By Arman Kassam
Despite the smoke, the wrestlers positioned themselves on the mat and then brawled like there was no tomorrow. Stanford wrestling’s first home match of the season took place at the football fan fest against San Francisco State on November 10. Graduate student Rico Stormer (174 pounds), redshirt junior Austin Flores (184 pounds), team captain and redshirt sophomore Nathan Traxler (197 pounds) and redshirt freshman Haydn Maley (285 pounds) ended the slaughterfest with four consecutive pins. Imagine Drake’s “Back to Back,” and then double it; the Meek Mill of San Francisco State could never recover from a jaw-dropping 41-5 dual win like that.
The victory against San Francisco State ended up setting the tone for the first half of the Cardinal season. In the dual series, Stanford clocked six consecutive wins, shattering shields and breaking records. Over Thanksgiving break, the Cardinal took down Fresno State on the Battleship Midway. Redshirt sophomore Requir van der Merwe, dubbed “The South African Tornado,” brought out the big guns when he upset Khristian Olivas with a 9-6 finish, giving us all another reason to give thanks to van der Merwe’s characteristic resilience.
The Cardinal went on to beat No. 11 Northwestern while head coach Jason Borrelli earned his 100th career victory, and then the Cardinal took down No. 22 Utah Valley in a 20-19 close-call that was sealed by Traxler. Harvard was subsequently obliterated at 26-12 and Stanford avenged a tragic 20-21 loss against the “Stanford of the East” from last season.
Things were looking up on the individual level as well; the Cardinal had at least one first-place finisher in each of the first three tournaments of the year. The beginning of an annus mirabilis for Traxler came about when the team captain took fourth place at the notoriously difficult Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational on December 1. He then followed that up with a second-place performance at the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga on January 2.
Freshman Real Woods also shined at the tournament level. At 141 pounds, Woods claimed first place alongside fellow classmates Shane Griffith (165 pounds) and Haydn Maley (285 pounds) at the Princeton Open on November 4, as well as second place at the Southern Scuffle. In late fall, Woods was merely fired up, but by winter he was a firestorm, conquering every opponent at the California, Rocky Mountain and National Collegiate Opens. At the end of his first season, Woods boasted a 22-1 career record with his only recorded loss against No. 4 Nick Lee from Penn State. Freshman Shane Griffith has also been on a roll this season with a 25-2 record and first-place titles from the Princeton, Roadrunner and National Collegiate Opens.
Despite losing in the duals against the likes of CSU Bakersfield, Purdue and Indiana — formidable squads in their own right — Stanford made up for its losses with legendary wins. One of those legendary wins sticks out in particular, and it is perhaps best explained through an enlightened comparison:
My favorite character from “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is introduced as a mysterious wrestler, a blind girl who defies all odds in the WWE of the Avatar Universe (“Welcome to Earth Rumble VI!”). Earthbenders from all over take a crack at beating this “Blind Bandit” but all fail to dislodge the Queen from her throne. In the words of the ever-perceptive King Bumi, the Blind Bandit is one who “waits and listens.” She pauses for a moment, inspects her surroundings, and then strikes when she can detect an opening in her opponent’s defense.
The Blind Bandit is later revealed to be a girl named Toph, an unmatched Earthbender with the ability to sense vibrations in her feet. While Stanford’s wrestling team surely cannot sense vibrations in their feet nor earthbend, they do share something with my favorite character: they wait and listen.
On February 2, the crowd in Burnham Pavilion had passed the point of being “on the edges of their seats.” It seemed inevitable that the Cardinal would lose yet another match to then-No. 9 Arizona State, a gigafactory of talent with the likes of No. 2 Zahid Valencia (174 pounds) and No. 4 Josh Shields (165 pounds). Junior Gabriel Townsell’s (125 pounds) bout was the last of the afternoon. Stanford carried a slim 18-15 lead into this final contest, and by the end of the second period of the bout, it seemed that the Sun Devils would take an 18-18 victory by criteria.
The third period began and Townsell’s opponent, Brady Daniel, managed to maintain a 4-2 lead. A minute was left, then thirty seconds, then only ten. With only eight – eight – seconds left in the final period of the meet, Townsell hoisted Daniel up in the air and took him down, gaining six points in the process and handing the Cardinal the victory.
Just like Toph, Townsell waited and listened for the right time to strike.
Four days later Townsell was named Pac-12 Wrestler of the Week for his historic lateral drop. The Cardinal fell to Purdue and Indiana in an unlucky double contest, but the victory at Burnham reverberated across the rest of the season. It was proof that Stanford could overcome the indomitable, complete the impossible. And they did just that, once more, at Corvallis on February 15.
