The distance between Trumbull, Connecticut and Waverly, Iowa is 1,157 miles.
But every mile has been worth it for Cross Cannone.
The standout senior has been on quite a journey during his remarkable wrestling career at Wartburg College.
The returning national champion will carry a 61-match winning streak into the NCAA Division III Championships on March 8-9 in Roanoke, Va.
“Cross has always had his sights set really high,” Wartburg coach Eric Keller said. “When he came here on his visit, he said ‘You guys know how to win a national championship and that’s why I’m here.’ The guy knew what he wanted. He made a big decision to come here and it’s really paid off for him.”
Cannone is ranked No. 1 nationally at 157 pounds and is 27-0 this season. He went undefeated and won a national title at 149 as a junior. He was an NCAA finalist at 141 as a sophomore.
“I know all of my opponents are gunning for me and I have that target on my back,” Cannone said. “But I feel my opponents are in the way of what I want to accomplish. That’s the way I approach it.”
After suffering a tough loss late in his high school career, Cannone wasn’t even sure he was going to wrestle in college.
That changed when the Wartburg coaches learned about him and reached out to him.
Cannone, a Connecticut native, knew nothing about Wartburg’s rich wrestling history or that it was one of the best programs in the collegiate ranks.
“I came out here and I fell in love with the culture,” he said. “All the guys on the team accepted me right away. The wrestling program is a great close-knit family that helped me develop into the man I am today. I would recommend this place to anybody.
“I remember when I first came here and saw all the national championship trophies and said, ‘I need to come here.'”
Cannone also found the perfect mentor in Keller, the high-energy head coach for the Knights.
“I loved Keller’s intensity and we clicked right away,” Cannone said. “When we first met, we really hit it off. We had the same mentality and the same goals. Even when you’re down about something, Keller can always pick you up and fire you up.”
Even with all of his success, it didn’t happen overnight at the collegiate level for Cannone.
He was unable to crack the starting lineup during his freshman season at Wartburg.
“His freshman year was hard for Cross – he really, really wanted to be the guy,” Keller said. “That was a hard situation for him, but he knew big things were ahead. That drove him and motivated him. He upped his level of discipline and his level of commitment.”
Cannone came back strong to reach the national finals as a sophomore at 141. He fell in the championship match, but he hasn’t lost since.
Cannone bumped up to 149 pounds last season before storming to a national title and a 34-0 record for the Knights.
“He majored his way through the national tournament,” Keller said. “He wrestled with such a high level of confidence and belief in what he can do.”
Cannone has excelled despite bumping up a weight class each of the last two seasons.
“After I took second at 141, I learned a lot from that loss and went into the summer with that hunger to win it the next year,” he said. “I worked hard in the weight room and the wrestling room. I feel like I’ve evolved both physically and mentally during my time here.”
Much of that work was done in the loaded Wartburg wrestling room, where he doesn’t have to look far to find quality practice partners.
“I believe in the hard work we put in at practice,” Cannone said. “I’ve never backed down from anyone. I’ve always wanted to wrestle the best guys. That’s the mentality I have. We have the best room in the country. I’ve always had a strong work ethic. My father taught me that and told me there are no shortcuts to being successful.”
Cannone is looking to finish his career by wrestling on his fourth straight national championship team. The Knights are ranked No. 1 in Division III.
“It’s something I’ve thought about and it would definitely be something special to do that,” he said. “We have seven guys going to nationals and I know our guys are focused. We will be ready to go.”
Cannone has scored bonus points in 18 of his wins this season. He already holds Wartburg’s school record for technical falls in a career.
“What’s great about Cross is he’s the ultimate competitor,” Keller said. “No matter how he feels or what the situation is, he’s a natural competitor in every sense of the word. I love that about him.”
Cannone is a physical wrestler who has also had success wrestling up a class at 165 pounds.
“He’s very strong and powerful, and he’s very proficient at what he does,” Keller said. “He can wrestle through about any position and that’s something he’s become better at. His strength in every position has really evolved.”
A business major at Wartburg, Cannone is a member of the New York Athletic Club and he said he plans to wrestle internationally in freestyle after college.
For now, Cannone is focused on finishing his college career in style.
“Cross knows this is his last tournament and he has to wrestle as hard as he can for seven minutes every match,” Keller said. “He’s wrestled consistently at a very high level for us and he knows what he needs to do.”