Cornell Athletics
Cornell coach Rob Kroll

Roger Moore, NCAA.com

Not long before accepting a second-place trophy at the 2010 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Omaha, Neb., members of the Cornell wrestling team were already thinking about 2011.

“With how we wrestled, there is no reason to believe that we can’t win it (in 2011),” Kyle Dake, the champion at 141 pounds as a freshman, said at the time. “I think we showed everybody that we are for real, that this program is going to be in the mix next year and for a long time.”

Iowa ran away with its third consecutive team title in Omaha. The Hawkeyes claimed eight All-Americans and out-distanced Cornell by 44.5 points. Third-place Iowa State was 15 points behind the Big Red.

Entering the off-season, there was reason for optimism in Ithaca, N.Y. Tom Brands’ Hawkeyes had to replace eight starters–only 125-pound champion Matt McDonough returned for the 2010-11 campaign. And Iowa has to deal with questions about 141-pound runner-up Montell Marion’s eligibility entering the second semester. Iowa State also lost eight starters, including 125-pound finalist Andrew Long, who was dismissed from the team in June and is now expected to transfer from ISU.

Cornell lost four-time All-American Troy Nickerson. But seven NCAA qualifiers, including three All-Americans, returned.

Two months into the 2010-11 season, the Big Red still sit atop the coaches top-25 poll, solidified by a team title at the Las Vegas Invitational.

Rob Koll’s squad won the title by 38.5 points–without Dake and starting 133-pounder Mike Grey.

“Coach Koll really knows when to peak us, so we’re all just listening to him,” said 174-pounder Mack Lewnes, one of three champions in Vegas and an NCAA runner-up in 2010. “Our team is so deep, especially in the middle weights. You need guys who can push you in the (wrestling) room, who can beat you. We have that, and that’s why we’ll continue to get better as the season goes on.”

Cornell, wrestling as a collegiate program since 1907, is no stranger to success on the mat. However, only four times has a Big Red squad finished in the top 10 at an NCAA Championship.

Koll, with solid support from alumni and school administrators, has brought a new style of recruiting to an Ivy League school, slowly pushing the program toward a championship level.

“You have to have financial resources, especially from an administrative level,” Koll said. “The reason we’ve been successful at this level is because of the support, mainly from the alumni. Those two issues are significantly more important at a lot of schools. If you get an administration change that doesn’t support wrestling, it’s hard to compete with the Big Ten or schools where an administrative change isn’t going to make a huge impact.”

A 1988 NCAA champion at North Carolina and the son of a World War II veteran, legendary wrestler and coach, Koll is in his 18th season at Cornell. Twice in his first nine years, the Big Red finished inside the top 25 at the NCAA Championships. Over the last eight years, Cornell has been among the top 10 eight times.

“He’s certainly built a strong program,” said Oklahoma State head coach John Smith. “Cornell has always had a good program, but they are trying to move to an elite level. They are going to be tough to beat this year.”

“Last year we had a team that in a lot of years could have won a national championship,” Koll said. “We scored in the 90s, but Iowa threw up 140. This is a year where it doesn’t look like anybody is going to put up big numbers, score 140 points, except hopefully us. There is no one school, Cornell included, that looks to have a dominant team.

“So this is an opportunity for us to do it. It may not come around for another 100 years so we need to take advantage.”

The Dec. 16 Amateur Wrestling News individual rankings show Dake (149 pounds) and Lewnes (174) ranked No. 1; Cam Simaz (197) is No. 2; and Justin Kerber (165) and Steve Bosak (184) ranked No. 3 at their respective weight classes. Three others are among the top 20.

Second-ranked Oklahoma State, owners of an NCAA-best 34 team championships, beat No. 3 Minnesota, 17-16, on Dec. 5 and topped No. 6 Oklahoma, 22-12, on Dec. 12. The Cowboys have been led by No. 1-ranked 133-pounder Jordan Oliver and fifth-ranked 197-pounder Clayton Foster.

When it comes to NCAA wrestling at the Division I level, Oklahoma State, Iowa, Iowa State and Minnesota have held a monopoly since 1988. No other program has won an NCAA team title since Arizona State wrestled the trophy away almost quarter of a century ago. In fact only 10 programs have hoisted the team trophy – Oklahoma, Indiana, Michigan State, Northern Iowa and Penn State joining the short list.

A sport so strong on the East Coast can surprisingly claim just one title, the Nittany Lions’ championship in 1953.

“I don’t know if we have the entire East Coast on our side, but it would be nice to get that number taken away,” said Koll. “We are certainly going to do everything we can to win it this year because, like I said, an opportunity like this might not come around again for awhile.”

The 2011 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships are scheduled for March 17-19 in Philadelphia, Pa.