Wins from redshirt senior Mason Pengilly (133 pounds), redshirt senior Paul Fox (157 pounds), sophomore Dominick Mandarino (165 pounds), Rico Stormer, Nathan Traxler and van der Merwe resulted in the Cardinal’s first ever victory against Oregon State in Beaver territory.
The Beavers were stacked with No. 3 Ronnie Bresser (125 pounds) and No. 4 Amar Dhesi (heavyweight), and yet somehow Stanford was able to pull through for the 19-16 victory. It was the last big win for Stanford before heading into the conference Championships, a notoriously luckless event for the Cardinal.
Like any good underdog story, the Cardinal prevailed with a whole lot of grit and not a lot of breathing room. Stanford beat last year’s champions, the Sun Devils, 81.5 to 79.5 points. Oregon State came in third place with 77.5 points. Both van der Merwe and Traxler were able to clinch individual titles while Mason Pengilly, Brandon Kier, Judah Duhm and Haydn Maley all ended the tournament as runners-up. It’s a testament to the across-the-board skill of the Cardinal that they were able to finish first with only two individual champions. For comparison, Arizona State had three and Oregon State had four.
“I’m extremely proud of all the guys,” said Cardinal head coach Jason Borrelli. “And we fought all day, scrapped. It wasn’t pretty but we got the job done.”
Pengilly, van der Merwe, Traxler, Maley and Townsell all received bids for the NCAA Nationals in Pittsburgh. Traxler advanced to the quarterfinals, but in general the squad did not reap much glory on the national scene. Still, the fact remains that Stanford made history this season, and the medals show it. Nine Stanford wrestlers were placed on the Pac-12 All-Academic team, an honor that is only bestowed on wrestlers that have at least a 3.0 GPA. Paul Fox was named Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year, Jason Borrelli was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year, and Stanford is tied for the third-most NWCA All-Americans (5).
Next year is looking brighter than ever. On May 19, Haydn Maley (130 kg) placed fourth in the Senior Greco Roman tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Shane Griffith (74 kg) came in at second place. Griffith demolished the competition leading to the finals, taking down Aaron Bancroft (Backyard Wrestling Club), No. 6 seed Phillip Conigliaro (Harvard commit) and U.S. Open runner-up Danny Braunagel (Illinois RTC) with technical falls.
Griffith came short of gold in his match against U.S. Open champion David Carr (Iowa State RTC). Both Griffith and Woods will travel to Guatemala City, Guatemala, with the Junior Pan Am team on June 7. Most recently, Gabriel Townsell, the miracle worker, gave Danny Vega a taste of back-to-back technical falls at the U23 Nationals to secure the 57kg Freestyle championship title.
What is most spectacular about this season is not the accolades and achievements that have bedazzled fans and foes alike, but rather the wrestlers themselves. Because so many of them are more than wrestlers: they are students, scholars, visionaries, musicians, friends, family. This is a team that managed herculean feat after herculean feat in the face of final exams and all of the other passions they pursue.
Rico Stormer is a Harvard graduate who grew up on a sheep ranch in Montana and aims to head back there and get into the energy industry. Gabriel Townsell is a rap artist (VII) who opened up for both Blackfest and Frost, and he has also just released a new project, “Act I: R.E.M,” that you should most definitely be listening to right now. Case in point: these are more than just wrestlers, and I’m at a loss for words on how they were able to do it all.
Bobby Pragada, one of my former managing editors, offers an explanation: “There is a mental chess match at work in the ring, simultaneously operating alongside the physical struggle that is obvious to an audience. This is what makes wrestling such an excellent vehicle of individual character. A wrestler must be at the peak of their game in all areas of their life in order to achieve maximum success. The skills gained through wrestling are applicable to a variety of situations that athletes may encounter in their post-wrestling careers.”
Just as wrestlers are more than athletes, wrestling transcends any definition as a sport. It serves as inspiration for participant and viewer. It is a meditation on mortal limits, an engagement that marshals limbs and muscles just as much as it involves character and consciousness. What may at first seem like barbaric clashing is, upon closer inspection, a human poetry. Every lift a line, every reversal a verse.
I thought I was done writing for wrestling this season, so in my last recap I finished this season by saying that what the Cardinal has done has been the stuff of legends. And it was the stuff of legends – every moment seemed to be a piece in a larger and more mythic narrative of warriors who catapulted themselves into stardom. But this season has also been the stuff of wrestlers, real wrestlers. I would hate to consign to legend what has manifested itself in its rawest and realest form.
After all, narrativizing anything creates a certain distance between the event and the audience. All of these measly previews and recaps can never do the spectacle of reality justice. So next season, experience it for yourself. Go to a couple matches and learn that these legends live.
This article has been updated to correct various inaccuracies regarding the Arizona State match, as well as misidentifying Arizona State and Oregon State as Arizona and Oregon. The Daily regrets these errors.
Contact Arman Kassam at armank ‘at’ stanford.edu.