Morning runs, weight cuts, long road trips and dozens of matches take their toll on the body. It takes a certain level of toughness to endure the aches, pains and hunger. A collegiate wrestling season is draining.
But, this weekend, win or lose, the season will come to a close.
On Thursday, four Penn wrestlers will enter the world’s most famous arena for the year’s final tournament. If they have their way they won’t be leaving until Saturday, with a medal in their hands.
Senior 184-pounder Lorenzo Thomas will lead the bunch on their trip to the NCAA championships at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
This is the third straight year that the Pittsburgh native has earned a trip to college wrestling’s biggest stage — a place where he has had not only experience but great success as well.
As a sophomore in 2014, Thomas earned All-American honors after his sixth-place performance at the 184-pound weight class. This season he enters the tournament as the 11- seed, the same as 2014, in a crowded field of former All-Americans and the returning champion, junior Gabe Dean of Cornell.
But, Thomas’ success is not all in the past. His 9-6 record against the rest of the field this season is solid, but upon a closer look, it is even more impressive than it seems.
Those six defeats are all to wrestlers with top-10 seeds and are also the only blemishes on a 30-6 senior campaign.
Three of those losses came against Dean, the latter two of which were decided at the wire. Two of the others were avenged last weekend when he took down returning finalist Nate Brown of Lehigh on his third try. His only other loss was against Navy’s Matt Miller, whom Thomas defeated in their other match this year.
That’s why Penn coach Alex Tirapelle thinks opponents should not be fooled by the veteran’s seed.
“I think maybe they [Thomas and Brown] were a little under-seeded and I’m sure the guys that are on the receiving end that are gonna be wrestling them are kinda like hey ‘what the hell.’”
At 174 pounds, Casey Kent is likely the Quakers’ next best chance to have a grappler on the podium. He finished the year ranked 13th in the coaches’ poll and has pulled off some very impressive wins. None however were bigger than his victory over two time All-American Brian Realbuto at the Southern Scuffle.
The Scuffle, one of the nation’s most prestigious tournaments, featured many of the wrestlers Kent will face off against in this weekend’s field. His third-place finish there in January and his 10-6 record against this year’s NCAA entrants point towards the possibility of a very deep run for the senior from Norristown, Pa.
However, a disappointing showing at the EIWA Championships has led to some doubts.
“He had an off day at the conference tournament but other than that he’s been pretty reliable for us all season,” Tirapelle said. “As an unseeded guy in the bracket, he’s not someone who I would want to draw.”
The other two Quakers heading to the Big Apple are sophomore 157-pounder May Bethea and junior 133-pounder Caleb Richardson.
Bethea, a first-time qualifier, earned an automatic bid with his sixth-place performance at the conference tournament. Richardson, on the other hand, had to sweat it out as he waited for the selection committee to decide his fate.
Unfortunately, the pair’s 2-14 combined records against their respective fields is not an encouraging sign. But, the stage shouldn’t be too daunting for either grappler, which could give them an advantage on Thursday.
Bethea’s older brother Canaan was a two-time qualifier and made it to the Round of 12 at last year’s championships for Penn. As a result, May knows what it takes to succeed at this tournament.
Richardson on the other hand is making his third appearance in as many years. After failing to win a match as a freshman in his first trip and notching one win at last year’s tournament, the junior is hopeful he can make a deep run and finally get to the podium.
The path to Saturday, when the placing rounds are held, is neither short nor is it easy. But nothing comes easy in wrestling. If the Red and Blue can advance all their wrestlers to Friday and have two guys on the podium on Saturday, it will not only be a successful tournament but a catalyst for next season as well.
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