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Junior captain Joe Oliva has been one of Penn wrestling's most consistent performers this season, contributing crucial points with a 6-4 dual record.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

With dual season nearing its close, Penn wrestling is looking to kick into high gear.

For one more weekend, the Quakers (4-6, 2-5 EIWA) will have a loaded slate with little rest in between. After six straight weeks of having a tournament or multiple duals, the Red and Blue will head into one final grueling weekend – starting on Friday with Cornell and continuing into Saturday with trips to Binghamton and Columbia – before dual season comes to a close the following weekend against Drexel.

With all three matches this weekend being against conference opponents, the team has little margin for error. Penn has fared well in its last few matches in the EIWA, winning two and narrowly losing to Brown. The Quakers will look to keep their winning ways alive against two strong programs in Binghamton and Columbia and one of the nation’s wrestling behemoths in Cornell.

Over the course of the dual season, familiar faces, especially those in the middle weight classes, continue to deliver points for the Quakers. Unsurprisingly, the three uninjured captains have played a consistent and important role in that development.

Junior captain Joe Oliva has wrestled to a 6-4 dual record at 149 pounds. Junior captain May Bethea is having another dominant season at 157 pounds, holding a 9-2 record against EIWA opponents, and looks primed for another run at the conference tournament in March. Finally, senior captain Brooks Martino has split a starting role with junior Joe Velliquette lately, but has won his last three. He’s looking for another shot at nationals after qualifying in 2015.

There are also big point-scorers in the higher weight classes. 2016 All-American and senior Casey Kent is having another banner year at 174, going 5-2 in conference. Junior 184-pounder Joe Heyob had been tearing through opponents in his six-match winning streak before coming up short against Brown. His success is all the more surprising given that he dropped from 197 to 184 last month. At 197, senior Frank Mattiace has outscored his opponents 76-24 and could be the Red and Blue’s best shot at earning All-American honors in 2017.

Those accomplishments are certainly impressive, but all six wrestlers will need to be at their best this weekend against Cornell. The Big Red (10-2, 3-0) are the tenth-ranked program in the nation at the moment and have steamrolled through their opponents, with their only losses against No. 2 Oklahoma State and No. 7 Missouri.

The Red and Blue are determined to give the Bears trouble on Friday, though. Mattiace, No. 17 at 197, will wrestle Cornell’s No. 19 Owen Scott. The two wrestled at the Southern Scuffle last month, when Mattiace picked up a narrow 4-3 decision. The Montville, N.J. native is looking to focus on his own wrestling heading into the weekend.

“It’s important to just have the right mindset the week of practice,” Mattiace said. “Keep your goals in mind and what you are focusing on.”

At 174, No. 3 Kent will wrestle Cornell’s No. 3 Brian Realbuto. Both grapplers scored a victory against the other last season and have wrestled close against one another. This encounter is expected to be no different.

After that, Cornell will unleash its nationally revered 184-pounder, Gabe Dean. The senior has been a wrecking ball in his time in Ithaca. His rivalry with Penn’s Lorenzo Thomas (C’16), also an All-American, was always a marquee matchup between the two schools. This year, Dean will likely take on Heyob. Dean is 24-0 on the year and has pinned 18 of his opponents. In his time at Cornell, he’s 141-6 and a two-time NCAA Champion. Surely, Heyob will need to utilize his entire arsenal.

The Big Red lineup is stacked from top to bottom, but the Quakers are excited to play spoiler to their rival’s impressive season. Bethea is well aware of Cornell’s success and that has only helped to motivate him. He stresses how excited his teammates are given the exciting rivalry the two schools have.

“[With it] being Cornell, we’re motivated . . . we’re huge rivals,” Bethea said. “We’ve been excited this whole week to wrestle them.”

Coach Alex Tirapelle echoed Bethea’s words, mentioning that the team has been geared up for Cornell for weeks.

“It’s one they look forward to,” Tirapelle said. “They do know where it’s at on the schedule so they get amped up and hyped up. Now’s the time we can cut them loose a little bit and get them excited for the match.”

Cornell is a daunting challenge and just the first leg of a three-match weekend. On Saturday, the Quakers will continue onwards against Binghamton (8-4, 8-2) and then Columbia (3-9, 1-4). The key to the weekend is thinking one match at a time.

“In terms of the amount of wrestling, it’s no different than being in a tournament,” Mattiace said. “In terms of being focused, it’s important that you focus on the match at hand, and once that’s over with, you can start focusing on the next one.”

All told, this weekend is another crucial one for the Quakers and one of the last impressions that the team’s NCAA hopefuls can make heading into the conference tournament.