Heart and desire. Those two words may seem like cliché descriptors of any championship athlete, but for 2021 NCAA champion Shane Griffith and his Stanford teammates, they represent the two traits that pulled them through a year full of adversity that resulted in a dramatic and influential wrestling title.
On July 8, 2020, eight months before the 2021 NCAA championships, Stanford announced plans to cut the wrestling program, along with 10 other sports programs at the school, at the end of the season. The school's statement said the decision came down primarily to finances — and the COVID-19 pandemic "exacerbated" the structural deficit. The announcement was shocking and disappointing for Griffith, but it wasn’t the only challenge that would be thrown his way. COVID-19 also continued to rage through California at this time, impacting what was considered to be the last year of Stanford wrestling by forcing athletes to train outside, compete only in away duals and quarantine themselves from roommates in cases of close contact with the virus.
Given all of this, Griffith could have opted out of the season before it started; Griffith did think about it. He said he considered saving his eligibility, avoiding these challenges, and preparing to transfer to another university at the end of the year. But instead, he stayed.
"We knew our season, our program was over after that year, but we knew we had the opportunity to compete," Griffith told NCAA.com. "We all had our own ups and downs and our own hurdles to get through, but it was nice knowing we had one last shot together to try to prove everything we worked for and that we deserved to stay on campus."
With this mindset, Griffith wrestled a storybook season. Dressed in an all-black singlets and headgear in solidarity with his teammates and in protest of the school’s decision to cut the sport, he rebounded from the first loss of his collegiate career in the Pac-12 tournament to take down No. 1 Alex Marinelli, No. 5 Zach Hartman and No. 3 Jake Wentzel in the 2021 NCAA tournament as the eight seed to become only the second Stanford wrestler to win an NCAA championship. His performance also earned him Outstanding Wrestler Honors — the first Cardinal individual to earn that distinction.
“We worked so hard for this and having this opportunity on a big stage to really make a name for ourselves…this was the biggest opportunity we had to promote what was going on and just do it for one another,” Griffith said. “Being able to win it all… and having the platform on ESPN where you have hundreds of thousands of people tuning in and just getting publicity for that…I just thought it was a great opportunity to be bigger than me and capitalize on the situation.”
Despite all the adversity 2021 brought, Griffith prevailed. Two months later, Stanford reinstated wrestling and the 10 other previously cut sports.
This is the story of a group of men that persevered through a fateful 2021 season that tested them in many ways, and this is the story of their unofficial leader, a 165-pound champion. This is also the story of the future of that team under new coaches with new goals. This is the story of Stanford wrestling, and it’s one that Griffith and his teammates are proud to be part of.
The 2020-21 Stanford wrestling dual season started January 24 in Bakersfield, California, the first of what would be eight duals on the road to keep the team in COVID-19 compliance with the university. Eight duals in 15 days.
BEST WRESTLERS TO WATCH: Who's the most exciting wrestler in the NCAA?
Due to pandemic restrictions and close contact rules, the team had not been allowed to practice in the wrestling room and had instead been forced to train in a number of different facilities, including an outdoor basketball court. Those training environments made it harder for athletes to lose weight and sweat, but they were committed to finding creative solutions to these problems.
Griffith’s teammate, All-American Jaden Abas, described moving the workout bikes and heaters into the freshman bathrooms and turning on the showers to create a sauna-like space that helped them stay lean — but then-head coach Jason Borrelli also took steps to reduce the weight-cutting pressure amongst his team, particularly given the difficult situation the team faced from a facilities standpoint.
After 2.5 months of training in isolation on campus, testing 8x/week, missing holidays with families, practicing outside under the sun, in the rain, and under the lights with space heaters...— Kept Stanford Wrestling (@KeepStanfordWRE) January 18, 2021
WE’RE FINALLY CLEARED TO COMPETE.
Schedule to come!! 😁💪#FreeStanfordWrestling pic.twitter.com/sEJudENCiZ
“We did a lot of things to help create less chaos in their lives," Borrelli told NCAA.com. "Changing weight classes was one thing we felt as a staff could be beneficial to the athletes in so many ways, obviously from a standpoint of, they're not cutting as much weight so they can get better at wrestling, but also it changed the focus during the season and it gave them one less thing to be stressed about."
