For anyone familiar with collegiate wrestling, a quick glance at the Quakers’ 2012-13 schedule is enough to realize that a tough road lies ahead.
Not counting the upcoming Keystone Classic and Midlands Championships, Penn’s wrestling team will take part in 13 duals this season before the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Championships in early March.
Five of these future opponents — Oklahoma State, Cornell, Hofstra, Lehigh and Harvard — are ranked higher than No. 29 Penn in the current Intermat poll. Of the remaining seven, only two — Stanford and Brown — are unranked.
“Our schedule took a big jump as far as to the level of competition that we’re seeing this year, and it’s all the better to prepare for the end of the year,” coach Rob Eiter said.
But can the Quakers survive this brutal schedule? Moreover, do they stand a chance against powerhouses such as No. 4 Oklahoma State, which currently fields a top-three wrestler in four weightclasses?
For the moment, these questions don’t have clear answers. But if history is in any way indicative, then things could get ugly. The Red and Blue haven’t defeated No. 8 Cornell in a decade and haven’t had an NCAA champion since assistant coach Matt Valenti achieved the feat twice in 2006 and 2007.
In 2011, the 8-6 Quakers lost to Cornell, Lehigh, Hofstra, Harvard and Maryland, with their only success over a higher-ranked program being an early 24-18 victory over American, which finished the year ranked 14th.
The Red and Blue had a tough slate last year, and this season figures to be at least as challenging.
Furthermore, because of their intense schedule, Penn’s wrestlers might get exhausted — or even worse, crumble under the pressure — before the EIWA and NCAA Championships. In a sport where individual success is at a premium, this schedule is risky.
Then again, this is a team that possesses quality depth and talent in every weightclass, from 125-pounds to the heavyweights. While still very young, it has more experience than last year’s squad.
And, because of their relative anonymity, most of Penn’s grapplers need to wrestle highly-ranked foes to get the attention needed for at-large bids to NCAAs.
It is true that there are currently just two ranked Penn wrestlers: No. 13 Mark Rappo at 125 pounds — who hasn’t wrestled in over a year — and No. 5 Micah Burak at 197 pounds.
But Burak finished second at the Binghamton Open Sunday, proving he is already in top form early in the season, while Rappo will make his return at this weekend’s Keystone Classic.
Mentally, there is no doubt the Quakers are ready. This is a squad that knows what’s coming and is “looking forward to it,” Eiter said.
But until the Quakers actually beat top-notch programs such as Cornell, it will be unclear how strong Penn’s grapplers really are.
But as Eiter said, “If you want to be the best, [you’ve] got to wrestle the best.”
And as cliche as it may sound, this statement is true.
There’s only one road that leads to a national title, and it’s not going to be an easy one.
KARL BAGHERZADEH is a sophomore international studies and business major from Paris, France. He can be reached at dpsports@theDP.com.
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