2023 Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational

Cornell Wrestling Going All In With Chris Foca At 184

Cornell Wrestling Going All In With Chris Foca At 184

All-American Jonathan Loew's season-ending injury prompted Cornell to shuffle its lineup and move Chris Foca up to 184 pounds

Nov 29, 2023 by Brian Reinhardt
Cornell Wrestling Going All In With Chris Foca At 184

The first month of the season has pretty much gone to script for Cornell and head coach Mike Grey.

The Big Red dominated a dual against Sacred Heart (48-3) and have gotten the majority of their roster matches at a pair of tournaments.

“It’s early in the season, but I think we are progressing as we thought we would,” Grey said. “It’s good to do what you are supposed to do and beat the guys you should beat pretty soundly, but we all know the level of completion will be higher at Cliff Keen (this upcoming weekend).”

Grey was quick to point out how it was good to get various guys back into the lineup as the first month of the season progressed. 

Getting Chris Foca up to 184 pounds (more on that move below), Jacob Cardenas returning from his bronze-medal performance at the U23 World Championships, and Lewis Fernandes back on the mat full-time after missing most of last year.

Also seeing how freshman Meyer Shapiro performs in his first few collegiate matches, and the improvement of Julian Ramirez who Grey said, “has probably looked the sharpest (among our team).”

“We are preaching to go out there and score points,” Grey said. “We want to be the first one on the leg, go out and take the match. That is a big focus for us, being aggressive and putting points on the board, and being exciting wrestlers.”

Foca’s Move Official, Up To 184 Pounds

Even at the beginning of October, the Cornell coaching staff thought they had their upper weights (174 to heavyweight) mapped out with four wrestlers all highly ranked in the preseason rankings, including three being former All-Americans. But that all changed as preseason practice got underway.

Cornell had to shift gears just three weeks before the first official competition and made a move that would see the #2-ranked wrestler at 174 pounds, Chris Foca, moving up a weight class.

“(Chris) Foca going up to 184 pounds will be a season-long change,” Grey said. “Unfortunately (Jonathan) Loew hurt his shoulder again and is out for the year.”

Loew was expected to make a return to 184 pounds after missing the postseason due to an injury last season. The 2022 All-American was ranked in the top 20 to start the season but suffered his season-ending injury during an RTC practice in mid-October.

“He will be a student coach for us, so he will be traveling and heavily involved as one of our captains and leaders,” Grey said.

With Loew sidelined for the season, the Cornell coaching staff sat down with Foca to discuss the possibilities of making the move.

Foca was coming off a breakthrough season last year. He won his first EIWA title, went 30-2 overall, and most importantly claimed All-American honors for the first time with a third-place finish. In the NCAA third-place match, he avenged an earlier season loss to Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis.

He was all set to tackle the 174-pound bracket that featured a trio of former NCAA champions in Lewis, Shane Griffith of Michigan and reigning three-time NCAA champion Carter Starocci of Penn State by opening the season ranked second. But that all changed when Loew went down.

“Nobody plans for things like this to happen, and it sucks for (Jonathan) Loew that it did,” Foca said. “After that happened, I sat down with the coaches and we determined this was probably the best move for the team, and me personally.

“I’m really excited about the change, and I’m ready to go.”

It has only been about a month since the change, but Foca already has the mindset that this will help him improve on his impressive run from last March.

“I feel like I could have been up at 184 this whole time,” Foca said. “I’m not going to be cutting much weight, so I think the wear and tear during a season in that regard will be minimal for me. 

“I’ll be able to focus on wrestling, and certain positions, and just having fun with it, which is something I’m looking forward to. I’ll be able to feel good and not worry about any auxiliary stress.”

No better way to open a new season, in a new weight class, than dominating your first bout. In the Sacred Heart dual, Foca recorded a pin in just 49 seconds.

He was even more impressive this past weekend at the Mat Town Open in claiming top honors at 184 pounds. Three matches, three more bonus point wins — a pair of 15-0 tech falls sandwiched around another first-period-pin.

In four matches this season, none of Foca’s opponents have made it out of the second period.

