At the time when the calendar turned over from 2015 to 2016, wrestling season couldn’t have been going any smoother for Brian Realbuto. In fact, it was almost too smooth.
The Cornell junior made the decision in the offseason to bump up from 157 pounds all the way to 174, and the transition was flawless for the first two months of the season. He was 19-0 when he headed home to Somers for the holidays, but his first tournament of the new year provided a harsh reality check.
Realbuto lost three matches at the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tennessee. — his only three losses of the season to this point — which brought his status as a national title contender into question.
“That was definitely a bad day,” Realbuto said. “I lost that first match to (Penn State’s Bo) Nickal, and it kind of drained me. At that time of the season, we had just come off of our Christmas break and I wasn’t in tip-top shape. … I kind of view those as hiccups. At the time, I was upset about them. But I think it was more of a physical thing than anything.”
In the eyes of Cornell coach Rob Koll, a few humbling regular-season losses may have been just what Realbuto needed.
“He had a bad weekend, but he had three lapses of judgment that cost him three matches,” Koll said. “Against Bo Nickal, he went from reversing him and winning to being down by six points. There were some freaky things. However, it was great for Brian because up until that point, things were coming a little too easy for him. It really refocused him.”
Realbuto has won every match since then — including avenging a previous loss to UPenn’s Casey Kent with an 8-2 decision on Feb. 13 — and will enter the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Madison Square Garden on Thursday as the No. 2 seed at 174 pounds.
“A bunch of things just started clicking, in the practice room especially,” Realbuto said. “I figured out a few positions that I had been struggling with. Guys are bigger, a little taller than I’m used to. It was a matter of figuring out the most efficient way to score on people with different body types.”
“Brian has the ability to wrestle effectively at any weight — No. 1, because he’s a great technician; and No. 2, because he’s freakishly strong,” Koll said. “As you go up weight classes, I also believe that the athleticism is a little bit weaker. If you can handle the strength, which he certainly can, I actually think he’s at a competitive advantage.”
The No. 1 seed at 174 is none other than Nickal, a redshirt freshman who beat Realbuto with a 14-7 decision at the Southern Scuffle. If the rematch happens, it would have to be in the finals, where Realbuto would understandably be viewed as the underdog.
That’s just fine with him and his coach.
“It’s not what he does to you, but what you do to him,” Koll said. “I’m not as concerned with what Bo Nickal is going to do to Brian as I am with what Brian is going to do to him. Just tighten up the game a little bit. You don’t need to pin everyone — you just need to score one more point.”
Realbuto got a taste of the NCAA finals last season, where he lost a 10-2 major decision to Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez. That garnered him national attention while fueling his desire to reach the pinnacle of his sport.
There has been only one wrestler from the Lower Hudson Valley who won a Division I national title: Clarkstown South graduate David Hirsch, while wrestling for Cornell in 1994. Realbuto, the only three-time New York state high school champ to ever come from this area and Section 1’s all-time wins leader with 277, could very well become the second local to get it done.
“Last year, getting to the finals, I was really excited to be there,” Realbuto said. “I think going into the finals match, I knew I could win it, but I was just really happy to be there. My mentality is different this year. I’m going in and expecting to win.”