The saying in wrestling may go “sweep the legs,” but the grappling that took place at Sunday’s Keystone Classic left onlookers’ legs rooted to the spot in suspense.
But the annual tournament, which featured 11 teams and lasted over 10 hours at the Palestra, did not go quite according to plan for Penn, as many Red and Blue wrestlers left the Palestra frustrated with how they had performed.
“I think a lot of the guys would have hoped to have done better today,” senior All-American grappler C.J. Cobb said. “But it’s just one tournament, and people know what they have to work on.”
Coach Alex Tirapelle agreed that some wrestlers may have underperformed, but also noted that the frustration stems from the lofty goals the players have set.
“Of course the guys want to do better, but they always want to do better,” Tirapelle said. “They all have high expectations. It’s a healthy thing for the program.”
For a couple of Penn’s top grapplers, the Keystone Classic brought the usual success. Both Cobb and Lorenzo Thomas, nationally ranked at seventh and 11th in their respective weight classes, earned hard-fought championships as the day drew to a close.
For Cobb, the 149-pound weight class title may have been expected, but the route he took to earn it certainly was not. As Cobb himself admitted, the tournament started slow for the wrestler from Williamstown, N.J. After squeaking out a 2-1 victory in the first round, Cobb found himself down 8-1 in the second round, only to flip the script and pin his opponent for the gutsy win.
“In the past, if I was down 8-1 there’s no way I would be coming back,” Cobb reflected. “I was proud of how I handled that adversity and pinned my opponent, something I usually never do.”
If Cobb hadn’t been considered a threat to pin an opponent, Sunday surely changed that: He proceeded to pin his quarterfinal opponent as well.
In the semifinal, Cobb faced a challenging match against Drexel’s Matt Cimato. After a second-round injury, it looked as if Cobb might fall short of his expected victory. However, his score with 20 seconds remaining prevented overtime and secured a spot in the final for the Quakers’ top athlete.
“He had the advantage, it’s a place I don’t like to be in,” Cobb said. “I usually lose when I get in those situations. But I got two takedowns to win the match, which I was very happy with.”
In the final, Cobb completed his quest for the title by edging Eastern Michigan’s Nick Barber in another down-to-the-wire match.
Cobb’s classmate Lorenzo Thomas earned a title of his own in the 184-pound weight class. For Thomas, the road to the finals was much smoother, as he won every bout by a sizable margin.
In the final, Thomas met a familiar face – teammate and Penn sophomore Joe Heyob. Despite the all-Penn final, Thomas maintained that both grapplers wanted the title badly.
“It was still very intense,” Thomas said after an 8-7 victory over Heyob. “But it was definitely a bit different. We both worked really hard today and wanted to reward ourselves with a title.”
“Those guys are pretty competitive,” Tirapelle said. “It was still a very tough match.”
Perhaps the most surprising result of the day came from Penn sophomore May Bethea, brother of senior wrestler Ray. The younger Bethea defied all pre-tournament predictions by wrestling himself to a championship in the 157-pound weight class.
On the way to the title, Bethea defeated stiff opposition that included Pittsburgh’s Ronnie Garbinsky, a 2013 NCAA Tournament qualifier.
“It boosts my confidence a lot,” Bethea admitted. “I haven’t had a lot of big wins in college yet, so this felt great.”
Continuing the trend of Penn wrestlers facing each other late in the tournament, Bethea met a fellow Red and Blue grappler in senior Brooks Martino in the semifinals. In a match which many expected would go in favor of the more experienced wrestler, Bethea — clearly unfazed by his deep run in his bracket — earned a commanding 11-4 win to advance to the finals.
In two thrilling overtime periods, Bethea edged Rider’s Chad Walsh, a wrestler who, like Bethea, hails from New Jersey. Unbeknownst to some fans, this was not the first time the two had seen each other.
“Our families have actually gotten to know each other,” Bethea said. “I wrestled him one time in a summer tournament, but never during the season.”
The match was especially significant for Bethea because his entire family was present to see his first collegiate tournament title.
“I ran up to my brother right after the match for my celebration,” Bethea said. “It was great hearing my family cheer for me from the crowd.”
“Bethea was definitely one of the best performers of the day,” Tirapelle said. “When you come unseeded into the bracket and do as well as he did, it’s always impressive.
“The important thing I took from his performance was that he didn’t shy away from the competition, which is what Penn wrestling is all about.”
Next up for the Red and Blue is the Nittany Lion Open on Dec. 6, a tournament in which Penn will look to continue its improvement as the Quakers gear up for conference competition.
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