The nation’s oldest wrestling team spent the past decade struggling to break through to the front of the pack. The team has remained unable to clinch an Ivy League title since 1982 and has been unable to capture an Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association title in the program's 126-year history. Over the past 10 seasons, the Light Blue has only had two with a winning Ivy record.
Prior to the arrival of current coach Zach Tanelli, the Lions began the decade with one of their two victorious Ivy seasons under former coach Brendan Buckley. Buckley had revolutionized the historically mediocre program into one that sat at a solid middle-tier with exceptional individual performances. At the conclusion of the 2011 season, Buckley left the Light Blue to become head coach at California Polytechnic State University. He left the Mustangs in 2016 to become the executive director of Beat the Streets New York City Wrestling.
Carl Fronhofer took the helm after Buckley’s departure, and under him, the Light Blue achieved some of its greatest individual successes, especially during the 2015 season when eight members of the squad saw the podium at the EIWA championships, tying the program high previously set by the 2006-2007 team and placing fourth—the highest finish for the Lions since 2005.
Though Fronhofer’s Lions never won an Ancient Eight Crown, wrestlers received bids for the NCAA Championships in each year he headed the program and experienced individual successes at the EIWA championships, including Steve Santos, CC ʼ13, who became the 19th wrestler in program history to become an EIWC champion.
Following Fronhofer’s move to California, current coach Zach Tanelli was hired. The beginning of Tanelli’s tenure was marked by the release of a series of homophobic, sexist, and racist messages sent by members of the team in a private GroupMe groupchat. What was meant to be a shining first-year season for the coach instead became a year defined by bigotry, and eight members of the team subsequently faced suspension.
Under Tanelli’s leadership, the team has experienced extremely strong individual performances but has yet to experience a winning Ivy season. In 2017, then-junior Garrett Ryan clinched the EIWC title for his weight class. This success was replicated the next year, as then-senior Markus Scheidel took the EIWC title back to Morningside Heights for the program’s first back-to-back champion years.
However, the Columbia wrestling program might be on the precipice of a real uptick. In the 2018-2019 season, the Light Blue achieved a dual meet record of 10-5, its highest in 20 years. The pattern of strong play continued into this past season when the Lions reached an impressive 8-6 record. Sophomores Matt Kazimir and Joe Manchio received bids for the NCAA Wrestling Tournament, but whether the Lions will have their first NCAA winner will have to wait until 2021 as the championships were canceled due to COVID-19.
Despite stellar individual performances, the wrestling team’s decade was defined more by what happened off the mat.
Other athletic teams faced controversy for team members’ conduct throughout the last decade. In 2013, the football team landed in hot water after defensive lineman Chad Washington, CC ʼ15, was charged with aggravated assault and a hate crime after shouting slurs at an Asian student, over 40 homophobic, racist, and sexist tweets from team members—many whose accounts were followed by the official Columbia Athletics account—were released. Despite a statement by Columbia Athletics and then-football coach Pete Mangurian, nothing happened to the team.
This was not the case for wrestling. In days leading up to its first meet of the 2016-2017 season, a series of messages from the team’s class of 2017 GroupMe was released.
Messages went as far back as 2014, chronicling a long history of team members’ racism, sexism, and homophobia. Players openly used expletives and slurs that referred to women, members of the LGBT community, Latinas, Asian people, and Black people. These vulgar messages targeted their classmates, workers around the Columbia area, and members of minority groups in general.
Some of the earlier messages revolved around the cancelation of fall Bacchanal in 2014 due to the University’s fear of students engaging in excessive drinking and committing sexual violence. In response, one wrestler wrote, “I hope someone actually gets sexually assaulted.”
A large segment of the comments referred to Black people, especially Black women, referring to them as “ratchets.” The messages went as far as to make fun of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and compare rapper Rich Homie Quan to those looting pawn shops in Ferguson, using the N-word to reference the rapper.
Other leaked messages included phrases such as “We got a missing faggot no Jews back at Claremont,” and “It was love at first sight 4 [redacted]. Well as much as she could see from those squinty little eyes.”
