Sometimes a little time off is all you need.
It’s 2011 and the senior year for Penn wrestler Bryan Ortenzio. The walls are closing in. He’s about to enter the real world and may never experience the dream season every wrestler hopes for.
He’s on the verge of the unexciting prospect of adulthood, a stage of life that will almost certainly not include wrestling.
How do you write a song when the chords sound wrong, though they once sounded right and rare?
Tough it up? Finish college and enter real life a bit blinded?
He takes a semester off, picks up a philosophy major, practices with his old high school team, studies for his LSATs and tries to figure things out.
- * *
Ortenzio came to Penn and, impressively, started as a freshman. Although he had an average year at 20-18, he worked hard to improve. His record was a solid 31-13 during his junior campaign. But all that hustle may have gone for naught because another senior — Rollie Peterkin — moved into Ortenzio’s 133-pound weightclass last year.
Ortenzio would have to compete for the starting position, and, unsure if he was even going to start after a disappointing NCAA experience. Combined with the stress of the law school entrance exam, he decided to take a semester off.
Coach Rob Eiter gave his blessings but told Ortenzio to “stay out of trouble” and “not forget about wrestling.”
This would not be a vacation for him.
Splitting his time between Philadelphia and his home outside of Harrisburg, Pa., he spent his time studying for the LSATs and training with his old high school team and at the Penn gym.
“I was able to keep my focus,” Ortenzio said.
- * *
When Ortenzio first came back, there was anxiety about how he would perform.
“Start of the year, there’s always that question about how everyone’s gonna do,” said Eiter. “He started out real strong.”
In the Binghamton Open, he rolled over all five of his opponents, winning by a combined score of 32-9. The next week in the Keystone Classic, held in the Palestra, he went undefeated again, including a narrow victory over Harvard’s Steven Keith, who was ranked No. 20 at the time.
In fact, until the Midlands Championships on Dec. 29 — where he sustained two losses, one to Keith and one to Northern Iowa’s Joe Colon — Ortenzio hadn’t lost a match.
In his words, he has reached “another echelon,” and it’s hard to disagree. His record is 20-3 and, by the latest NCAA Coaches Rankings, he is No. 13 in the country in the 133-pound weightclass. Most importantly, he’s having the season that every senior wants.
“That [semester off] I used to just sort of clear my mind and create a new mindset,” he said last Thursday, three days before he would again face Keith.
- * *
Ortenzio is not, in the words of Eiter, a “a real good athlete.”
More Frazier than Ali — with perhaps a bit of Rudy mixed in — Ortenzio has a rough-and-tumble style. He “puts his nose down” and “grinds it out.”
His time off allowed him to relax and wrestle for the love of competition without any distractions. He now has a clear head from his time away.
Additionally, he trained each day with teammate and All-American Zack Kemmerer and Penn assistant coach and Olympic-hopeful Matt Valenti. Ortenzio’s work with Valenti forced him to wrestle freestyle and gave him a greater sense of awareness as he wrestled.
Now, Ortenzio has an emotional edge. This is his last hurrah and, as Eiter put it, “If that doesn’t get you motivated, then there’s not much we can say.”
“He’s made a jump,” explained Eiter. “But it’s more of a mental jump than anything else.”
Saturday, he wrestled Keith for the third time this season, this time with a No.1 ranking in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association on the line. Ortenzio started the match with a quick 2-1 lead. In the third period, the referee made a locked-hands call in Keith’s favor. The momentum turned, and with 55 seconds to go, the Harvard grappler took a 3-2 lead. Keith recorded a takedown and secured a 5-2 win.
Ortenzio now faces an uphill battle. It’s probable that he will enter the EIWA Championships as a No. 2 seed. With the loss, he will likely drop in the national rankings, which could leave him in a tougher position during the NCAA tournament.
But, as Ortenzio has shown, uphill battles are his specialty. He’s a fighter and a hard worker with a fresh attitude.
“I have a few losses,” he said before Saturday’s match. “It’s good. It shows that I have room for improvement.”