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155-pounder May Bethea was one of two members of Penn wrestling to become an automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament with his performance at EIWAs this weekend.

Credit: Nick Buchta

At the time it was unclear if Penn women’s basketball would qualify for the NCAA Tournament, but last week one team on campus got an early taste of March Madness.

At the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Championships, the Red and Blue wrestlers experienced upsets both in favor and against them, finishing with four semifinalists as Lorenzo Thomas and May Bethea secured automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. Later in the week senior 174-pounder Casey Kent and junior 133-pounder Caleb Richardson found out they had been awarded at large bids by the tournament selection committee.

Overall, the Quakers finished in 10th place, with perennial powerhouse Cornell winning the team title for the 10th consecutive year.

“We’re never satisfied. ... We started out really well in that first round, beat a lot of guys that beat us during the year, but then we lost some steam from there,” coach Alex Tirapelle said. “We did a lot of good things, but we let some matches get away from us as well.”

Penn’s first competition was arguably its most exciting, with unseeded Jason Schwartz facing seventh-seeded Nolan Hellickson of Harvard in the 125-pound bracket. Trailing 6-3 in the final period, Schwartz responded with a phenomenal last-minute comeback to force the match into overtime before finally emerging with a 9-8 victory.

No more than 20 minutes later, 141-pounder Marc Mastropietro — who missed the team’s regular season finale due to injury — matched Schwartz with his own comeback, trailing No. 7 seed Nic Gil of Navy, 4-1, in the last period before a last-minute 6-0 spurt gave him a quarterfinal spot.

“That was a great win for [Schwartz] — a credit to his dedication — and I think it kind of set the tone for the rest of the round,” Tirapelle said. “Richardson gets a pin, then, at 141, Marc beats a kid who was supposed to beat us on paper, so it really set us off on the right foot.”

Overall, the team went 8-1 in the first round, joining Lehigh and Cornell as the tournament’s only teams to secure eight quarterfinalists.

The only weight classes in which the Red and Blue didn’t advance were the heavyweights — where Patrik Garren fell to eventual champion Max Wessell of Lehigh — and the 149-pounders, where No. 1 overall seed C.J. Cobb did not weigh in for the tournament.

Consequently, Cobb — ranked 15th in the nation entering the weekend by InterMat despite not having wrestled since Feb. 13 — will be ineligible to compete in the NCAA Tournament due to his failure to weigh in.

“He just wasn’t able to compete; we were crossing our fingers, but he just wasn’t there yet,” Tirapelle said. “I was most concerned with it affecting the guys, because they’re such a tight-knit group. Even though it’s an individual sport, things like that can have a serious impact on the rest the team, and I give a ton of credit to them for doing the best they could in a tough situation.”

The loss of Cobb both cut short his once promising senior season but cost the team valuable points in a weight he was projected to win.

Nonetheless, the Quakers had to push on without their lone top seed.

In the quarterfinals, a trio of No. 5 seeds for the Quakers all topped their No. 4 counterparts, with Bethea doing so at 157 pounds, Frank Mattiace at 197 and Richardson securing two takedowns in the final 10 seconds to edge No. 4 David Pearce of Drexel.

Unfortunately, the quarterfinals also saw Penn on the wrong side of an upset, as No. 2 seed Kent — ranked 14th nationally — was pinned by No. 7 seed Rustin Barrick of Bucknell.

Since Kent went on to lose his consolation matchup, it was possible that two of Penn’s nationally-ranked wrestlers could both miss the NCAA Tournament in a cruel twist of fate. In the end, however, Kent’s at-large selection meant his season isn’t over yet.

The semifinals saw all four Penn wrestlers suffer eerily similar fates — all four faced the No. 1 seeds from their brackets (three of which were from Cornell), and all four were defeated.

The Penn grapplers didn’t go down easily, however, with Bethea and Mattiace each losing by a point to eventual champions Dylan Palacio (Cornell) and Brett Harner (Princeton). Mattiace’s loss was particularly controversial as he briefly took a 3-0 lead before an official review overturned the decision to give Harner a 2-1 lead, leading to his eventual 3-2 victory.

“I don’t think we got hose-jobbed — things happen so fast, so I give a lot of credit to officials because I really feel it’s the hardest sport to officiate,” Tirapelle said. “That being said, if we had been on the winning side of that call, maybe it changes the result — if nothing else, the video review stopping the momentum of the match is a big thing — but it’s tough to say.”

In addition to these heartbreakers, the No. 4-seeded Thomas got another chance to take down longtime rival Gabe Dean of Cornell — the defending national champion at 184 pounds — but again came up short in a tough 5-3 loss.

Dean proceeded to win the championship in a mere 53 seconds, while Thomas responded by topping defending national finalist Nate Brown of Lehigh for third place.

“I feel like I wrestled [Dean] pretty tough, but still got some things to work on these next two weeks,” Thomas said. “I had to fight back in order to get a good seed at Nationals — I wrestled Brown twice this year and lost both times in close matches, so I knew I needed to step it up to get the win there.”

Because not every weight class is given the same amount of NCAA Tournament bids, Bethea and Thomas clinched their spots at EIWAs, while Richardson and Kent were left waiting for the selection committee’s decisions.

But even with their tournament berths set in stone, there’s an undeniable feeling that Bethea and Thomas could’ve come away with even more.

“I guess [the one-point loss to Palacio] is more of a learning experience to try and improve — I don’t consider it much of a moral victory,” Bethea said. “I was trying to win the tournament when I came in, so it’s just a learning experience for next time.”

Nevertheless, with Penn getting a weekend off before heading to NCAAs, there’s time to regroup and prepare for one last shot at stars like Palacio and Dean.

“It’s really just about getting healthy and going at it again — it’s not really a big training segment since there are only 10 days from the end of this tournament to the beginning of the next one,” Tirapelle said. “It’s just getting healthy, mentally putting yourself in the right spot and making some small adjustments from there.”

After all, all it takes is a ticket to the Dance for something special to happen.

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