In response, Columbia Athletics canceled the team’s meet against Binghamton that Sunday and suspended the team from competitions, but not practices, while it investigated the claims made against the team.
Over the course of the weekend, seven seniors and one junior were taken off the team’s official roster. Austin Coniker, CC ’17, who initially joined the team as a member of the class of 2016, remained the only senior listed.
That Monday, Columbia Athletics released a revised statement. Columbia Athletics wrote that the messages were “appalling [and] at odds with the core values of the University, violate team guidelines, and have no place in our community.”
Hudson Taylor, the founder of the non-profit Athlete Ally, which advocates against homophobia and transphobia in the athletic sphere, blamed the players’ behavior on the team’s culture. Taylor, who volunteered to coach for the Lions until 2014, knew some of those in the chat when they were first-years. In an op-ed to Spectator following the GroupMe’s release, Taylor reflected on what he tried to instill in his team about the necessity of organizations like Athlete Ally to dismantle systems of oppression. After the coaching staff completed CU Safe Zone training, a 3-hour training session that provides education about LGBTQ communities, the door of the wrestling office was emblazoned with a pride flag.
“Our locker room wasn't Donald Trump's locker room—at least as far as I could tell. The guys minded their words in front of the coaches and seemed genuinely in tune with the values of inclusion and respect I promoted through Athlete Ally,” Taylor wrote.
“Maybe our vigilance pushed that kind of language out of the locker room and into cyberspace. Maybe our conversations focused too much on optics and not enough on attitudes,” he continued. “Maybe we talked too much to them and not enough with them. And now, we're left asking why and what to do about it.”
Students demanded the wrestlers involved be kicked off the team and publicly apologize; a Change.org petition garnered the support of 1,100 people. Students who wanted to “protest the culture that permeates Columbia’s men’s athletics teams,” armed with signs that read “Not my wrestling team” and a banner that stated “White supremacy lives here,” broke out in front of the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity house—which houses many members of the team as fraternity brothers—as well as at the Dodge Fitness Center and Low Library.
In their apology letter to the student body, anonymous members of the wrestling team wrote, “A culture change was obviously needed—and, rest assured, it will take place. We are prepared for any deserved repercussions from our actions.”
In his final statement about this scandal, Columbia Athletics Director Peter Pilling wrote, "While all team members feel a sense of collective responsibility and regret for what was said and done by some, the investigation found that the individual student-athletes who participated in the group chat acted on their own."
At the conclusion of its investigation, Columbia Athletics suspended certain members of the team for the remainder of the academic year or for the fall, depending on their level of involvement.
Those who did not take part in the group chat resumed competition that weekend at the New York State Intercollegiate Championships hosted by Cornell. The Light Blue placed third.
125 pound weight class: Joe Manchio, CC ’22
While Manchio still has two seasons left with the Lions, his skill has always been asserted on the mat. The sophomore received an automatic bid to the NCAA Wrestling championship after placing second at the 2020 EIWA championships. While his career is still young, there is a lot to look forward to.
133 pound weight class: Angelo Amenta, CC ’16
This first-team all Ivy selection was dominant in both EIWA and Ivy play, going 5-0 in his sophomore year against Ancient Eight competitors. His career was marked with consistency and skill, picking up major wins throughout his four years with the Light Blue. Reaching third place at the New York State Intercollegiate Championships, he cemented himself as an all-around wrestler and a strong captain on the team.
141 pound weight class: Matt Bystol, CC ’14
While Bystol spent his career between 133 and 141 pounds, he was a consistent standout nonetheless. In his junior season, he received an automatic bid to the NCAA Wrestling championships after coming second place at the EIWA Championships and defeating the top-seeded wrestler.
149 pound weight class: Steve Santos, CC ’13
After two middle-tier performances in his underclassmen years with the Lions, Santos’ career truly shot up in his junior season. After marking a 11-2 finish in EIWA play, the best on the team, he received his first bid to the NCAA championships. He was one win short that year of reaching All-American status. His senior season was truly one of the best for the Lions, as not only was Santos EIWA champion in the 149 weight class, but also with his automatic bid to nationals. He came third in the NCAA tournament—the best of any Lion ever.
