Anytime in the past decade, if you asked which Ivy League university had the premier wrestling program, you would have gotten a clear answer: Cornell.
And that is still the case today.
Penn wrestling has a ways to go before its name becomes the clear answer, but Saturday marks an opportunity for the program to make a statement against the No. 4 team in the nation and regain an edge in the Ancient Eight ranks.
The last time the Big Red (7-0, 2-0 Ivy) lost an Ivy League dual was in 2002, against – you guessed it – the Quakers (4-4, 0-0).
Penn’s chances don’t seem promising on paper against an undefeated and highly-ranked Cornell squad that boasts seven grapplers ranked in the top 20 nationwide according to W.I.N. magazine.
But the Red and Blue are not concerned.
“I actually feel pretty good,” coach Rob Eiter said. “We’ve had a good week of preparation. Coming off a not very stellar weekend has motivated the guys.”
This Penn squad has no shortage of motivation entering a dual with a rival as familiar and talented as Cornell, and the same especially goes for freshman 125-pounder Caleb Richardson.
Richardson, who is set to make his first dual appearance of 2014 after suffering a shoulder injury at the Southern Scuffle in January, has quite a connection with his next opponent, sophomore Nahshon Garrett, the top-ranked 125-pound wrestler in the country.
Richardson and Garrett were wrestling partners at Finger Lakes Wrestling Club in the Ithaca region two years ago.
“I’m excited about that,” Richardson said of the upcoming match. “I’m feeling real confident. I’ve beaten him plenty of times in practice.”
Richardson realizes the opportunity the match against Garrett presents.
“Right now, he’s the man,” Richardson said. “It’ll be a chance for me to really get my name out there in the college wrestling world.”
While Penn has had its share of young wrestlers make an impact this season — Richardson, 165-pounder Casey Kent and 197-pounder Frank Mattiace — Cornell’s young talent has dazzled even more.
In addition to Garrett, a top-ranked sophomore, four of the Big Red’s nationally ranked grapplers are freshmen.
No Cornell freshman has been as impressive as 184-pounder Gabe Dean.
The third-ranked Dean, who has won a team-high 15 straight matches, gained national notoriety — and a Sports Illustrated mention — from his upset of two-time defending national champion Ed Ruth of Penn State at the Southern Scuffle.
Taking on Dean will be junior Lorenzo Thomas, who leads Penn with 17 wins. Thomas will be looking for his first win against a ranked opponent come Saturday.
“The marquee matchup is Lorenzo’s,” Eiter said.
Another promising matchup comes at 165 pounds, as Penn’s hottest wrestler, junior Casey Kent, takes on No. 17 freshman Dylan Palacio, who is 6-1 in duals.
In light of the Quakers’ loss to Army last weekend, Eiter hopes his grapplers perform better throughout the duration of their bouts.
“We want to finish stronger,” Eiter said. “Last weekend, we scored the first takedown in most of the bouts, but we didn’t finish strong.”
Finishing strong Saturday will help provide an exciting start to the Ivy dual season for the Quakers.