PU’s Butler took long way to NCAAs

Junior makes it as at-large

By: Justin Feil
   Jake Butler didn’t exactly take the easy path to the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
   Not this year, not in his Princeton University career.
   Butler came to Old Nassau as a promising recruit out of Point Pleasant Beach, but in his very first varsity match, he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He returned the following year only to suffer the exact same injury in the preseason. It cost him a year of wrestling, and he took the year off from school.
   He returned last season to unspectacular results in the second semester, but has put together the season he knew he was capable of this year.
   "I’m just about where I thought I would be," said Butler, a junior who could have as many as two seasons of NCAA eligibility remaining. "My expectations were pretty high. I was pretty pumped."
   Still, Butler didn’t find the easy road to his first NCAA appearance. After winning the first two matches of his Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association championships — the NCAA qualifier — the fourth-seeded Butler lost in the semifinals to No. 1 seed Jon Trenge of Lehigh, then lost, 4-3, to third-seeded Thayer Paxton of Navy. After losing the emotional match, Butler returned to dominate his consolation final, 24-9, over fifth-seeded Marcus Schontube. That score along with Paxton’s win that granted him an at-large bid convinced the EIWA committee that Butler was deserving of one of the wild-card spots for the NCAA Championships.
   "Losing the semifinal match wasn’t that big a disappointment," said the 197-pounder. "I was hoping to bounce back and finish third. Losing to the Navy guy, I thought my chances were pretty slim. I just figured you have to give it everything you have and try to make it a point that you didn’t wrestle your best (against Paxton).
   "It was definitely tough. Any time you lose and go through wrestlebacks, it’s tough. After I placed fifth, it was still an hour and a half while they talked about it before I got one of the wildcards."
   Butler, who sported a 22-6 record after the EIWA Championships, was scheduled to begin the NCAA Championships against second-seeded Josh Rosholt of Oklahoma State on Thursday. The goal is to win early and avoid being thrown into a series of consolation matches to fight his way back up. He is the first Tigers wrestler since Greg Parker two years ago to reach the NCAAs.
   "It’s an accomplishment," Butler said. "I’m proud to have done it. I have pretty high expectations for myself. It’s nice to make it, but I don’t want to just be satisfied with that. My goal is to be All-American. I was expecting to be wrestling here."
   Butler had his share of tough moments. Injuring his same knee for a second straight season can do that, but he did not want to give up pursuing his All-American dream.
   "The thought runs through your head," Butler said. "But having not wrestled any matches, I wasn’t ready to give it up yet. I wanted to give it one last try.
   "It’s definitely not easy, especially after the second one," he added. "I had got back to healthy and then I got knocked back with the exact same injury. It was nice to have a year to focus on that and come back stronger. It definitely took a lot of time. There were points where I was frustrated. Last year, I was not wrestling the way I wanted to be."
   Yet after two and a half years, Butler still finished fifth at last year’s EIWA Championships, topping the No. 3 seed in his final match, but he was not rewarded with an NCAA berth. He had just 10 matches. He set about to make an NCAA berth a reality this season and entered the year with much higher confidence.
   "I could feel the changes," he said. "There was a time when I stuck with it, and I practiced a lot. I worked on what I had to improve on with the coaches. I did a lot of wrestling in the offseason. I wrestled at the U.S. Open in Vegas. I felt more prepared, in better shape, for this year."
   It showed as Butler earned second-team All-Ivy honors, the only Tiger to make the All-Ivy team, after putting together a 4-1 record against Ivy League opponents.
   "I’m finally hitting my stride just this year," Butler said. "Last year, I didn’t feel 100 percent. This year I felt a lot better."
   Butler is where he expected to be. He’s among the company of several Jersey-grown wrestlers who he recognizes from his scholastic career. More importantly, he’s among the best wrestlers in the country, which is where he always thought he belonged and where he expects to be again next year.
   "I think it’s really important to make it senior year," he said. "It’s kind of a big thing. You can get a little overwhelmed. The level of competition is so high. Looking at next year, having this under my belt, I’ll be able to come in and improve on whatever I do this year."
   And this year, Butler is hoping to surprise those who haven’t seen him for two seasons. The NCAAs are another chance to show that he’s fully returned.
   "I’m very excited," he said. "I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be the greatest experience. As far as what to expect, I think I have a pretty good idea of what it will be like. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a real positive experience. Hopefully I’ll wrestle well and come out and do well.
   "I definitely feel like I’m peaking," he added. "I’ve really been working on some stuff. Maybe I’ve been taking it a little easier this past week. But I’m in the best shape I’ve been in all year."
   Make that the best shape he’s been in since arriving at Princeton University. That has Jake Butler in the NCAA Championships, right where he expected to be from the outset of his career.