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Senior Frank Mattiace was one of Penn wrestling's lone bright spots at the Southern Scuffle on New Year's Day, finishing fifth in his weight class.

Credit: Nick Buchta

Coming off a strong showing at the Southeast Open, Penn wrestling hopes to parlay that momentum into a great performance at their only home tournament of the year: the Keystone Classic.

This Saturday will feature some of the top wrestlers from around the country. Out of about 200 wrestlers in the field, 25 of them are ranked. That includes Penn junior May Bethea and seniors Casey Kent, Frank Mattiace, and Caleb Richardson.

Besides individual rankings, defending national champion and current No. 4 Penn State will make its first-ever appearance as a team at the Keystone Classic. Furthermore, the No. 22 ranked Quakers host strong programs such as No. 23 Rider, Appalachian State, Drexel, Eastern Michigan, Edinboro, Franklin & Marshall, Harvard, Northwestern, Pittsburgh, Sacred Heart and VMI.

“It’s a great opportunity for our guys,” Coach Alex Tirapelle said. “We want to challenge them throughout the course of the season because the [regular] season is meant to prepare for the conference tournament and the national tournament at the end of the year.”

In particular, Bethea, ranked No. 19 in the country, faces strong competition in the 157-pound weight class from Penn State’s Jason Nolf. Nolf not only comes off a finals appearance at the NCAA championships but also enters this tournament as the number one ranked wrestler in the country. Furthermore, Bethea and Nolf faced off at the NCAA championships last spring with Nolf dominating the matchup.

“I would definitely like to wrestle him again,” Bethea said. “He’s tough, he beat me pretty bad so I want to test my improvement. It will be a good challenge.”

Still, Bethea won the Keystone Classic last year. Despite the fact Nolf is the highest ranked wrestler in the weight class, the reigning champion is under pressure to duplicate his performance from last year.

“Keystone last year was a lot of fun, it was really exciting and a real confidence booster for me.” Bethea said. “And now having a target on my back, just makes me work harder, I’ll definitely not be worried, but prepared.”

If Bethea is able to best Nolf, the sky is the limit for what kind of season the junior will have.

Besides Bethea, many other wrestlers will see stiff competition in their weight class. Freshman Jon Errico and junior Joe Oliva could have their hands full with Zein Retherford, reigning NCAA champion and the No. 1 ranked wrestler in the 149-pound weight class.

To compound the tough competition from other schools, Errico and Oliva are competing with each other for a starting spot when Dual Meet season rolls around. A strong performance from either could give one of them an edge in what has been a very tight competition up to this point.

“It will be a good gauge at this point in mid-November whose spot it is,” Tirapelle said in reference to the impact Saturday will have in ultimately choosing a starter.

Furthermore, senior Carson Stack, junior Joe Heyob and sophomore Ryan Wosick have been grappling for the starting spot at the 184-pound weight class. However, with injuries to Stack and Wosick, Heyob is the only healthy wrestler competing at 184 pounds who has a shot to be a starter. Besides Penn State’s Bo Nickal, ranked No. 3 in the country coming into this week, the 184-pound weight class is comprised largely of unknowns. This gives him a great opportunity to take a firm grasp of the starting spot. This revelation could be especially disappointing for Stack who is a senior and who lost most of his junior season to injury.

Conversely, All-American Casey Kent is a senior who has seen unquestionable success in the 174-pound weight class. Coming into the home tournament with a No. 3 ranking, Kent comes in as a heavy favorite to win his weight class. He could potentially be challenged by Penn State’s Geno Morelli, Harvard’s Josef Johnson, and Northwestern’s Johnny Sebastian, a local Philadelphia high school wrestler.

Another weight class to watch is at 197 pounds. Considered one of the strongest in the tournament, Penn’s Frank Mattiace will have his hands full. He faces particularly stiff competition from Rider’s Ryan Wolfe and Penn State’s Matt McCutcheon. All three are ranked in the top 20 for this weight class with Wolfe leading the way at No. 11 and McCutcheon and Mattiace closely behind at No. 14 and No. 16, respectively.

However, Mattiace is not focused on his competition as much as he is on himself.

“One of the biggest things is treating the week right, making sure I’m staying on top of my weight, and training hard,” Mattiace said.

“So when it comes time for the tournament, I’m feeling the best I can and am ready to compete and take care of the things I can control.”

“We need to test them,” Tirapelle said, “so we can direct our training and be more focused with our effort in the practice room between now and the end of February.”

With Penn only getting one chance to have so many top tier wrestling programs on campus, the way the Quakers wrestle could be a strong indication on what is to come when the Ivy League Tournament and NCAA Championships roll around.