In every sport, come the postseason, there’s an old cliche that says “experience matters.”
Regardless of whether or not that statement is accurate, experience will be a big question mark for Penn’s wrestling team as it prepares for this year’s edition of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. The Quakers will be represented by a group of grapplers without national tournament experience for the first time since 1991.
“It’s hard being a first-timer coming in because you don’t truly know what you get yourself into,” coach Rob Eiter said. “So that’s where we as coaches come in and try to make sure that if we see them getting a little caught up with everything, we’ll take them out. The guys are super exited to be here and that’s the most important, to have that positive attitude.”
Last year, Penn entered the NCAAs under the guidance of senior grapplers Micah Burak and Mark Rappo, both of whom had already accumulated significant experience in the tournament, with Burak reaching All-American status a year earlier thanks to a seventh-place finish.
Nevertheless, the Red and Blue came out of the 2013 NCAA Championships empty-handed, with Burak barely missing out on All-American honors due to his 4-3 defeat against Iowa State’s Kyven Gadson.
This time around, Penn’s grapplers hope that, contrary to popular belief , experience does not matter. And maybe a wave of fresh faces won’t be a bad thing.
The Quakers are sending four wrestlers to Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena, including 2014 Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Assocation Championship runners-up junior Lorenzo Thomas (184 pounds) and senior Brad Wukie (174) .
Thomas and Wukie will take the mats along with sophomore Casey Kent (165), who also clinched an automatic bid to the NCAAs by virtue of his fourth-place finish at the EIWAs. Penn’s lone at-large selection was freshman Caleb Richardson (125).
The Red and Blue’s only seeded grappler, Thomas, will enter the tournament ranked No. 11. Two weeks ago, the junior sent a message to the wrestling nation by taking Cornell’s Gabe Dean to the wire in the EIWA finals. Thomas ultimately fell, 3-1, in a very controversial match.
“[Thomas] can go as far as he wants, he’s capable of beating anybody in the country at the weightclass and he’s wrestling with a lot of confidence right now,” Eiter said. “The match [two weekends ago] against the Cornell kid, he felt that he didn’t come off as strong as he could have, so I told him that he had to come out with the same fire that he had in the semi-finals of the EIWAs.”
Wukie, a senior, overcame an injury-plagued season right in time for the most important meetings of the year, reaching the finals at the EIWAs. At the NCAAs, like at the conference tournament, he will be able to count on the element of surprise, having flown under the radar for most of the season.
“If I’m on top of my game, I don’t think anybody can wrestle me,” Wukie said after EIWAs.
“Brad’s probably wrestling the best out of everybody right now,” Eiter said. “I told him [Wednesday]: ‘This is the Brad Wukie we recruited four years go, when we went and watched the state finals in Ohio and [you] just physically manhandled this kid in the final.’
“Brad’s wrestling very confident right now and very controlled, which he hadn’t been doing the last couple of years.”
Despite falling just short of the podium at the EIWAs, Kent has enjoyed a strong year so far, with a 19-7 overall record and only eight takedowns allowed.
Richardson, a much-heralded freshman coming into the 2013-14 season, is looking to prove he can bounce back from a disappointing 0-2 performance at the conference tournament.
Similarly to this year’s EIWAs, while none of the Quakers’ representatives enter the tournament a clear-cut favorite, the team is looking forward to a great performance.
In the end, it is quite unclear if experience matters. On the other hand, a national title or All-American status definitely does.
“My confidence is pretty high,” Eiter said. “I really, truly believe these guys have looked the best they have all year the past two weeks. And I’m not just doing a typical coach’s speech, I really think these guys have the potential right here.”