The Pulse With Andy Hamilton: Borrelli's Ready To Build

The Pulse With Andy Hamilton: Borrelli's Ready To Build

Jason Borrelli is focused on the road ahead at American University and a couple D1 coaches have already checked in on Ben Kawczynski after his Fargo title.

Jul 21, 2021 by Andy Hamilton
The Pulse With Andy Hamilton: Borrelli's Ready To Build
When he slid behind the wheel on the first Saturday in June to begin the cross-country trek to his new life on the East coast, Jason Borrelli had his eyes focused on the road ahead.

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When he slid behind the wheel on the first Saturday in June to begin the cross-country trek to his new life on the East coast, Jason Borrelli had his eyes focused on the road ahead. 

The four-day drive from the palm trees of Palo Alto to the nation’s capital — a journey he made with a friend and Baxter, Borrelli’s 10-year-old German Shepherd/Lab mix — gave the new American University coach plenty of time to reflect on a 13-year stretch at Stanford culminating in what some might consider a cruel and unusual ending.  

But Borrelli hasn’t spent much time looking in the rearview lately. He intends to make the Eagles fly and he sees big potential at American. 

“There are a lot of things that are attractive about the school and the wrestling program,” he said. “One, we have outstanding administrative support. We have an A.D. who has a wrestling background, wrestled in college and really is committed to growing the sport, but also all sports.”

Some might take that as a veiled shot at Stanford, which announced last July that it was dropping wrestling and 10 other sports. The school reversed course in May — roughly a month after Borrelli took the job at American — and reinstated the programs. 

But Borrelli’s excitement about his new boss is genuine. 

Dr. Billy Walker was a three-year letterwinner as a wrestler at Air Force, where he was a team captain as a senior under coach Wayne Baughman. In 2016, Walker was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s Colorado Chapter as an Outstanding American. 

“He’s a great athletic director and a great leader, so we have the administrative support, we have alumni support, we have some very passionate donors who are really engaged and willing to help and that’s giant,” Borrelli said. “We sell a great education. We’re fully-funded from an operating budget standpoint and scholarship standpoint. We’re in D.C., it’s a great place to recruit to, you have incredible networking opportunities and internship opportunities and there’s a lot going on. 

“I think we can do really well. Do I think it’s going to happen in a year or two or three? No, I know how long it takes and how hard you’ve got to work. You’ve got to recruit the right kids and I think if we do that we have a chance to be really good. I’m not a big fan of making predictions. I can say we’re gonna train, we’re gonna recruit and we’re gonna work to be NCAA champions. That’s what the goal’s going to be. I’m not going to try to put together a program or recruit kids to be 10th or 15th. We want to be the best. Will we end up there? Time will tell. But it’s definitely possible to win a national championship there.”

American got as high as fifth at the NCAA Championships under Mark Cody and finished 5.5 points out of a trophy in 2011. That same year, Borrelli guided Stanford to its best finish (11th) in school history. He also led the Cardinal to their first Pac-12 title in 2019. 

His best coaching job, though, might have taken place this past season. With one eye on preparing a team for March and the other on saving the Stanford program with a series of COVID-created obstacles in the middle, Borrelli led his team to a 17th-place finish at the NCAA Championships and sophomore Shane Griffith became the school’s second national champion. 

A month later, American named Borrelli its new head coach, which some viewed as an ominous sign about Stanford’s chances of reviving the program. 

“My biggest thing when I took the (American) job, (my message) to (Stanford) athletes and parents and all the alumni was, ‘Don’t take this as me saying the program’s not going to be reinstated,’” Borrelli said. “Now I didn’t have control over it, so I wasn’t naive to think it couldn’t happen, but I still felt really good and I made sure they knew that. I didn’t want my departure to … get in the way of all the momentum we had. We had so much positive momentum going and I really felt like we were about to get it overturned.” 

Which is what happened on May 18. Thirty-six days after Borrelli was named the American head coach, Stanford announced it was reinstating all 11 sports it had planned to drop. The immediate jubilation from the wrestling community came with a tinge of heartache for Borrelli, who fought so hard to keep the program only to see it come back five weeks after he accepted another job. 

Could Borrelli have gone back to work for the Stanford administration after everything that transpired in the last year? 

