Forty-seven days after the Drexel men’s wrestling team competed in the Colonial Athletic Association Championships, the program announced its intention to leave the CAA for the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association next season.
The Dragons, who accrued an 8-12 overall record with a 3-3 record against CAA opponents, will join the EIWA next year along with longtime conference rival Hofstra University, as well as Boston University and Binghamton University. Drexel will join a stable of schools that includes Cornell University, home of four top-five NCAA finishers in their weight classes, and local competition in Lehigh University.
Head coach Matt Azevedo, fresh off the more successful of his two seasons at the helm of the program, had a big hand in the change.
“When asked by the administration of a change in conferences, I said I would like to join the EIWA, and they agreed,” Azevedo, who coached at Drexel’s new conference competitor Cornell during the best stretch in that program’s history, said.
Azevedo sees the move as a positive chance for the Dragons to increase their wrestling program’s profile moving forward.
“This move to the EIWA is going to help us on many levels,” Azevedo said. “The EIWA is the largest conference in Division I wrestling and the second-most successful. Our team will be challenged at the highest level, which is exactly what we want and need to reach our goals of producing All-Americans on a yearly basis.”
This year’s Drexel team produced two competitors in the NCAA Tournament, redshirt junior Brandon Palik and senior Frank Cimato, but was void of an All-American wrestler. The EIWA, on the other hand, produced six All-American wrestlers this year, which highlights the kind of step-up the Dragons could experience next season.
Azevedo does not expect his team to be intimidated, as he hopes for more of his wrestlers to follow in the footsteps of Palik and Cimato.
“I believe we will compete very well in the EIWA next season and the years to come,” Azevedo said. “We are hoping to qualify more wrestlers to the NCAA Tournament due to the fact that the EIWA has more qualifying spots.”
Drexel Athletic Director Eric Zillmer echoed Azevedo’s sentiments, citing the extra chances for qualifiers, higher level of competition, and conference profile as the primary reasons for the shift. He also acknowledged that the EIWA will present a challenge for the team.
“The thing we need to do is step up a little bit, but I have complete confidence in Coach Azevedo,” Zillmer said. “He knows what he’s doing, and our job is to create an infrastructure that he can succeed in. So I really think that all of these moves are good, necessary moves, and the best is yet to come for us.”
The departure of Drexel, whose campus was the birthplace of CAA wrestling before the 1992 season, leaves the conference’s wrestling collection in dire straits. Zillmer acknowledged that after the departure of George Mason University and Old Dominion University this spring, the truth was that “[the conference’s wrestling program] was on life support probably for a while.”
While not directly related, the transition is a notable departure from Zillmer’s remarks about the men’s basketball team earlier this year in relation to conference realignment.
In a previous interview with The Triangle, Zillmer spoke to his belief in “making [the CAA] stronger” in response to a question about the prospect of the Dragons leaving the conference in basketball. Just 20 days after that interview was published in the April 5 issue of The Triangle, Drexel announced the EIWA plan for the wrestling team.
Yet Zillmer reaffirmed his belief in the CAA as the Dragons’ primary home in a more recent interview May 1.
“As athletic director, you would love to have all of your teams in one league, but that’s not the reality,” Zillmer said. “But we’re not looking to diversify our sports. We’d rather be in the CAA.”
Next year, though, Drexel wrestling will be a member of the EIWA, which holds its conference championships at the University of Pennsylvania. Only time will tell how the change will affect the program, but the heads of Dragon wrestling seem confident in the move.