Spring in Upper Manhattan is usually a quiet time for collegiate sports. The Lions of Columbia have made the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament once (in the 1960s) and never in women’s basketball. Spring sports are usually off in Southern locales, getting ready for a little warmer weather at the Baker Field Complex.
But this spring, March Madness is very much alive—albeit on the mat, rather than the court.
The Lions qualified an amazing five wrestlers in this weekend’s NCAA Tournament in Des Moines, Iowa, and broke a 101-year-old mark by having three Columbia wrestlers reach the finals of the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Championships two weeks ago in Piscataway, N.J.
Both are a huge step forward for the program, which has risen from also-rans in the Division I wrestling hierarchy to legitimate contenders on a national stage.
The five wrestlers matched the program record set in 2005. Matt Bystol, Steve Santos, Jake O'Hara and Josh Houldsworth each garnered automatic bids during Columbia's historic EIWA Championships performance, while Stephen West was awarded an at-large bid by the NCAA last Wednesday.
Santos, at 26-1 in collegiate competition this season, was also selected as the fifth seed in the 149-pound bracket.
Now while Penn State is the favorite on the team side to take their third straight NCAA title, Lions coach Carl Fronhofer sees his five qualifiers as a huge step forward for a program on the rise on the national stage.
“This was a breakthrough year for us, one we can build on with some great kids who excel in all aspects of their lives,” he said to Bleacher Report. “The experience at Easterns was great for us as a team, and now they get to again test their skills on the biggest stage in a place where wrestling is king, it is going to be a nice way to wrap the season for us.”
In addition to being focused on the NCAA’s, Fronhofer said he and his staff and athletes are also keeping a keen eye on all the news surrounding the Olympics and the developing story on whether wresting will be back in the Games for 2020. Like everyone in the sport, the news of the vote to remove wrestling was shocking to the Lions.
“We had our heroes growing up as wrestlers, and all those had Olympic ties, whether it was John L. Smith, Zeke Jones or Rulon Gardner or now for younger kids, recent stars like Jordan Burroughs, they serve as motivation for you to do your best and climb higher, even if you yourself don’t have Olympic aspirations,” he added.
“Without that idol to aspire to there is going to be a gap, not just in the U.S. and not just in men’s wrestling, but in women’s wrestling and in the sport around the world, and that doesn’t just hurt the sport, it hurts the development of young people. That’s what is most troubling.”
The organizers behind the plan to keep wrestling in the Olympics will be out in full force in Des Moines this weekend and will hold a press event Friday to update and discuss future plans. Fronhofer said he and his team will do whatever they can to positively enforce the message to as large an audience as possible, without it being a distraction.
“I don’t think any kind of protests will do a lot at this point, but we have to keep telling the good stories of wrestling and building consensus amongst influential groups, and we are more than willing to help do that in any way we can, either in Iowa or in New York.”
Throughout its history, Columbia has been a voice for change and righting the wrongs of society. It will be interesting to see if that rebellious spirit can help influence a behemoth like the International Olympic Committee with their controversial decision on wrestling.
For now, the Lions are enjoying their run as spring break rolls through Morningside Heights.
“It is a great time to be competing, and being here every year with our team is what we want to make the rule, not the exception going forward,” Fronhofer added.
Roar, Lions. Roar.
Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand.