Sports

Wrestler Bernstein earns All-American honors

Junior co-captain makes Brown history as first wrestler to win honor since 1998

By
Sports Editor
Monday, March 31, 2014

Ophir Bernstein ’15 grapples with an opponent. His eighth-place performance at the NCAA Championships secured him All-American status, making him the first Bruno wrestler to earn the distinction in 16 years.

Before the wrestling team entered the season, Head Coach Todd Beckerman asked all his athletes to write down their personal goals. Co-captain Ophir Bernstein ’15 wrote, “I want to be an All-American,” he recalled Sunday.

But as the junior entered his third NCAA Championship tournament last weekend, the goal seemed somewhat unlikely. The All-American tag accompanies a top-eight finish, but Bernstein was ranked 12th. And besides the 11 higher-ranked foes, he had to topple a 16-year drought of any Bears earning All-American in wrestling.

As it turned out, neither history nor the slew of 184-pound talent at the meet kept the Bruno grappler from claiming All-American status and etching his name in the Brown record books with an eighth-place finish.

“Every little kid has dreams of being an All-American,” he said. “I was so happy to be able to go to this stage and accomplish what I set out to do.”

In Thursday’s opening round, Bernstein met a familiar foe in Columbia’s Zack Hernandez. Bruno’s co-captain held a 3-0 regular-season mark against the Lion, including shutouts in the two most recent matches, and used the favorable matchup to earn a 4-1 first-round win.

After a staring contest for much of the first period, Bernstein took the initiative late in the frame with a successful shot to take a 2-0 lead. He did not waste time doubling his advantage early in the second period with another takedown on the rim of the circle. Bernstein opted to start down in the final period and held tight to his position to seal his expected victory, allowing Hernandez’s only tally to come via riding time.

Instead of facing fifth-ranked Ethen Lofthouse from the perennial powerhouse University of Iowa, Bernstein was paired in his second-round match with Edinboro University’s Victor Avery, who had upset Lofthouse in the opening round.

The unranked Avery proved his opening shocker was no fluke by jumping on top of Bernstein with a 2-0 lead in the first period and clinging to a 3-1 edge into the third period. But in crunch time, Bernstein rallied with four unanswered points to end Avery’s Cinderella run. Following an escape that cut the lead to one, Bernstein vaulted above Avery with a clutch takedown in the final minute. Avery could not escape to tie the match, and the riding time point gave Bernstein a 5-3 victory.

The 2-0 opening day sent Bernstein to the quarterfinals for the first time in his career and put him in good position for an All-American bid.

“After those first two matches, I realized how close I actually was,” Bernstein said. “I was one win away and felt good about my chances in the quarterfinals.”

But a 7-5 setback at the hands of Jack Dechow, the 13th-ranked qualifier from Old Dominion University, threw Bernstein’s mission into question. Early takedowns gave Dechow a lead that Bruno’s 184-pounder could not surmount, and the loss put Bernstein in a win-or-go-home match against Ohio State University’s Kenny Courts.

The 10th-ranked Courts was all that stood between Bernstein and his All-American aspirations. The match’s gravity fueled his drive, he said.

“No one remembers you if you’re one round away,” he said. “I just kept thinking before that match that it was win-or-go-home, and I did not come all this way to go home now.”

Though Courts had defeated Bernstein 13-7 at a tournament in Las Vegas Dec. 7, when the pair met on the national stage, it was all Bernstein.

“I’d take him down, he’d get up and I’d take him down again,” Bernstein said. “I was very solid, and didn’t give him an opportunity to gain any edge.”

Bruno’s co-captain took an early lead over his Buckeye counterpart and never trailed in the high-scoring 9-4 match. Three periods and three Bernstein takedowns later, Brown had an All-American.

After clinching the top-eight finish, Bernstein lost his final two matches to two of the class’s toughest competitors. Penn’s Lawrence Thomas has had Bernstein’s number all season, holding a 3-0 record when the Ivy foes have clashed this season. He continued his success with a 8-5 decision in wrestlebacks Saturday. The seventh-place match featured the highest-ranked opponent Bernstein faced all tournament — sixth-ranked Jacob Swartz from Boise State University. The Bronco showed how he was able to lose only three bouts all season with a convincing 6-1 win over Bernstein.

Not only did Bernstein secure an unlikely spot on the podium, his three wins over the weekend improved him to 36 wins on the season. The total places him second all-time at Brown, trailing only 1991-92 EIWA Outstanding Wrestler Steve Thoma by a single victory.

“This is very exciting for the program,” Beckerman said. “Next year, not only do we have Ophir back, but guys know it can be done, see it can be done and recruits see how we work.”

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