157 pound weight class: Markus Scheidel, CC ’18
As one of the only four four-time NCAA qualifying wrestlers in the program’s history, Scheidel posted a team-high of 27 wins in his first-year season. In his sophomore season, he posted an impressive 5-0 against EIWA competitors after coming back from an injury. However, it was not until his junior season that he truly cemented himself in the history books after recording the most wins of any Columbia wrestler ever with a 41-10 record.
165 pound weight class: Eren Civan, CC ’12
Civan entered the decade with his first NCAA bid in his junior season. His automatic bid came after topping the No. 15 wrestler to become the runner-up at the EIWA championships. Throughout his five seasons with the Lions—he was injured in the 2007-08 season and was forced to sit out—Civan reached two runner-up finishes at the New York State Intercollegiate championships.
174 pound weight class: Tyrel White, CC ’18
White spent his time with the Lions breaking record after record. In his first season, he recorded more wins than any other rookie in the Light Blue’s history. He impressively tallied four consecutive NCAA championship bids and achieved three consecutive fourth-place EIWA finishes.
184 pound weight class: Zack Hernandez, CC ’16
While for most of his career Hernandez competed in the 174 category, he cemented himself as a powerhouse on the Lions in his sophomore year at 184, going 4-0 at the Michigan State Open and receiving a bid to the NCAA championships later that season. Hernandez placed fourth at the New York State Intercollegiate Championships in his sophomore season and placed third in his senior season.
197 pound weight class: Matt Idelson, CC ’15
Idelson defined himself in his sophomore season after he clinched a first-place 4-0 finish at the New York State Championships. He came back the next year with just as much fury, capturing second place. In his senior season, Idelson’s strong sixth-place showing at the EIWA Championships helped bring the team to an impressive fourth place, its best in a decade.
Heavyweight: Garrett Ryan, CC ’18
Ryan’s career was defined by excellence, receiving an NCAA bid all four years he was with the Light Blue. Named the 2015 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, he placed fourth at his first NCAAs. He was the EIWA champion in the heavyweight division his junior year, receiving his first automatic bid for nationals, which he would achieve again in his senior year.
2015 was a defining year for the Lions. In one of the program’s most dominant EIWA matches to date, the Light Blue dominated Hofstra 27-7. In addition the team handily defeated Harvard 27-12 and edged out Brown 19-15.
This season of success culminated at the EIWA Championships where the Light Blue squared off against its biggest division rivals. The tournament, which was hosted at Lehigh University, came to show how much the Lions had developed. While they were unable to bring home any individual first-place finishes, the team managed fourth place overall—its best finish since the 2004-05 season.
This result was only possible due to good teamwork and strong plays across each mat from the Lions. Every Lion that participated was at least eighth in their weight class, including three wrestlers making it in the top five.
The dominant EIWA showing marked the return of Markus Scheidel, CC ’18, who had been out for over a month due to injury. However, his time off the mat did not impact the sophomore’s performance in the slightest. In fact, he shut out his first opponent 7-0, followed by yet another win. In his third match, he fell but came back in the seventh-place match to overcome his loss. Scheidel once again faced Rich Eva from Princeton—his first competitor—pinning him within 30 seconds for a bid to the NCAA Championships.
However, it was not Scheidel who was able to make his mark and earn a ticket to nationals. Then first-year Tyrel White earned that honor as well. After a devastating first round fall to a Drexel opponent, White came back to win his next five consecutive matchups at the tournament. To earn a spot in the third place round, he had to pull ahead from a 3-3 tie. In the 174 pound weight class, there were only four bids for NCAAs. He had to win this match in order to clinch that final spot. Coming into the third period, the stakes were high for White, but he remained unfazed, capturing three points to earn his way to NCAAs.
While the Lions did not have any first prize accolades, this all-around strong performance by its underclassmen signaled that the program had great potential.