“I don’t know that I even have to answer that question,” he said. “I took another job. Let’s put it this way: I felt the program was going to be saved and I felt like it was going to be there and I took another job — a job that I felt was right for me and my family and a job that’s great and has a lot of potential. But I would not have considered that job, considering how confident I was in the program’s reinstatement … if I felt remaining in that environment was going to be the right thing for me.” 

So Borrelli left to take over another program that went through a turbulent season. Coach Teague Moore departed the American program in January and the school went through an athletic department shutdown in February after an uptick in COVID-19 positivity rates, which wiped out the regular season.

Only three Eagles competed at the EIWA Championships and their combined 17 postseason matches were the only bouts for American last season. 

“They had a rough year,” Borrelli said. “We had a rough year at Stanford with everything we had to overcome and our student-athletes went through a ton, but these guys did, too, and they’re finally starting to get some structure back and getting to train. They were super, super eager for that.” 

Stanford, of course, moved on, too, prying Rob Koll away from Cornell to take Borelli’s old job. The Cardinal kept most of their roster together through the uncertainty of the past year and the coaching change. 

Borrelli said “it’s been great” to see what’s happened at Stanford since his departure. 

“To see the program in good hands and it seems like they’re now wrapping a lot of resources around the program and investing into it, the guys are having the opportunities that we had promised when recruited them that they were going to be able to get their degree and graduate from Stanford and wrestle, it’s awesome, it’s been great to watch,” he said “I feel like the program is in great hands now and I feel like we did a good job, our staff, at elevating the status of Stanford wrestling. You always want to leave a place better than it was when you got there and there’s part of me that believes we did that. The program is better than where it was 12 years ago and that’s all that matters to me.” 

Kawczynski's Stock Soaring After Dominant Fargo

Ben Kawczynski considered a couple Division I programs back in the fall before he committed to D3 Wisconsin-La Crosse. The Wisconsin prep heavyweight figured that was the end of the recruiting process. 

Since then, he’s lined up a roommate, scheduled his classes and forged ahead with his plans to begin classes this fall in La Crosse. 

That’s still the plan — for now — even though there’s at least a couple Division I coaches who came swooping in Tuesday after Kawczynski completed his march through the Junior heavyweight bracket in Fargo with a 12-4 win against national #1 and North Carolina State-bound Chase Horne in the finals.  

“They wanted to chat,” he said. “They just asked if I was interested.” 

Kawczynski’s response? 

“I haven’t really responded to any of them yet,” he said. “I’ve got to look into their programs before I decide.” 

Kawczynski characterized his commitment to Dave Malecek’s program as “pretty solid” and said “it would take something big for me to leave La Crosse.” 

Kawczynski is the consummate late bloomer. He compiled a 19-20 record at 182 pounds as a freshman and lost in the opening round of his sectional tournament. He placed sixth at the Wisconsin state meet each of the following two seasons. 

When it came time to pick a school, Kawczynski considered Missouri, Northern Iowa and North Central College before committing to La Crosse. 

His stock has soared considerably since then. Kawczynski went undefeated as a senior on his way to a state heavyweight title and followed that up by placing third at Folkstyle Nationals. Last month, he went 7-1 at the Junior National Duals, where his only defeat came when he was trying to pad an early 4-0 lead and got tossed for a fall while firing off a double-leg shot. 

Fargo was his best performance yet. He piled up 75 points in six matches and registered six technical superiority wins. 

Kawczynski credits his surge in the past year to making upwards of five trips a week to Askren Wrestling Academy practices. He said he’s been focusing on keeping his level low and his pace high, using his speed and conditioning to his advantage against bigger heavyweights.  

“I knew if I could take these heavyweights to the second period,” said Kawczynski, who weighed in at 224 pounds on Tuesday, “I could gas them out.” 

Drake Dazzled

Kawczynski would’ve been a prime candidate for the Outstanding Wrestler award in Fargo had it not been for Drake Ayala’s demolition of the 126-pound bracket. 

The Iowa-bound senior outscored his seven opponents by a combined 72-4 count and didn’t wrestle a full period on his way to a third Fargo title. With it, Ayala joined Iowa high school legends Mark Schwab and David Kjeldgaard as the state’s only three-time Fargo men’s freestyle champions.