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Behind a pair of clutch performances from junior Joe Oliva, Penn wrestling was able to snatch a pair of conference victories at Binghamton and Columbia over the weekend.

Photo: Ananya Chandra / The Daily Pennsylvanian

Penn wrestling has a lot to feel proud of after this weekend. With two comeback wins against Binghamton and Columbia in an EIWA triple-header, it’s clear the Quakers are never out of it until the last pin or decision of the final match. 

However, moments of adversity are what define a team and its season. That proved the case after a rough start on Friday against No. 9 Cornell (12-2, 5-0 EIWA).

The match against Cornell get off to a promising start. Freshman Carl Antrassian at 133 pounds, junior Joe Oliva at 149 and junior May Bethea at 157 all had crucial wins. After Bethea won his match by an 11-5 decision, Penn found itself up 10-7 at the midway point. A massive Stanford-esque upset seemed imminent.

Sadly, as foretold by a 27-10 final score, not much else went right for the Quakers (6-7, 4-5) after Bethea’s match. They dropped every remaining match, including a highly anticipated battle at 197 where favored No. 17 senior Frank Mattiace lost to No. 19 Owen Scott. They also lost by forfeit at 184 pounds, where the Big Red boast national No. 1 Gabe Dean. With two dual meets the next day, the decision to forfeit made sense to coach Alex Tirapelle.

Still, Tirapelle does not look back on the match as a total failure. 

“It wasn’t so much about what went wrong,” Tirapelle said. “They have a good team, a top ten team in the country, so we did alright.”

Luckily, Penn turned the weekend around starting with a thrilling match against Binghamton (8-6, 8-4) on Saturday. The hero of the match was none other than fifth-year senior Brooks Martino. After battling injuries and NCAA technicalities for much of the season, Martino has really come on of late. Still, Binghamton is where he shined the brightest. 

After a furious comeback launched by wins from Oliva and Bethea, the match score was tied 15-15 after nine matches, meaning the burden fell on Martino’s shoulders to secure the win. 

“It was great that May [Bethea] got the win right before me to tie it up,” Martino said. “So I just needed to win.” And that he did, pinning Binghamton’s Jake Einbinder to secure a 21-16 team win.

“I stayed pretty reserved,” Martino said in talking about his reaction to Bethea’s huge win. “I didn’t doubt May was going to get the win.”

The pin was extra meaningful for Martino considering everything he has gone through. The knee injury that ended his sophomore season is ironically coming in handy for the Quakers down the home stretch of dual meets, as he has made the most of his fifth year of eligibility. 

“It was definitely an exciting moment,” Bethea said in reaction to Martino capitalizing on his chance. “There was a little more pressure on him than on me,” he said with a grin.

Penn had little time to celebrate with Columbia (3-11, 1-6) on the horizon a mere few hours later. Oddly enough, this match seemed to mirror the one they just had. Falling behind this time by a score of 17-14, the Quakers once again leaned on Bethea and Oliva to ignite a comeback. Oliva dominated his match with three takedowns and a reversal. This is not the same Joe Oliva who almost lost a dual meet starting spot to incoming freshman Jon Errico, as the junior has completely broken out in recent weeks.

“He is definitely one of our most clutch wrestlers,” Tirapelle said. 

With Tom Brady-level clutch performances this weekend and against Stanford earlier in the season, it’s easy see where Tirapelle is coming from. This is a far different tone from the beginning of the season when Tirapelle repeatedly mentioned that the competition was ongoing even after naming Oliva the starter. 

“It’s nice to be counted on,” Oliva said.

With Oliva knotting the score at 17 apiece, it was up to Bethea this time to secure a lead. In one of the craziest wrestling matches of the season. Bethea took down Columbia’s Laurence Kosoy in the final 10 seconds of the match.

However, the match was still not over. With Penn leading 21-17 with only the 165 pound weight class remaining, it was crucial that junior Joe Velliquette avoid a pin — in essence, Velliquete could lose his individual match while also securing a win for the team. 

“It’s a unique position to be in,” Tirapelle said. “But you have to be cognizant of the situation, and he did a good job going out there and trying to win the match.” 

Despite ultimately losing his match, Velliquete did what was needed to secure the win by scoring the first take down and preventing Tyrel White from securing more bonus points later in the match.

Penn’s focus now shifts to Drexel on Sunday and the EIWA tournament in early March. With such a strong pair of performances this weekend, the Quakers can ride this momentum to even more success. What this weekend showed is regardless of talent, this team has the heart of a lion.

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