Abram Ayala ’16 (Office of Athletic Communications)
Abram Ayala '16 (Office of Athletic Communications)

Princeton wrestling awards the Triede Trophy each year to the member of the team “who by his spirit, ability, and sportsmanship has contributed most to the sport.” Last year, that privilege went to Abe Ayala ’16, who had a standout sophomore season in the 197-pound bracket. His 27-win season included a fifth-place finish at the EWIA Championships, which clinched a debut appearance at the NCAA Championships.

“Last season felt like a dream,” Ayala said.

The dream followed a freshman campaign that was more like a nightmare for Ayala, who was dismissed from the team late in his first season. Ayala admitted that as a rookie, he invested a lot into the season too early on and in the wrong places. He said that he didn’t account for the jump from high school to college wrestling.

Ayala also was cutting a lot of weight. He walked onto campus weighing around 190 pounds, but started the season wrestling at 165. He was locked in a position battle for the starting spot, and he wrestled poorly in his first tournament.

“After that performance in the first tournament, I was losing morale,” Ayala said. “And with the combined pressure of the wrestle-off, I kind of mentally broke, that’s the bottom line.”

He decided to try to come back at 174 pounds and challenge then-junior Ryan Callahan for the starting spot. Ayala beat him by a point without realizing that he had torn his meniscus in his left knee before that matchup, an injury that required surgery.

Spurred by the chance to challenge for the spot at 174 again, Ayala had surgery on his birthday in late January. He was quickly back out on the mats, but by that point in the season, Callahan was doing so well that the coaches decided to skip the wrestle-off. Ayala and the coaches “kind of fell out,” he said; he was dismissed from the team that spring. For Ayala, however, it may have been a blessing in disguise.

“I was a point in my career where I had to rethink the way I thought about wrestling, rethink the way I thought about training, rehab my knee,” he said. “I decided at that point I wasn’t going to cut any weight anymore, so I knew I had to get a lot bigger, a lot stronger, [and] maintain all my athleticism. I was going to do a complete overhaul of myself as a wrestler that spring.”

After a summer of training, Ayala came back to try out again for the team. But he returned very much changed from when he had left. He was a lot bigger, a lot stronger, and up four weight classes (32 pounds) to the 197-pound spot. Perhaps even more importantly, he shed a mentality that had somewhat stuck with him since high school.

“I started [wrestling] sophomore year of high school, and a lot of these kids had been winning national championships before I even knew wrestling was a sport,” Ayala said. When up against certain opponents, he would doubt himself and wouldn’t put on his best performance because he didn’t expect to win.

Last year changed everything: Ayala emerged as one of the most successful Tigers on the roster, winning 14 of his last 16 regular season bouts and realizing a goal of competing in NCAAs. This year, however, Ayala has set the bar much higher.

“Now, that’s not even the goal,” Ayala said. “I want to be an All-American this year.”

Princeton has the potential to send more Tigers to the national stage this season. Senior Adam Krop has picked up a few hard-fought battles early in the 149-pound spot, including in a win for the former NCAA qualifier in Princeton’s home opener on Friday, a 20-16 loss to Binghamton. Rookie Jonathan Schleifer, the 2014 New Jersey state champion, adds fresh talent to the 165-pound position. He scored an impressive second-place finish at the Binghamton Open in November and a win in the Tigers’ home opener as well.

Princeton (3-2) has a long winter season for Ayala and his teammates to lay the foundation for the all-important EIWA Championships in March, but the Tigers, especially Ayala, have high expectations.

“This season I expect to go out there and beat everyone I wrestle,” he said. “And if I win it’s a non-event, and if I lose it’s a tragedy.”

Quick Takes

Despite a 14-point, nine-rebound game from senior Hans Brase, the men’s basketball team blew an 11-point lead against Cal in Berkley on Saturday in a 57-67 defeat. Cal held Princeton scoreless for a 9:36 stretch in the second half, reflective of the scoring droughts that have brought the Tigers to 3-8 on the season. Princeton will return home this Friday to host Lipscomb (4-5) in Jadwin Gymnasium.

Women’s basketball added another win to its hot winning streak with a dominating 96-58 victory over Binghamton on Saturday at home, bringing the Tigers to 10-0 on the season, the most Ivy League women’s basketball consecutive victories to kickoff a season. Junior Michelle Miller made all four of her three-point attempts and went 6-11 from the field. Senior Blake Dietrick put up 19 points and six assists as well. Princeton hits the road on Tuesday to face off against Delaware.

Men’s hockey was no match for No. 3 Minnesota State and dropped a 5-0 defeat on Friday on the road. Minnesota State, which has the third-best offense in the country, regained control after Princeton jumped out to a 6-1 shot advantage early on in the first period. Princeton was scheduled for a rematch on Saturday, but the game was canceled because several of Minnesota’s players had come down with the flu and the Wolverines were unsure if they could put a full team on the ice. Princeton returns to play Quinnipiac twice in the weekend after Christmas.