After an hour and a half of dives, escapes, twists and turns, wrestling co-captain Mark Rappo is spent. The t-shirt he dons no longer resembles the soft gray of the early morning but has transformed into a charcoal wash of sweat.
The sparring continues as freshman Andrew Lenzi throws the junior onto the mat, only to watch the lightest wrestler in the room bounce right back up.
It’s then that the thought likely pops into Lenzi’s head:
Boy, does this kid carry his weight.
As a senior at Council Rock High School South in Holland, Pa., Rappo was good. 50-0 good. No.1 in the country good. 2008 Pennsylvania state champion good. And he did it all at 103 pounds.
Programs across the country wanted a piece of a kid who lost one match in his final two years of high school. Fortunately for the Quakers, when it came to recruiting Rappo, former Penn coach Zeke Jones had an ace in the hole. Mark’s brother Rick Rappo was a first-team all-Ivy wrestler at 141 pounds for the Red and Blue.
“When he first got to Penn [Rappo] was a lot different than he is now,” senior 133-pounder Rollie Peterkin said. “Being the small guy, the 125-pounder on the team, it’s difficult in the practice room when everyone’s bigger than you.”
“But the thing that’s impressed me the most is how far he’s come,” Peterkin continued.
Rappo’s progress is a testament to the growing pains of making a 22-pound jump in weight classes and developing into a more mature student-athlete.
As a freshman, Rappo managed to break into the starting lineup from time to time, but the next year he was short on improvement and posted a 15-11 record overall.
“This year, I came to practice throwing up and real out of shape,” Rappo said. “I was just not really into wrestling. I wasn’t performing like I usually do. I’ve changed what I do outside the room and that’s had results in the room.”
One of the changes was the junior’s appointment as co-captain, a decision made by coach Rob Eiter and the team.
“It was a little bit of a test to see how he responded,” Eiter said. “I don’t think he expected it this year. It was a way to let him know his potential and what he means to the team.”
His clear improvement represents the lead-by-example mentality that has influenced the rest of the squad. From freshman Andrew Lenzi to the fifth-year senior Peterkin, Rappo has left his mark.
“If you look at Mark now and back then, he’s a whole new person,” Peterkin praised. “He’s grown both his wrestling style [and] his work ethic. He has matured, and he’s a lot more responsible in every way.”
The maturity has translated into a 24-6 record and a No. 17 ranking in the nation this season. Last weekend, Rappo barely missed a shot to jump up in the polls.
After controlling his entire match Friday night against Cornell’s No. 10 Frank Perrelli, Rappo gave up three points to Perelli in the last twenty seconds to lose, 4-2.
The loss will in all likelihood push Rappo to the No. 2 seed at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association championships, which take place in the first weekend in March.
But the junior is still looking to win the tournament and find his way to the podium at the Wells Fargo Center come the NCAA tournament Mar. 17.
The journey toward placing at the tournament marks a significant turning point in Rappo’s career and a clear indication that his persistent efforts are finally paying dividends.
“You just watch him, and he brings it,” Eiter said. “No matter what, he is always going.”
For the Penn wrestling program, Rappo has become the epitome of fighting with all your heart.
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