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Senior Casey Kent has led the way for Penn wrestling as of late, culminating in a third-place finish at the Southern Scuffle over winter break.

Credit: Ceaphas Stubbs

If anyone had forgotten about Casey Kent last year, his performance in the 2015-16 season has served to jog their memories.

The senior has been one of the Quakers’ most successful and most durable wrestlers this season, as he has wrestled in the 174-pound slot in every meet and tournament for the Red and Blue on his way to a 25-7 overall record. This has included a 10-2 record in dual meets and a 15-5 mark against EIWA foes.

Kent’s season has included numerous memorable moments, including a win last month over Bucknell senior 174-pounder Rustin Barrick, ranked 20th in the weight class, to help Penn eke out a 19-18 victory against their EIWA opponent. Kent also finished third place in his weight class in both the Nittany Lion Open and the Southern Scuffle. In the latter, he resoundingly defeated Wyoming junior and seventh-ranked Benjamin Stroh and No. 1 Brian Realbuto, a junior from Cornell.

“I think my favorite moment was doing well at the Southern Scuffle,” Kent said of his performance. “I did pretty well there. That was exciting.”

Kent’s consistently strong performances have earned him a ranking of 15th in his weight class, and last week he secured an at-large bid for the NCAA Championships, which start Thursday.

However, Kent’s success this season was anything but assured. When Kent defeated Cornell sophomore Andrew Garcia in the Bearcat Open in November to kick off his season, it was his first match for the Red and Blue in 20 months.

Kent’s back has nagged him for years, but the pain intensified just prior to the start of the 2014-15 season, so he decided to see a doctor. Kent then discovered that he had injured a disk in his back, and was advised to take the season off from wrestling to rest and rehabilitate.

The season was Kent’s longest break from the sport since he began wrestling at age four for his hometown Norristown (Pa.) Golden Eagles. Kent’s journey back to the mat was tedious as he waited for his back to recover, and the time off made him all the more anxious to wrestle again.

“I think when you don’t wrestle, you kind of have more motivation,” Kent said. “You don’t really like [wrestling] sometimes when you’re doing it, but when you’re not doing it, you kind of just want to do it again. You don’t really remember how hard it is when you’re not doing it, so you’re kind of amped up to get back on the mat.

“I don’t think I lost motivation — I probably got more motivation.”

Kent kept himself in shape primarily through running and participating in as many team activities as his back would permit during Coach Alex Tirapelle’s first year at the helm of Penn wrestling.

Upon retaking the mat, Kent found his skills, built up through years of experience, still largely intact. While somewhat rusty, he returned to his normal form after a few weeks of action. Kent was able to wrestle over the summer, which made his transition into the collegiate season relatively easy.

The 174-pounder found the most difficult adjustment to be the re-acclimation to the physical grind of the sport.

“When you run, it’s not the same conditioning as wrestling conditioning,” Kent said. “You can be in really good running shape — which I was — and not in very good wrestling shape because your whole body gets more tired when you wrestle as opposed to just your legs. [Wrestling] is more of a whole-body shape.”

Even though Kent was unable to practice his physical skills on the mat last year, the time off helped improve his mental game. Watching his teammates compete in tournaments such as the Keystone Classic, Shorty Hitchcock Open, EIWA Championships and NCAA Championships from the stands has made him less nervous when competing in similar tournaments this season.

“It feels like a bigger deal when you’re in it, but when you’re sitting there as a spectator, since you’re not as much a part of it, it makes it seem not like such a big deal,” Kent said. “It allows you to sit back and put things into perspective, so I have that in my mind when I wrestle.”

This year won’t be Kent’s first trip to NCAAs, however. He qualified in 2014 as a sophomore in his former 165-pound weight class. Kent faced a difficult first-round opponent, then-North Dakota State senior Steven Monk, who was ranked fourth going into the tournament and ended up placing third overall. Kent battled to a hard-fought 7-4 loss before losing 2-1 in the first consolation round.

Kent’s previous NCAAs experience will allow him to go into the tournament this year with a more level head should he qualify.

“NCAAs don’t seem like as big of a deal, so if I get there, it won’t feel like as much pressure,” Kent said before the at-large selection last week. “It feels like a big deal when you go there the first time, but it won’t be my first time there. I’ve watched it, I’ve participated in it, and I know I can compete there.”

Kent might have a chance to defeat some opponents at the NCAA Championships who have bested him this season. Such opponents include Realbuto, who beat Kent in Penn’s dual meet against Cornell in February after Kent defeated him in the Southern Scuffle; Oklahoma State junior Kyle Crutchmer, who bested Kent at the Southern Scuffle and is ranked eighth in the weight class and Army junior Brian Harvey, who is ranked 18th in the weight class.

Penn wrestling will have one more year with Kent, as the senior has elected to use his remaining year of eligibility to compete for the Quakers in 2016-17.

Although his journey might have taken a yearlong hiatus, Kent is on his way to finishing what he started two years ago when this year’s NCAA Championships begin on Thursday.

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