Wrestling coach Chris Ayres believes in the motivational power of storytelling. In February, his team provided a tale that he plans to use for as long as he’s coaching.
At Boston University Feb. 8, the Tigers trailed 20–3 with four matches to go. To win, they would need to sweep the remaining weights and pick up extra points for pins or major decisions. Ayres juggled his lineup, moving wrestlers to higher weight classes, and they responded with two wins and a pin, narrowing the gap to 20–17.
That placed the spotlight on Abram Ayala ’16, a 197-pounder bumped up to heavyweight, who would be facing one of the Terriers’ strongest competitors. Ayala fell behind early but rallied to take control. A win would have tied the team score, 20–20, but Princeton needed to win by at least seven points to gain a tiebreaker edge. With time running out, Ayala chose a different route, cradling his opponent and turning him on his back for the pin.
“The ref hit the mat, and the place went crazy,” Ayres said. “We gave the kid an impossible task, and he did it.”
This season’s Tigers have made the impossible look routine. A week after the thriller in Boston, Princeton faced similarly long odds at home against Columbia, down 16–7 with three bouts left. But Ayala and 184-pounder Brett Harner ’17 rallied again. Freshman heavyweight Ray O’Donnell locked up the victory, winning an 8–2 decision in a match in which he never trailed.
After struggling to a 2–13 record in 2012-13 with a starting lineup that included six freshmen, Princeton reversed its fortunes dramatically, finishing 2013–14 with its best record in nearly three decades: 11–4 overall and 3–2 in the Ivy League. Only Cornell, the nation’s fourth-ranked team, had better results in Ivy matches.
Ayala, whom Ayres calls the most-improved wrestler he’s ever coached, attributes Princeton’s turnaround to “competing courageously” and motivating one another. In his case, a change in weight class also helped. After shedding more than 30 pounds to compete at 165, he returned to a more comfortable 197 and regained his love of the sport. Ayala was one of six Tigers who finished the regular season with at least 20 individual wins; all six will be back next year.
Ayres has endured plenty of lows in his seven years as coach, including an 0–37 stretch at the beginning that spanned more than two seasons. But even as his best year was drawing to a close, he seemed restless, looking toward his next goal: grooming the program’s first NCAA All-American since Greg Parker ’03. “We have the talent, it’s here,” he said. “It’s going to happen soon. Hopefully it’s this year.”