There’s an aura of familiarity surrounding Penn wrestling this season.
Seven of the Quakers’ upperclassmen grapplers begin the season nationally ranked inside the top-25. The group, which is comprised of veterans of at least two seasons, also has the advantage of having a campaign under its belt with second-year coach Alex Tirapelle.
“This time last year we’d be going into our second tournament with a brand new coach,” senior captain Brooks Martino said. “But now we know how it’s going to be.”
Of course, if this season turns out how the Red and Blue want it to, it’s going to be different than in years past.
Heading into the 2015-16 campaign, the program is not necessarily accustomed to having so many potential stars in its starting lineup. But senior C.J. Cobb — who fell one win shy of All-American status at last season’s NCAA Tournament — has noticed a transformation throughout the team even though there have been few personnel changes.
“I don’t remember the last time that’s happened,” Cobb said of having seven wrestlers ranked at once. “I don’t think we even expected to have that many good people on the team. So people are battling. People are better than in years past.”
Martino has noticed the improvements as well, and mentioned that “95 percent” of the team remained on campus over the summer to wrestle and lift together.
“Obviously, that doesn’t mean much except that people are aware that we’ve been working hard. So we need to keep training,” Martino added.
After being sidelined during his sophomore season due to injury, Martino made huge strides last year. His 2014-15 campaign culminated with a bid to the NCAA Tournament, a second team All-Ivy selection and NWCA All-Academic team honors. As a result of his recent success, he climbed into the rankings at No. 20 in the 157-pound weight class.
Cobb has also gone through a resurgence of sorts over the last 12 months. Just over a year removed from serving as a teaching assistant with his wrestling days seemingly behind him, the senior begins the year ranked as high as seventh in the country amongst 149-pounders.
But that fact isn’t on the polished grappler’s mind.
“It’s really easy to get excited when you have seven ranked wrestlers starting the season,” Cobb explained. “But that doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t even matter who you beat now.
“People talk to me like, ‘Oh if you win [the] Keystone [Classic], you’ll be ranked in the top three.’ Well, it doesn’t matter at all because I could be ranked in the top three and then not even qualify for nationals.”
One wrestler who knows all too well that preseason rankings don’t necessarily mean anything is senior captain Lorenzo Thomas.
The 2014 All-American began last year inside the top five but was ultimately unsuccessful in his quest to reach the podium again in 2015.
Thomas begins this year ninth in the 184-pound weight class, behind Ivy League rival Gabe Dean. The question remains whether or not Thomas will be able to overthrow his old foe. Dean, a Cornell product, sits atop the rankings as the defending national champion.
Joining Cobb, Martino and Thomas in the polls are juniors Frank Mattiace (18th at 197 pounds) and Caleb Richardson (15th at 133 pounds) and seniors Ray Bethea (24th at 165 pounds) and Casey Kent (16th at 174 pounds).
“It’s incredibly positive and incredibly stressful at the same time,” Tirapelle says of the recognition his wrestlers are receiving. “[It’s] positive in the sense that we have the talent and we have the ability to have an outstanding season.
“The stressful side of it is ‘Okay, there’s a lot of expectation now.’”
A contributing factor to the success is undoubtedly the work ethic Tirapelle has emphasized. With a whole season and an entire summer together, the squad is as prepared as it can be.
“There’s less wasted time feeling out each other,” Tirapelle said. “We’re efficient with our time. We’re always moving forward. When someone messes up, it’s not a miscommunication or that they don’t understand what the expectation is. They just messed up, and we can address it and continue forward.”
Last season, five Quakers qualified for the NCAA Tournament in March.
Now, if seven journey to Madison Square Garden for wrestling’s biggest weekend this year the, 2015-16 Red and Blue squad could go down as one of the best in program history.
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