Sometimes the start can decide the whole ballgame.
On Sunday, Penn wrestling got to experience that twice — falling to Army, 18-14, before knocking off No. 17 Stanford, 19-17, for its first win over a ranked opponent since 2012.
Hosting the Black Knights (4-3, 2-1 EIWA), the Quakers got off to a rough start as senior 165-pounder Brooks Martino was on the wrong end of a 10-5 decision against Andrew Mendel.
The teams went back and forth as wins from No. 11 Casey Kent and No. 15 Frank Mattiace gave Penn (1-3, 1-2) a 7-6 lead before four straight Army wins put Penn in an insurmountable 18-7 hole.
“Our starts were sluggish,” Penn coach Alex Tirapelle explained. “A lot of matches we were giving up the first score then trying to make a comeback. Which makes for exciting wrestling for the fans, but it’s hard to do.”
Wins from juniors Joe Oliva and May Bethea at 149 and 157 pounds, respectively, ended the meet on a better note but weren’t enough to change the outcome. If the Red and Blue were to flip the script against the Cardinal (5-2, 2-0 Pac-12) later that day, something was going to have to change.
Martino was ready. Taking on No. 18 Keaton Subjeck to open the day’s second dual meet, the fifth-year senior trailed 5-1 in the second period, battling back to a 5-4 deficit. With just seconds left, it seemed like the 165-pounder was going to take his second loss of the day when he managed to get a decisive takedown right under the wire for a 6-5 win.
“I could hear the announcer counting down, ‘4, 3, 2, 1...’ and in my head, I’m just like, ‘I’ve gotta get my right foot back, and I’m gonna get this two [points],’” Martino said. “And I locked up the two with a couple seconds left. I could hear the crowd roaring in the background, and that was a good feeling. I don’t know how the other guys felt, but I hope it did give them the spark to go out and win their matches.”
From there, the Quakers busted their way out to a big lead. Kent followed Martino with a 10-2 major decision at 174 pounds as Mattiace and sophomore Joe Heyob won decisions themselves, giving Penn a 13-0 lead to start things off.
“You can lose the first five weight classes and still go on to win the dual, but when that happens, it affects morale; it affects momentum,” noted Tirapelle, who was an assistant at Stanford before arriving at Penn in 2014. “People get into a rhythm. The sides that have the wins going for them, their next guys wrestle better, they compete better, they get to faster starts.”
Nonetheless, Tirapelle and company knew Stanford would hit its stride soon, winning the next four bouts thanks to top-15 grapplers at 125, 141 and 285 pounds.
With two matches to go, the Cardinal held a 17-13 lead. It was all or nothing. Penn needed to win both or it was over.
Oliva took to the mat in the first of the two matches. He scored a takedown of Tommy Pawelski in the first period and never looked back, winning 4-0 as the Quakers made it 17-16 overall.
In the final bout, it was all up to Bethea. The last nine matches didn’t matter. Everything would hinge on the junior 157-pounder.
Bethea never trailed. He got ahead 5-2 in the first thanks to a pair of takedowns and, though Stanford’s Paul Fox was able to make it 8-7 in the final period, Bethea was able to hold him off in the final seconds to seal the win.
“I could hear the crowd — the crowd was really loud the whole match, even before I stepped on the mat they were loud and that just gave me a lot of energy,” Bethea said. “It was really fun — I was kind of relieved that the match was over finally and we got a win.”
The finish was decisive, but the start had set the tone. And the Quakers pulled off the upset.