Is this finally the year Penn wrestling beats Cornell?
“Every year’s the year we beat Cornell,” coach Rob Eiter said.
Of course, what Eiter really means is that while the No. 24 Quakers have given up 10 in a row to the No. 8 Big Red, this season might very well be the team’s best shot to put an end to the long losing streak against its archrival.
“I definitely know they’re not overlooking us, [as] they did a little bit last year I think,” Eiter said. “They actually had a scare against Harvard last week so I know [Cornell] coach [Rob] Koll is ready, he’s not going to take this meeting too lightly.”
And for both the wrestlers and fans, the dual meet in Ithaca, N.Y., should live up to great expectations.
“It’s up there so it’ll be fun, they’ll have a good crowd, a hostile environment,” senior Micah Burak (197 pounds) said.
“Their fans are supposed to be pretty crazy, pretty in your face; it’s going to be a high energy match,” sophomore C.J. Cobb (141) added.
While Saturday’s lineups are still not set in stone, Cornell will be featuring at least five ranked wrestlers, including undefeated No. 1 Kyle Dake, who at 165 pounds is vying to become the first wrestler to ever win four NCAA titles in four different weight classes.
And with both teams “in the same situation,” as Eiter said about their respective lineup quests, it might come down to — as always — the so-called toss-up matches.
“This is going to have to be a situation where every coach will talk about the toss-up matches and usually you win or lose with those,” he said. “We have to wrestle like we know we can. We have to push the pace, we have to score at the end of periods, we have to wrestle our style and not play into theirs.”
At 125 pounds, No. 20 Mark Rappo will face off against No. 7 Nahshon Garrett. Rappo, while at a disadvantage on paper, can count on his experience as a senior and could very well defeat Garrett, a freshman.
While the lineup is still unclear at 133 pounds, the next weightclass features what Eiter described as a “marquee matchup” between Cobb and No. 6 Mike Nevinger.
“[Nevinger]’s kind of you could say an unorthodox wrestler,” Cobb said. “He’s pretty strong, he likes to funk, to scramble and I like to do that stuff too, so it could be an interesting match.”
Meanwhile, No. 14 Chris Villalonga of Cornell is the clear favorite at 149 pounds. But Penn sophomore Andrew Lenzi, who’s enjoyed great success so far this season, has a chance be in line for an upset.
Two key matches will take place at 157 and 174 pounds, and these may very well end up deciding the outcome of the whole dual meet.
“I was going through the lineup of potential matches today, and obviously they’re favored — just on paper — in more matches than we are,” Eiter said. “But there’s a couple of matches … where if things go our way, it could be they win six and we win four, or we win six and they win four.”
Penn junior Canaan Bethea (184) will face a tough challenge in the form of No. 4 Steve Bosak, while Burak will be the clear-cut favorite at 197 pounds.
“[I have to] just try to go out there and do my best, honor God and try to get a pin and six points if I can,” Burak said.
If the Quakers manage to keep up with the Big Red, it could all come down to the bout in the heavyweight class, whose lineup is still uncertain.
And while the much-hyped Cornell dual is always on the radar of every Penn enthusiast, the team is still aware of its No. 1 priority: the Eastern Intercollegiate College Association (EIWA) and NCAA Championships in March.
“It started back in October when the guys came here and we laid out some pretty lofty goals for the team. Win or lose, those goals are still there,” Eiter said. “It’s all about progressing. You can’t be content with winning and you can’t go hide when you lose and feel sorry for yourself.
“If we win on Saturday, everybody’s going to remember that, but it still matters in March more.”