Who says March Madness has to be limited to the hardwood?
From Thursday to Saturday, the madness takes to the mat at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, where six Penn wrestlers will battle for individual glory at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.
The three-day tournament can seem more like a zoo, with the arena filled to capacity with wrestling enthusiasts wildly rooting for their favorite schools and competitors.
“It’s one of those events you can’t really describe,” coach Rob Eiter said. “It’s electric. We’re not a sport that’s used to a full stadium of 17,000 fans, so it takes you back a little bit.”
The Red and Blue will be represented at the NCAA Championships by sophomores C.J. Cobb and Ian Korb, juniors Canaan Bethea and Steve Graziano and senior captains Micah Burak and Mark Rappo.
Burak (16-2) and Rappo (22-5) are the only Penn wrestlers with championship experience, but the other four will all have opportunities to get back to Iowa before they graduate.
“Those four first timers have to understand they belong here, but also can’t take for granted that they will be back here,” Eiter said.
When it comes to coaching, Eiter preaches a similar sentiment to his seniors and underclassmen, but he tailors it slightly differently.
“For a young guy, it’s easy to be awed the first time you step out there,” he said. “Seniors, you have to calm them down, because in a few matches, their careers are basically done.”
The key, as Eiter puts it, is “to wrestle the guy standing in front of you.”
All six Quakers will have a wrestler in front of them, but the road to being a champion is different for all of them. The top 12 wrestlers of a respective weight class are considered seeded, while the remaining wrestlers begin unseeded and face quality opponents earlier on in the competition.
The Red and Blue have two seeded wrestlers, No. 8 Micah Burak, fresh off his EIWA championship, and No. 10 C.J. Cobb (23-7), the sophomore that has already made quite a name for himself nationally.
But whether seeded or unseeded, Eiter preaches to his wrestlers to use their ranking as motivation. “It’s the NCAA championships. The tournament is so tough from top to bottom, and there’s no opponent you can overlook.”
Rappo is a prime example of an unseeded wrestler that can’t be taken easy. At his first championships in 2011, he knocked off the No. 9 wrestler in the first round. If Rappo hopes to make a run to the title, he will have to rediscover that magic as he is the first match of the entire tournament.
It’s easy to consider a season that saw six wrestlers reach the NCAA Championships a success, but there is still plenty of work left to be done. Expectations are particularly high for Burak and Rappo, but Eiter believes that all of his guys have a shot to win.
“We’re going for multiple All-Americans and a finalist or two,” he said. “We know we can do it.”
To do that, the Quakers will need to follow Eiter’s simple, yet logical, message.
“Just get your hand raised.”
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