Five members of the Penn wrestling team began the NCAA Championships Thursday with high hopes and championship aspirations.
However, by the day’s end, four were fighting in wrestlebacks.
“Obviously we wanted to do a little better,” coach Rob Eiter said. “We wanted to have a couple guys in the championship round tomorrow so a little disappointed in that, but it takes a lot to come back and win and keep it alive for tomorrow.”
No. 11 seed Micah Burak, at 197 pounds, and unseeded Erich Smith, at 184, survived their opening matches to remain in the hunt for the championship after the morning, but both were tripped up in the evening.
Burak, fresh off a trip to Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association finals, expected to make a deep run into the tournament, but ran into some early trouble.
A strong challenge from Ohio State’s Andrew Campolattano almost sent him to consolation bracket after just one match.
The 197-pounder needed a takedown with 16 seconds left in the first overtime period to survive the freshman’s challenge to win, 5-3.
The two battled to a stalemate for much of the match. The pace slowed to the point where Campolattano was called for stalling, giving Burak the tying points with 42 seconds remaining.
After escaping Campolattano, Burak dropped his next match to sixth-seeded Brent Haynes of Missouri.
Haynes recorded a takedown of Burak with three seconds left in the first period and would go on to win, 6-0.
The Red and Blue’s only other first-round survivor, though, proved to be a surprise.
Continuing his improbable run that began back in the EIWAs, unseeded senior Erich Smith notched a 6-4 victory in the opening around over Arizona State’s Kevin Radford, avenging an early-season defeat.
Smith erased an early 2-0 deficit before scoring the decisive points with just 30 seconds remaining in the match. Smith avoided late drama by riding out Radford to cement his fifth consecutive victory.
“He’s finally putting it all together,” Eiter said. “As I’ve always said, he has a ton of talent and he’s finally to the mental side of it.”
The bracket did Smith no favors, though, as he next faced the No. 1 Joe LeBlanc of Wyoming in the evening session.
Smith opened the match strong, scoring an early takedown in the opening minute. However, LeBlanc’s single leg attempt to put him up, 3-2.
LeBlanc would go on to win in major decision, 11-3, ensuring Smith would join the consolation bracket.
While Smith and Burak were able to survive and advance, others dropped out of championships contention in the morning.
Bryan Ortenzio, a No. 12 seed at 133 pounds, fell victim to a heartbreaking 5-4 upset by Central Michigan’s Zach Horan.
In a desperate final scramble, Ortenzio surrendered what proved to be the winning takedown with only a second remaining in the match.
“I lost my focus in the morning, but I was able to regain it in the evening,” Ortenzio said.
He would, however, stay in the tournament after defeating Ridge Kiley of Nebraska, 7-2, and will face Jordan Thome of Army in the morning session Friday.
“I got to get some weight off tonight,” he said. “Same game plan for tomorrow — backs against the wall, score points and if I do that things will take care of themselves.”
At 141 pounds, senior Zack Kemmerer was able to earn an opening round victory over North Carolina’s Evan Henderson.
His run ended there, though, as he was soundly defeated by 2011 national runner-up Boris Novachkov of Cal Poly, 5-1.
“I executed my game plan, but I made a few mistakes and those cost me,” the fifth-year senior said.
Against Novachkov, Kemmerer fell behind early in the first period and was never able to recover from there, ending the former All-American’s stay in the winner’s bracket. He would rebound with a 4-3 victory over American’s Matt Mariarcher in the night session.
“I don’t think it’s going to affect them too much. They’re seniors and have been around the block for a while,” Eiter said.
Finally, freshman Steve Robertson (141) was shutout in his first match — a 3-0 defeat to Michigan’s eighth-seeded Eric Grajales. In his wrestlebacks he fell to Edinboro’s ninth-seeded David Habat, 3-2, ending his tournament run.