Unbeknownst to a large majority of the local reading population, a team that calls the Palestra home won both the Ivy League and a regional championship this past season. Everyone knows it was not the men's basketball team, and don't even joke about the 3-23 women's hoops squad. That tournament was the climax of a metamorphosis for the ages. In the early 1980s, when now-coach Roger Reina wrestled for the Quakers, things were so bad that serious rumors swirled that the program would be dropped. The most important turning point came in 1986, when Reina was hired as head coach. Penn finished with a dual-meet record of 6-14 in Reina's first season as coach. But the year after that, with his own recruits comprising a majority of the team, the Quakers leaped to 10-8-1. Talk to Reina about the improvement of the program since then and the word "pioneer" will come up multiple times. It is an apt metaphor: a few good men delving into the confused wilderness that was the wrestling program and paving the way for those who would follow. That is why, when asked to talk about the heroes of this year's championship, Reina brought up three guys not even on the team anymore -- 1995 graduates Gary Baker, Brian Butler and Gonz Medina. Those were the guys who decided to come aboard in 1991, when the team was still struggling to escape from the cloud of mediocrity that had enveloped it since the mid-'70s. What a run that cast had. In 1994, they led Penn to its first Ivy League title since 1972. Last year, the senior season for Baker, Butler and Medina, the Quakers had serious notions of an EIWA championship-meet title for the first time in school history. But of the five Penn wrestlers that reached the semifinals, only one was able to advance. The Quakers finished fifth. "It was a heartbreaking way for them to end their careers," Reina said. "But they certainly left their mark." The '94 team set a standard for the teams that followed in more ways than one. Of approximately 200 wrestling programs across the nations, the Quakers had the fourth-highest cumulative GPA. The team was as proud of that as it was of its first Ivy title in 20 years. More proud, maybe. It was an achievement in keeping with the philosophy Reina drills in his wrestlers from the moment he recruits them. Every wrestler will be expected to make a full commitment to academics in addition to doing everything he can to improve as an athlete. The resulting program is proof positive that success in athletics and success in academics are not entirely irreconcilable after all. But the program has not reached this level without an immense sacrifice on the part of all the wrestlers. The amount of conditioning and technique work required to be a Division I college wrestler is almost overwhelming. Plus there are the demands of an Ivy League-quality classload. Add all that up, and you are not left with a great deal of time to just kick back and be a regular college student. It is because of all this work and sacrifice that goes into being a wrestler that the team does notice the lack of attention and appreciation on the part of the Penn community at large. To say the Quakers are disgruntled would not be accurate. But they do notice. All they can really do about it, though, is keep improving the program to the point where people have to start paying attention, according to Reina. Having conquered the EIWA, Penn is now setting its sights on the nation's elite. The Quakers sent seven wrestlers to the NCAA nation-championship tournament this season, the most they have sent in recent memory. But Penn seemed overwhelmed by the surroundings, finishing a disappointing 33rd. Now Reina wants to be a force to be reckoned with on the national level. Next year looks like it could be the year. Each of the past three seasons Reina has brought in a top-20 recruiting class. This year's recruits are shaping up to be of similar caliber. Next year, then, the Quakers should have as talented a roster from top to bottom as they have ever had. It is the just desserts for a program that has undergone nearly two decades of misery, for all the work and sacrifice put in by Reina and the "pioneers". It could truly be a year to remember. The question is, Will anyone be watching?Comments powered by Disqus
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