It was a mistake to leave 174-pound senior Casey Kent unseeded — a mistake Kent would make his opponents pay for. Big time.
The Norristown, Pa., native, who finished the weekend with a 6-2 record at NCAA Championships, was arguably the most dominant wrestler at Madison Square Garden on Friday.
Kent reeled off four consecutive wins on day two, three by pin and one by major decision. The third made him Penn’s 28th All-American.The streak not only kept him alive in the consolation bracket but put him in a position to claim a fourth place medal on Saturday morning.
Going into day two, there had been a lot of optimism following a very successful first day for the Quakers. But, after two matches and two losses, any momentum that the Quakers brought into the arena from their impressive opening performance was suddenly gone.
Then came Casey Kent.
The senior entered his first consolation bout against South Dakota State’s David Kocher as the Red and Blue’s last chance to grab a victory before the night session.
Kent, who had already upset eighth-seeded Zach Epperly of Virginia Tech in the first round on Thursday, was fighting to stay alive in the wrestlebacks following a loss on Thursday evening. Kent dominated his opponent from start to finish, earning an 8-0 major decision victory.
Because Kent began the day in the loser’s bracket, he had to grapple for a second time in the afternoon session. This time his foe didn’t go down so easy. Sixteen-seed Micah Barnes of Nebraska awaited the unseeded Kent.
Barnes was the aggressor from the opening whistle, jumping out to an 8-1 lead in the first period after nearly pinning Kent. By the time the third period began, Kent was still down by seven and in need of a miracle.
After 30 seconds, he got one.
The two wrestlers were on their feet with their arms tied up when Kent shifted his weight and flipped Barnes off his feet and onto his back in a swift motion that sent the big Cornhusker slamming to the mat.
The move, which seemed to appear out of thin air, caught Barnes — as well as everyone else in the arena — by surprise.
“It’s a little bit different here,” Kent said of the road to the podium at NCAAs. “Everyone wants to place. No one just rolls over like they sometimes do in matches, but not here.”
That match proved Kent wouldn’t roll over himself and the pin seemed to ignite a fire under the senior, who rode the wave into the night session.
After dropping his quarterfinal match earlier in the day, fellow senior 184-pounder Lorenzo Thomas joined Kent in the blood round — where All-American status is earned.
Thomas was facing Navy’s Mathew Miller for the third time this season and stepped on to the mat at the same time as Kent. Thomas shot in on Miller early on but was caught and put on his back for the pin, prematurely ending Thomas’ run.
As Thomas fell on the adjacent mat, Kent picked up right where he left of against Oklahoma’s Matt Reed — only this time he dominated from the start. Up 3-0 in the third period, Kent stuck Reed for another pin and became Penn’s first All-American since Thomas in 2014.
Not known to show too much emotion after his matches, Kent let out a big exhale and looked up while displaying a calmly clenched fist of elation.
“It just felt really good,” Kent said of the win, “kinda like a little bit of relief.”
Despite his momentum, the senior grappler stayed poised and in the moment throughout his run.
“I’m just wrestling the same,” he said after his All-American clinching victory. “Kinda trying to do what I always do.”
Only 30 minutes later Kent was back out on the mat, wrestling seventh seeded Cody Walters of Ohio. Miraculously, for the third straight time, Kent recorded the pin, leaving the world’s most famous arena Friday night on a ridiculous streak.
On Saturday morning, Kent got right back to business, downing No. 12 Nathan Jackson, 9-5, to earn a spot in the consolation finals. The win, his sixth of the tournament, tied the Penn record for most victories in one NCAA tournament.
Kent’s final matchup of the weekend, his eighth bout in three days, was a rematch of his opening face-off with Epperly, who was riding an impressive streak of his own to avoid elimination. Unfortunately for Kent, he couldn’t upset the Virginia Tech stud again and settled for fourth place after an 8-4 decision.
Kent, who will be returning to the program next season to use his final year of eligibility, will get another crack at the field next year when the tournament moves to St. Louis.
Thomas, however, wrestled his final match for the Red and Blue after an incredible four seasons. His sixth place finish in 2014 was the highlight of a 113-win career for the Pittsburgh native.
157-pound sophomore May Bethea and 133-pound junior Caleb Richardson also made the trip to New York. Bethea won his first match but lost his next two, and Richardson failed to advance past the first day of competition. Both will return next season.
“Everyone just really wants All-American,” Kent said. “All the matches are really hard, so I just went out and I just tried to wrestle as hard as I can.”
The unseeded Kent never gave up, and finished the season recognized as one of the nation’s best.