Griffith, in fact, wrestled up at 174 pounds in that first dual at CSU-Bakersfield, but he would drop back down to 165 for the remainder of that eight-dual, 15-day road trip and the rest of the season. That trip would serve as the entirety of the regular season for the Cardinal, and, during that time, Griffith went 5-0.
The Pac-12 tournament, however, brought a new set of highs and lows for the group. Abas, Griffith’s 149-pound teammate, was the only Stanford wrestler to bring home a title, as he avenged a loss from earlier in the season, won his bracket and found the confidence necessary to chase a national podium finish. The season may not have gone according to plan up to this point for the Cardinal, but Abas was now able to call himself conference champ, and he was heading to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
“It was a relief, in a sense, [after the] long season, weird season,” Abas told NCAA.com, with regards to his conference win. “It feels like I deserved it. I know how much work I put in, I know how much I care, and how much I sacrificed for this sport and to be successful at that level. It was all coming together at the right time.”
Griffith’s Pac-12 tournament, however, went the opposite way. The 165-pound star took his first collegiate varsity loss to Anthony Valencia, a result that dropped him down to No. 8 in the bracket and put him on a much tougher path to a national title. But, to Griffith, his seed was just another challenge in a season of hardship, and he would overcome it all.
Stanford brought seven wrestlers to the 2021 NCAA Championship in St. Louis — Abas, Griffith, redshirt sophomore Real Woods, fifth-year seniors Nathan Traxler and Requir van der Merwe, sophomore Jackson DiSario and true freshman Nick Stemmet, and this representation was a testament to the perseverance of a team that genuinely believed this would be their last showing as Cardinal student-athletes.
"There was so much comfort because we knew that no matter what happened and what the outcome was going to be in the months to come, we were family, and we were going to be family forever," Borrelli said. "We’d been there for one another for one another and no one gave up on each other."
TWO-POINT TAKEDOWN: How to score a college wrestling match
The first day of NCAAs went OK for the Cardinal, as Griffith, Woods and van der Merwe earned hard-fought decisions over their first-round opponents. While Woods and van der Merwe would go on fall in the Blood Round, Abas, who lost his first match of the tournament, regained his rhythm and went on to win All-American honors, a momentum builder for a Stanford team that needed some good news.
“That All-American honor was something I wanted to do my whole life, and it just fit the narrative,” Abas said. “And then Shane just one-upped it and killed it.”
In a workman-like fashion, Griffith forced his way through the 165-pound bracket, topping Luke Weber of North Dakota State 7-5 in the second round, Marinelli of Iowa 3-1 in the quarterfinals and Hartman of Bucknell 9-2 in the semifinals to earn a spot in the championship match, a dream Griffith had been chasing since he was a kid.
“The weekend kept going on and we were wrestling well,” Griffith said. “It was great seeing the guys succeed with me for as long as we did, and then, obviously I made the finals which was terrific and obviously something I’d worked my whole life for.”
HOW IT HAPPENED: The complete 2021 NCAA wrestling tournament brackets
This was it. This was the moment. Seven minutes, with the spotlight on him. Griffith picked up a takedown in the first period and never let up, outscoring his opponent 6-2 on the biggest stage. The final seconds, and the emotions of winning that title for his team, were delayed by a coaches challenge, but the score was clear. Griffith was a national champion.
The refs reviewed the final call as the limited fans in the Enterprise Center began chanting “Keep Stanford Wrestling, Keep Stanford Wrestling,” a nod to the advocacy efforts of wrestling supporters to maintain the program amidst the cuts. Griffith, adding to the statement he was making on the mat, collected a “Keep Stanford Wrestling” sweatshirt from his coach and wore the “KSW” slogan across his chest as his hand was raised on the middle of the mat.
Stanford had not had a wrestler win an NCAA title since Stanford Hall of Famer Matt Gentry in 2004. The historic moment was not lost on Griffith or his coach, Borrelli.
