Southern hospitality did not treat Penn wrestling too kindly when it traveled down to Chattanooga, Tenn. on New Year’s Day.
Even more competitive than the annual Keystone Classic, the Southern Scuffle gave the Quakers a run for their money in what coach Alex Tirapelle described as “the best simulation of the conference and national tournaments” they would face all season.
Still, despite a strong field, the Quakers were expected to have a much stronger performance. Other than seniors Casey Kent and Frank Mattiace, who both finished fifth in their respective weight classes, no other Penn wrestlers placed in the top five. Four out of Penn’s seven wrestlers failed even to get out of the first round consolation match.
“As a whole I would say it wasn’t our best performance, wasn’t our worst performance,” Tirapelle said. “We expected more guys to finish in the top three to five. I was hopeful, but you’ve got to have a really good performance, because the competition field is heavy.”
In particular, Tirapelle was disappointed with the usually-reliable junior May Bethea. The Southern Scuffle certainly wasn’t his best showing — Bethea was eliminated in the consolation second round by unseeded Stanford wrestler Paul Fox.
“We know what May is capable of, but it certainly wasn’t his best performance,” Tirapelle said. “We have to go back and adjust some things, make some tweaks, and hopefully we can get more out of him next go around.”
Though talented, the main area of weakness for the junior was his energy.
“He [Bethea] knows it wasn’t his best performance,” Tirapelle continued. “He lacked a little bit of zip coming off of winter break.”
Still, the Quakers did not go into the tournament at full strength. Many wrestlers were injured or sick. In particular, senior Brooks Martino of the 165-pound weight class was not healthy enough to wrestle. Tirapelle hoped to have him back by the next match.
Despite an underwhelming showing on the whole, Kent and Mattiace both turned in strong performances. Even with adept finishes, both of the senior stalwarts showed restraint in celebrating their achievements.
“I thought it was okay: not my best, not my worst,” Kent said. “I could have been better on my feet. That’s probably the area I was weakest in this weekend.”
As the number one seed heading in, Kent was expected to contend for the top spot. However, flaws in his footwork cost him in the consolation semifinal loss to No. 3 Ethan Ramos of North Carolina and the quarterfinal loss to Penn State’s Mark Hall.
Mattiace was slightly more energized, but still felt he could have wrestled better on the day.
“It was an improvement over my last time being there,” Mattiace said. “It was obviously an accomplishment to make the podium. Definitely not satisfied with the performance. There is definitely room for improvement.”
Still, his improvement is a testament to a change in mentality. At last year’s tournament, Mattiace was too defensive and did not take the upper hand in his matches. However, the new year brought with it a new Frank Mattiace.
“It was just important for me this time to be offensive and score points, and make sure I was dictating the match instead of sitting back and relaxing,” Mattiace said. “I did a better job at wrestling my match instead of wrestling it to how my opponent would want me to.”
Unfortunately, Mattiace ran into two-time NCAA champion and Olympic bronze medalist J’Den Cox of Missouri in the semifinals. Despite his best efforts, he was simply not good enough to defeat one of the nation’s best.
Fortunately, the senior defeated No. 8 seed Owen Scott of Ivy League rival and defending EIWA champion Cornell in the fifth-place match. He escaped with a gutsy performance, winning 4 to 3 in the second round after tiebreakers.
Despite his excellent showing, the rest of the team will need to show up in the upcoming dual meets. It’s not overly complicated what the Quakers have to do.
“As a team, it’s just identifying mistakes that are made and just working on improving them.” Mattiace said.
As a whole, Kent said his team is not worried that this showing will carry over to the rest of the season.
Kent’s optimism proved fruitless when Penn squared off against and lost 32-10. Hopefully this time, the other wrestlers take on Kent’s confidence going in to the Lehman Open and the long-awaited dual meet with rival Princeton this upcoming weekend.
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