When it comes to matchups against top schools, it is sometimes a question of belief.
For the No. 24 Penn wrestling team, who on Saturday in Ithaca, N.Y., suffered their 11th defeat to No. 8 Cornell in a row, the prestige of their higher-ranked rivals mattered.
“In the wrestling world there’s a handful of teams that have that aura about them,” coach Rob Eiter said. “You don’t wrestle the guy in front of you, you wrestle the big ‘C’ [Cornell] on their chest or the big I [Iowa] and you get a little intimidated.”
The 24-9 score line was deceptive as the Quakers pushed their opponents all the way, losing two bouts in overtime. Senior wrestlers Mark Rappo (125 pounds) and Troy Hernandez at (157) were both defeated on tiebreakers.
No. 11 C.J. Cobb (141) also produced his most impressive win of the season against No. 6 Mike Nevinger, a returning All-American. For Cobb, the fact that it came against the Big Red meant more than anything.
“Before the season even started, one of the things I would think about was wrestling Cornell because it’s a big match,” Cobb said. “They’re a big team and there is a lot of pressure. I was really nervous before the match, more nervous than I have ever been.”
With the pressure of ferocious home support and the hopes of the team resting on him, Cobb produced what he called “the biggest win of [his] career”.
“[The] positives are that we are very very close [to the top teams],” Eiter said. “I think the guys are slowly but surely realizing that they are that good — and are that good as a team.”
On Sunday, the Quakers returned to the Palestra and demonstrated their class with a 23-10 victory over Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) rival Bucknell.
Their performance also had implications for the NCAA Championships, as freshman Casey Kent (165) stepped up against No. 9 Corey Lear to produce one of the most valuable wins of his short career. After being defeated the day before by three time national champion and No. 1 Kyle Dake of Cornell, this was a crucial victory on the road to the NCAAs.
“I definitely think it improves my confidence going forward to the rest of the season,” Kent said. “I am ready for it to come. I think I’ve got to do some work to get there, get in a little better condition, work harder and I should be ready.”
The victory over Bucknell was especially pleasing for Eiter as his team wrestled through its weightclasses, not giving the Bison an easy point and winning seven out of its 10 contests.
“That’s what we stressed in our meeting. Let’s make sure we win and win well. Don’t give these guys anything.” Eiter said. “We didn’t want to give them too many positives to take away and scoring as many points as we can does that.”
It is crunch time now for the Quakers as they face four Ivy opponents within the next four weeks, followed closely by the EIWA and NCAA Championships. And Eiter knows that if the Red and Blue are going to succeed, they must build on the positives they have taken out of this weekend’s matches.
“The guys are gaining confidence everyday,” Eiter said. “They are in shape and ready for the challenges ahead.”