"I remember walking off the mat and as happy and joyful as I was for Shane, I was just like on cloud nine because I knew what this meant to the alumni that had gone through the program and the supporters of the program. It was proof that Stanford wrestling is competitively excellent," Borrelli said. "It was just a great moment, and I'm sure that was equal to the way that Steve Buddie felt when Matt Gentry won the first NCAA championship. There’s just that sense that you’re so, so happy for all the alumni and everyone that has believed that it is possible at Stanford."
NCAA WRESTLING: Complete history of team national champions
But there was something different about this win that Buddie didn't have to experience as a head coach. This was, in the moment, considered to be the last time a Stanford wrestler would take the mat and compete on the national stage.
Reflecting on this emotional rollercoaster, Borrelli said the finality of the season and the magnitude of Griffith's achievement in the face of adversity didn't hit him until he saw a tweet from an opposing team that nearly brought him to tears.
“The most emotional part of the whole season for me, where I really felt everything was real and it hit me hard about the uncertainty was the tweet that the Pittsburgh Wrestling program put out of him on the podium and the Pitt wrestler Jake Wentzel taking second," Borrelli said, his voice changing as he reflected back on the social media post. "[I'm] super emotional just even thinking about."
On May 18, the school announced that all of the 11 programs originally designated to be cut from the athletic department, including wrestling, would be coming back. As reported by USA Today, donor support allowed the Cardinal to retain all programs. USA Today also said Griffith's title helped bring attention to the issue.
CHAMPIONSHIP ATHLETES: Meet the 80 All-Americans from last year's NCAA tournament
"It’s a humbling experience and just having the opportunity to be back at this place is awesome,” Griffith said. “I know there is a giant fire lit under the guys because we were all hurt during this process, and even though we did prevail, and got the program back, the job isn’t done. We still have to maintain the status quo and prove that we do belong. The future is looking really bright, but we overcame one obstacle, and now it’s time to keep fighting.”
Since reinstating the program, Stanford has also hired a new coaching staff, led by longtime successful former Cornell head coach Rob Koll and an assistant coaches in Enock Francois and two-time NCAA champion Vincenzo Joseph, a perfect training partner for Griffith.
The team also returns five of the seven NCAA qualifiers from last year, including Griffith, Abas, Woods, DiSario and Stemmet, and all five are ranked in the top 33 again heading into this year. Tyler Eischens, a 174-pound sophomore, is also ranked, coming in at No. 31, according to Intermat. Griffith, of course, is ranked No. 1, while Abas will try to follow up his All-American season.
To win at 149, Abas may have to beat Cornell's Yianni Diakomihalis, a two-time NCAA champ at 141.
"I am still very young, but I feel like I’m aiming at the top. I'm right there, so I’m glad that these guys show me the respect that I deserve even though I might be a little younger," Abas said. "I love this sport, and it's a really hard grueling, grinding season, a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and I couldn’t be happier — I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else."
GRIFFITH WINS GOLD: Shane Griffith tops the podium at 165 pounds
Abas has a great championship model in his teammate Griffith, who will face a similar slate of competitors this season.
Former Stanford coach Borrelli, who left Stanford on April 13, 2021 to take the head coaching job at American University, said fans should expect fireworks from the Stanford team this year, particularly knowing that the Cardinal are in a more stable situation this year with all of the support necessary to bring home some hardware.
It’s been an amazing ride... forever grateful. pic.twitter.com/7kBQktPBwa— Jason Borrelli (@Jason_Borrelli) April 13, 2021
“They have proven to have incredible resolve and amazing resilience, and when you're resilient and you have incredible work ethic and you are high integrity individuals, the sky is the limit," Borrelli said. "I wouldn’t be shocked if they brought home a team trophy this year, finished in the top four."
Griffith is ready. Abas is ready. Woods is ready. Stanford is ready. This year will mark a new era of a program that has been known for its "the heart and desire to prevail through it all and keep putting in the work," said Griffith, and the champ expects greatness from his teammates once again.
For the first time in over a year, this team of resilient warriors will soon take to the mat not in the black singlets but instead sporting to Stanford Block-S that they fought so hard to represent. They want to compete in those colors, and they want to sport them on the top of the podium. The journey begins.