Columbia returns to competition in 2021-22 after not competing in the 2020-21 season due to COVID. (The Ivy League canceled its 2020-21 winter season.) The Lions are led by Zach Tanelli, who is entering his sixth season as Andrew F. Barth Head Coach of Wrestling at Columbia.
Tanelli, an All-American as a competitor for Wisconsin, has had a strong record of success leading Columbia's wrestling program. The Lions had eight NCAA qualifiers in Tanelli's first four seasons. Columbia had its most conference (EIWA) wins during the 2019-20 season with eight.
MatBoss caught up with Tanelli and talked to him about not being able to compete last season, NYCRTC, women's wrestling, Ivy League, expectations and more.
The Ivy League canceled its winter sports season in 2021. You were not able to compete in the college season. How did that affect your program? What has the last year been like?
Tanelli: It's been challenging, but it's been an opportunity to really see where we're at as far as commitment. That's the hardest thing. It was really, really challenging to be creative to find ways to keep these guys motivated. I admire my team so much more now than I ever did because of how they handled the situation. I really don't know if I could have handled it the way they did and maintained focus the way that they did. They didn't skip a beat although they were very disappointed. Everyone was devastated. But they got up, put their head down, went to work and made the best of it. All of these guys qualify for our training center, so it was nice to be able to start training there. Two weeks ago was the first time that we've wrestled in our wrestling room since March 2020 when they canceled NCAAs two years ago. It's pretty amazing to be back and be on the cusp of a normal season. It was a hard year, but I'm happy for the most part that it's done. And all signs point us being able to compete this year, so we're just looking forward to that.
You recently released your schedule for the 2021-22 season, which includes the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational in December and the Southern Scuffle in early January before you get into your dual meet season. Overall thoughts on your schedule?
Tanelli: We've actually made another change too, adding a top-five team for a dual meet early on. So we'll send that out soon. I think we're transitioning as a team. It's my sixth year. You're always taking steps. You have big picture goals and smaller picture goals. I think a lot of the smaller picture goals we've kind of hit on, whether it's recruiting or dual meet wins. I think the next step for our program is to be putting guys regularly on the NCAA podium. In order to do that we need to increase our opportunities. Get more qualifiers to the national tournament. Also, we need to wrestle against more All-Americans and national champions. That way we know what they feel like … or know that we can beat them or hang with them or whatever that process may be. So we've designed the schedule as such to mandate really, really hard matches where we're going to be exposed. We're going all over the country this year looking for losses. That sounds funny but that's what it is. We're hunting people down for losses because from those losses we'll grow. I know with our training schedule that we'll make the necessary adjustments to peak for the EIWAs and NCAAs to be on the podium.
Your college program interfaces with the NYCRTC, which has some high-level coaches in Kendall Cross and Valentin Kalika. World champs, Olympic medalists and national team members train out of the club. How instrumental is the NYCRTC to your collegiate program at Columbia?
Tanelli: I think it's huge. When I came here we didn't have it. I came here and I started this with the vision of doing exactly what it's done. It has legitimized our program. I think the RTC is the easiest way to legitimize any wrestling program because if you have support, if you have financial backing, you can attract some really good people. Columbia has some really passionate fans and supporters that want the best for this college program. So we've been able to get some big names for coaches and big names for athletes. What does that do? If we don't have those NCAA All-Americans or national champs in a room immediately, say four or five years ago, we're still going to be able to give that to them through the RTC. They're not they're not there to steal your spot. They're there just as extra coaches as well. So I think what it's done for us as far as recruiting. It's really opened things up from a recruiting perspective. That's probably been the biggest benefit … legitimizing us nationally where people aren't asking where Columbia is. They know where it is.
The NYCRTC partnered with NJRTC. What has that partnership been like?
Tanelli: It's been good. They have high-level athletes as well. A lot of our supporters and backers kind of work together. It just kind of was a natural fit.
You landed a recruiting class that was ranked No. 25 by InterMat. What do you like about the incoming freshman class?
Tanelli: I think it's like the second or third time in a row that we've had a top-25 recruiting class. What do I like about them? I like that they fit our program. They fit our personalities as coaches and our culture and identity as a program. I think that's it. I think that's where we've made the biggest transition overall is the type of kids we're recruiting and not being able to walk away. We have kids that want to be here, that choose Columbia. They are hungry to wrestle. On top of that, they come from really good families and they have great personalities. This class already has shown how naturally they fit. It's like they've been here for two years. They're all joking around with each other and busting my chops. All of these things are really good when you talk about culture. So I'm really, really excited for them. I think we've got some great guys in there. Some might be in the starting lineup. Some might take a little bit of time to develop. I'm just excited. I'm excited to see what they look like in a couple months because obviously there's a transition period. I know that they're doing the work to come out on the other end of that.