After seeing him in the room the last few weeks, and these first two outings against outside foes, Grey agrees with Foca that this change will not only benefit the team but the wrestler as well.

“He did some of his best wrestling back in 2021, the year our season was canceled (due to COVID-19 pandemic),” Grey said. “He was doing all the freestyle action he could and beat some quality guys and that was at 86 kg (189 pounds). 

“I think his unique style might be better at this new weight class. He is definitely full size, feels good, and he is able to focus on his wrestling. I really think he will have a successful year.”

While it might be a new weight class, Foca has already clashed with some of his new competition in his new weight class.

He wrestled current #1 and returning NCAA finalist Parker Keckeisen of Northern Iowa in high school. Foca is currently ranked third at 184 pounds thanks in large part to a first-period pin over #5 Dustin Plott of Oklahoma State in last year’s NCAA 174-pound quarterfinals.

“I hold myself to that All-American standard, and I feel I brought that to the practice room the last couple of years,” Foca said. “I’m still title chasing regardless of the weight class. I feel like my work ethic is going to pay off.

“I would like to be a national champ.”

Foca holds himself to lofty exceptions, but Cornell as a team has the same mindset. The Big Red have seen steady growth at the NCAA Championships over recent years, including their first team trophy since 2012 with a third place finish last year.

“We have room to grow from last year,” Foca said. “We carry ourselves through a structure of success. We want to grow (upon last year), and accountability will be key. Every guy on the team must buy in for us to grow entirely. 

“That jump from (seventh in 2022) to third (last year) is going to be different from third up to number one. None of us are counting ourselves out, we know that we can bring that title trophy home, and that is what we are chasing.”

Who Gets the Nod at 174?

There might not be a clear answer this early in the season as to who gets the starting nod at 174 pounds for Cornell, but there is a leader in the clubhouse.

“Benny (Baker) is the front-runner,” Grey said. “He started out 4-0, all Division 1 wins, and that was a great start for qualification for the NCAAs. It’s pretty evident that he is in the driver’s seat right now.”

Originally from Newark Valley, N.Y., Baker wrestled four years at Wyoming Seminary before coming to Cornell.

He has seen limited mat time over the last two seasons, going a combined 11-10. Last year all six of his matches came at 165 pounds.

But this season has been a different story up at 174 pounds for Baker. 

Baker opened with three wins at the Journeyman Collegiate Classic and got the starting nod in the Sacred Heart dual. Three of those wins were for bonus points, outscoring those three foes 37-1, and the other win was 4-0 over teammate Christian Hansen.

In addition to Baker, Cornell had seven other wrestlers compete at Lock Haven’s Mat Town Open this past weekend in the 174-pound bracket.

Baker was the top Cornell finisher, as he placed third going 5-1 on the day overall. He was a perfect 4-0 against fellow Big Red teammates, not giving up a single point and outscoring them 29-0. His lone loss was to future teammate Simon Ruiz, the #27 overall recruit in the 2023 class, who is a greyshirt this year.

“Whoever is doing best, or whoever we feel gives us the best chance to win matches will be the one staying in that lineup,” Grey said. “I think ultimately, the competition results are going to win the day.”

Up Next

Cornell will head to Las Vegas this weekend to compete in the Cliff Keen Invitational. This year’s field is incredibly deep, as 15 teams ranked in this week’s NWCA Coaches’ Poll will be in action, including seven of the nation’s top-10 teams.

“I love the tournament, it’s a wonderful event,” Grey said. “It’s tough, it’s by far the toughest tournament. Overall, the tournament is going to be outstanding, and our guys are looking forward to it.”

The plan for Cornell is to have seven or eight of its starting 10 wrestle, for this tournament each squad can only have one per weight class.

One who will not be in action is returning 133-pound national champion Vito Arujau.

“I know he will be ready when he needs to be,” Grey said. “He will be back for the Collegiate Duals (Dec. 18 in Nashville), that is his scheduled return for us. He will also wrestle in Lehigh’s Sheridan Invitational (Dec. 22).”

The Cliff Keen will take place on Friday and Saturday and will be streamed on Flowrestling.