Here’s a riddle: what do two seniors, a transfer, a nationally-ranked junior and a true freshman have in common?
They’re the unique crew that will represent Penn’s wrestling team at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis beginning today.
For seniors Zack Kemmerer and Bryan Ortenzio, transfer senior Erich Smith, junior Micah Burak and freshman Steve Robertson, the chance to wrestle against the country’s best provides a shared opportunity to make history.
However, each one arrived at this point in a vastly different way.
For Kemmerer, wrestling on the big stage is nothing new, as this year marks his third trip to NCAAs. Last year’s No. 12 seed at the 141-pound weightclass, Kemmerer enters this year’s tournament unseeded following a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association regional semifinals.
Rather than let the early exit affect him, though, Kemmerer redoubled his efforts.
“It lit a fire under me for the past couple of weeks,” Kemmerer said. “It was a good week of training, and it sort of put me in the mindset that I need to be in to do what I want to do.”
In stark contrast to Kemmerer is true freshman Robertson, wrestling on the biggest stage in his first year of eligibility.
After finishing fifth at EIWAs at 149, Robertson garnered an unseeded bid to the tournament and the opportunity to wrestle against Michigan’s No. 8 seeded Eric Grajales, the younger brother of Penn wrestling legend Cesar Grajales.
Robertson is not daunted by the challenge.
“I’ve got nothing to lose, really,” Robertson said. “I’m just going to try and go out there, give it my all and just try and make some noise.”
Another Penn wrestler with nothing to lose is senior Erich Smith, a transfer from Michigan.
An afterthought to many after losing his opening round matchup at EIWAs at 184 pounds, Smith put together an improbable run, winning four straight matches in the wrestle-back bracket to notch a third place finish and an automatic bid to nationals.
In his first round matchup, the unseeded Smith gets a rematch against Arizona State’s Kevin Radford, who defeated him, 5-2, in the Northeast Duals in late November.
While Smith, Kemmerer and Robertson may enter the tournament unseeded, two of Penn’s wrestlers come in with high seeds and even higher expectations.
Coming off his third consecutive trip to the conference finals at 197 pounds, junior Micah Burak will wrestle as a No. 11 seed.
After wrestling his way to the round of 12 last season, Burak goes to St. Louis with high hopes, as well as a chance to exact revenge on Cornell’s Cam Simaz, the No. 1 overall seed that defeated him in the conference finals.
The other seeded wrestler for the Red and Blue is senior Bryan Ortenzio, who, with a win at 133 pounds at EIWAs, captured Penn’s first conference title since 2008.
For his efforts, Ortenzio earned a No. 12 seed in his second consecutive appearance at NCAAs.
Brimming with confidence, Ortenzio, like the rest of the Penn squad, is eager to make a splash on wrestling’s biggest stage.
“I’ve actually been chomping at the bit,” Ortenzio said. “I really think it’s possible for me to run the table — make semis, make finals and with the way I’ve been wrestling, I would expect nothing less from myself.”