Of Penn’s four first-time NCAA qualifiers, one emerged as an All-American.
No. 11 seed Lorenzo Thomas went 5-3 over a grueling three-day stretch at the NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City to finish sixth and become Penn’s first ever 184-pound All-American, and the 27th overall. The junior's performance, which featured a torrid run through the consolation bracket, produced the highest NCAA finish for a Penn wrestler under coach Rob Eiter.
“It feels great to be an All-American,” Thomas said. “It feels nice to accomplish my goal this year in becoming one. I’m happy with the overall result.”
The achievement was certainly not easy.
In front of crowds numbering well over 15,000, Penn’s most electrifying grappler did not let a 2-0 second-round loss to No. 6 seed Jacob Swartz of Boise State deter him, as he tore through the consolation bracket and won his next four matches on Friday.
In his first wrestleback, Thomas delivered a commanding 6-0 win over No. 5 Ethen Lofthouse of Iowa. In what was his strongest match of the tournament, the Penn junior amassed 4:48 of riding time against the senior two-time All-American.
“That was [Thomas’] best match of the tournament,” Eiter said. “He wrestled great. He stuck to his game plan, had a good strategy and wrestled in his best position.”
Thomas continued to stand up to Big 10 competition the ensuing match, edging No. 14 seed John Rizzquallah of Michigan State with a reversal with 40 seconds remaining to advance to the round of 12.
Thomas then held on for a 7-5 decision over Arizona State’s Blake Stauffer in the Round of 12 to guarantee a Top-8 finish and All-American status.
In the consolation quarterfinals, Thomas defeated No. 12 Ophir Bernstein of Brown for the fourth time this season with an 8-5 decision.
“After the loss, I really had nothing to lose,” Thomas said. “I needed to wrestle every match like it was my last, and if I lost, I was going to be out.
“I just went out there and gave it my all.”
The next day, in the consolation semifinals, Thomas was not able to avenge his EIWA final loss to No. 3 seed Gabe Dean of Cornell. Thomas was unable to hang with the Big Red freshman sensation after a tight first period, falling behind, 11-3, before getting pinned with 18 seconds remaining in the match.
The match marked the end of the initial chapter in an Ivy League rivalry that isn’t going anywhere.
“[Dean]’s going to be my main opponent for the next two years,” Thomas said. “We’re gonna wrestle each other a lot. I need to work harder and get tougher to be ready for him.”
In the fifth-place match, Thomas took on No. 7 seed Kevin Steinhaus of Minnesota, to whom he had lost a 6-3 match back at the Southern Scuffle in January. Steinhaus, fighting ferociously for precious bonus points for his Gophers, beat down Thomas, 17-2, to end his run.
Eiter was impressed with how Thomas handled the big stage.
“Wrestling the top teams with that crowd — there’s external factors involved,” Eiter said. “It’s not just the wrestling part of it, it’s everything else.
“To be put in that situation, for the first time, Lorenzo wrestled great.”
After struggling during the season to tip highest ranked wrestlers, Thomas stepped up with a performance that will likely go a long way.
“It’s definitely a great confidence booster that I was able to take out some top guys,” Thomas said. “It lets me know I’m right there. “
Penn’s three other NCAA qualifiers, all unseeded and faced with tough first round opponents, failed to win a match in the tournament.
An early surge by No. 4 seed Steven Monk of North Dakota proved too much for Penn 165-pounder Casey Kent in his first-round match, as the sophomore captain was defeated, 7-4, after quickly falling behind 5-0.
Kent’s tournament ended abruptly when he gave up a late reversal to John Staudenmayer of North Carolina that was the difference in a 2-1 loss in the first consolation round.
Freshman Caleb Richardson was defeated at 125 pounds, 9-6, by No. 7 Tyler Cox of Wyoming after scoring the first round match’s initial takedown. He was then dropped, 6-3, in his first wrestleback by Edinboro’s Kory Mines.
Senior Brad Wukie, grappling at 174 pounds, also struck first in his opening round match, but was ultimately defeated, 4-2, by No. 7 seed Tyler Wilps of Pittsburgh.
Wukie fell victim to a larger comeback in his wrestleback, which he lost 13-11 to Oregon State’s Joe Latham.
“It’s an environment like no other,” Wukie said. “It was a great experience, one I will always remember.”
Eiter is hoping this experience proves valuable to the entire team in the future.
“At the end of the day, it’s really going to improve our room and improve everybody’s confidence and attitude as we move forward as look ahead to next year," he said.