The Ivy League has a strong record of success at the national level. Obviously, Cornell has been the premier program for many years. Princeton has obviously become a national power in recent years. How do you feel about the league right now? Is it as strong as ever?
Tanelli: I'm really excited about it because of what has happened with Cornell, Princeton and all this recruiting. People want the best of both worlds. They want to not only put themselves in a position to win athletically, but they want to win professionally. The Ivy League gives you an opportunity to do that. So I think as much as I don't want to give credit or more credit than Cornell deserves, they really spearheaded this thing and made it possible. The more success any Ivy League program has, the better it is for all the Ivy League programs. You mentioned that Cornell is kind of the one we're all running down and Princeton. We've taken third the past couple years and we feel good about our establishment to kind of nudge our way into two and hopefully into one here pretty soon. But there's a lot that goes into it more than more than talking about it. So I guess what I'd say is I'm really encouraged. I know there's a lot of competition. It's different than some other leagues. The strength of this conference is increasing all the way around, not just in one or two programs.
Obviously, women's wrestling has continued to gain in popularity. Many high school state associations have sanctioned it. Women's wrestling was added to the list of NCAA emerging sports by the NCAA. I know Princeton has been trying to add women's wrestling to the university as an official NCAA-sanctioned sport. Do you envision women's wrestling coming to Columbia?
Tanelli: Yeah, definitely. We have four girls that wrestle with us daily right now. I'm not trying to take credit away from Princeton, but we've been ahead of the curve on this women's wrestling thing. We have a women's wrestling coach for our club, Emma Randall. She is great. She works with Team USA. She's made a tremendous impact on the women's side of things and our development in pursuit to have a sponsored women's program. So, I'd argue with our limitations, that we are pushing as hard as anybody in the country to have a women's program. Now, there's other things that go into it. Logistically, when it comes to admission support, there's a lot of red tape that you have to cut through, especially in the Ivy League, different than some other places. We're working them out and we're trying it. So there's actually potential. We're in the process or communication with our administration about rostering those four girls to our men's team and having kind of a mixed team for the time being. So it's just about providing opportunities. I think the best thing and the healthiest thing for the sport of wrestling right now is to get behind women's wrestling.
Joe Manchio was an NCAA qualifier at 125 pounds in 2020. Obviously, he didn't get the opportunity to compete at the NCAAs because of COVID. How is he doing? And what are your expectations for him?
Tanelli: Joe is as motivated and hungry as anyone I have ever coached. I am incredibly excited about Joe Manchio. I think he's awesome. My expectation for him is to be an All-American this season. I think he's capable. He's beaten guys ranked top five in the country before. I think his weight is in a really good place. He's really committed to the process, his health, his diet. I expect him to go out there and compete the way he always does. If he performs the way he's capable of performing, he's going to be really, really pleased with the results that he walks away from this season. I have no doubt that he's going to be an All-American this season.
Matt Kazmir was an NCAA qualifier for you. I noticed he's not on the online roster. Will he be a member of your team this season?
Tanelli: Yeah. I think we have about ten guys still out. If you check all the Ivy League rosters now versus Jan. 1, there's going to be a pretty big increase in numbers. You have to go four years straight in the Ivy League, but anyone is eligible to take a voluntary leave of absence. The NCAA gives you five years to complete it. So these guys get jobs. They get internships. And they're training. So when they canceled the season last year our guys finished out the semester academically and then unenrolled for this spring and fall semester to re-enroll for this spring and not lose a championship season with the Ivy League. So the NCAA gave everyone a season but the Ivy League didn't. So these guys came to Columbia to represent and wrestle for Columbia. In order to do that they had to un-enroll. So Matt is one of those guys. He'll be back for the Southern Scuffle. If you look at our schedule, we have very, very few competitions in the first semester. That's primarily because we are going to be missing some significant guys at the first semester still.
How will you measure success for the 2021-22 season?
Tanelli: We're going measure success by how we compete. I expect these guys to be tough and gritty, have passion and come into practice and train hard every day to compete to the best of their ability. I don't anticipate anyone on my team going undefeated and I'm really, really comfortable with that. How we measure success will evolve as the season goes on. Injuries play a role in that. If we can stay healthy I know we will have a successful season. As far as what that means in terms of results, that's kind of irrelevant right now. I think we 're capable of having kids who are All-Americans and national qualifiers that people don't expect. I have a lot of confidence and a lot of internal expectations.