On the wrestling mat four years ago, senior Zack Hernandez was a self-described "caveman."
Lacking the foundational technique to compete at the college level, Hernandez served as a backup on the Columbia's wrestling team for the duration of his rookie season. When he became a starter the following year, he was victorious in 23 of 36 matches and automatically qualified for the NCAA Championships.
Hernandez's rapid ascent from a third stringer to the national stage was a direct product of Columbia's strategy developed by head coach Carl Fronhofer.
During the five years Fronhofer has spent at Columbia, he's realized that the team is not the most appealing option for prospective recruits. So when it comes to improving the Light Blue, the coach focuses on development during his players' careers in Morningside Heights.
"One of the things we've actually prided ourselves in is actually developing talent instead of just recruiting the best people." Fronhofer said. "You always try to recruit the best guys, but I think we've done a pretty good job at getting a lot out of the ones we already have."
These efforts to sculpt talent begin early. From the moment the team steps onto campus, the coaching staff works hard to ensure that they can be sources of both athletic and academic support at the university.
Because transitioning from the high school to the collegiate level can be difficult, few individuals come in ready to face competition right away. Most serve at least one or two years on the second or third string—even now dominant athletes like Hernandez. This leads to a constant flow of starters who might serve for one or two years and then graduate, leading Fronhofer to look for a replacement.
In selecting his starters, Fronhofer relies mostly on intrasquad wrestle-offs throughout the year.
"It's one of the great things about wrestling. I don't just like watch practice and say 'Oh that guy looks a little better,'" Fronhofer said.
The practice matches give him an additional objective measure—aside from tournament results—when making decisions.
But within this seemingly straightforward approach, gray areas emerge. When one person wins the wrestle-off but is outperformed by another in a tournament, Fronhofer is left to make a more subjective decision.
"At the end of the day, as a coach, you kind of do just have to make a call," he said.
When competing head-to-head, it is sometimes strange for teammates to face off against one another, given the normally supportive atmosphere of the squad.
"It's kind of awkward going in knowing you could lose the wrestle-off and then you're going to be going to dinner with them right afterwards," junior Mike Fetchet said.
And the tension is only exacerbated by the high stakes of the results.
For sophomore Dan Reed, these wrestle-offs completely altered his role on the team. A spot opened up in the 149 lb. weight class this year, and four Lions fought for the spot. Sophomore Tyler Ponte initially won the starting position but fell out of the lineup due to an injury. Fronhofer held a second round of wrestle-offs in which Reed prevailed.
"If he gets a chance to compete, he competes as hard as he can," Fronhofer said. "He never complains about anything or questions our decisions or what we are doing. He just shows up everyday and tries to get the most out of it. You would root for him if you knew him."
For Reed, a wrestler who may not have seen real action until his junior or senior year, the spot presents a unique opportunity for the sophomore to develop. Fronhofer believes he has the potential to be competitive on a national level, possibly following a path similar to Hernandez's.
The Light Blue will take part in the EIWA championships this weekend, in which 51 NCAA bids will be up for grabs. Though it's uncertain who will qualify, Fronhofer's development-based approach has ensured that both Hernandez and Reed will be far from the bench.
"[It's] a testament to hard work," Hernandez said of his rise from backup to starter. "[It] shows that in wrestling you really get in what you put out."