in New York.


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Academic All-Ivy selections were recently announced for the fall athletic season. Princeton honorees included seniors Emily Brown (soccer), Jenny Lankford (soccer), Kellie Maul (field hockey), Melanie Meerschwam (field hockey), Kristi Rosso (cross country), Geoff Gasperini (sprint football), Chris Gratian (water polo), Michael Higgins (football), and Mike Piazza (sprint football), and junior Marshall Roslyn (water polo).

Jesse Marsch '96 and Jacob Dowden '96 were the top vote-getters for the GoPrincetonTigers.com All-Decade Men's Soccer Team. Others named to the squad include Jason White '03, Chad Adams '00, Griff Behncke '00, Graeme Rein '02, Andrew Lewis '98, Andre Parris '97, Joe Thieman '94, David Hocher '93, and Mike Nugent '02. Voting was open to the public and was conducted on the university's official athletic Web site.

Freshmen Konrad Wysocki (men's basketball), Gretchen Anderson (women's ice hockey), and Megan Van Beusekom (women's ice hockey) were each named Ivy League Rookie of the Week in January.

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