This was more than just an Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association match, but the Quakers couldn't perform when the "steaks" got high.
On Sunday, Penn wrestling welcomed Drexel to the Palestra for a match in which the winner would not only receive bragging rights on 33rd street, but also for a cheesesteak. Not a literal cheesesteak, but the Abner’s Cheesesteak Trophy. Each year the winner is given this delicious(-looking) trophy as a tangible reminder of who gets to strut around Abner's with their chests held high.
“It’s a fun friendly rivalry,” Penn coach Alex Tirapelle said. “A day like today we compete, but we certainly want to see [Drexel] be successful and do well [in general]."
Unfortunately for Penn, the Quakers couldn't prevent Drexel from being successful today, falling 26-13 after being dominated in the later stages of the meet.
Penn (6-8, 4-6 EIWA) went into the intermission with a 13-3 lead over the Dragons (13-6, 8-3). That seemed to be a rather comfortable advantage, but Penn had already wrestled its strongest part of the lineup, and the players further down the ranks couldn't make the lead stick.
With stalwart seniors Casey Kent and Frank Mattiace and junior May Bethea all being featured in the first five matchups, Penn knew it had to jump out to a large early lead in order to stop an inevitable Drexel rally. Looking back, the Quakers did not do enough in that early stretch.
In dual meets, not all wins are equal; a team is rewarded more points based on the way their wrestler wins the match. For example scoring a “pin” or a “fall” nets a team five or six points, respectively, while a win by a decision scores a team three points. Kent had a particularly great opportunity to score a lot of points. He was matched with Drexel’s Ebed Jarrel, an inexperienced freshman with a 10-9 record. However with this clear mismatch in mind, Jarrel employed a conservative strategy to not necessarily go for the win but to merely avoid a pin.
“I don’t think it was my best performance,” Kent said. “I think I could have done better.”
That sentiment was further echoed by Tirapelle. Throughout the match, the whole gym could hear Tirapelle pleading with Kent to “wrestle harder!” Although Kent is never one to give a lackluster effort, the plea was a clear sign of frustration from Tirapelle, knowing as he did the importance of scoring more than three points. So despite Kent's winning the match, in hindsight the Kent Jerrel matchup was a clear moral victory for Drexel.
With junior Joe Heyob losing his match by a decision after an incredible last-second takedown by Drexel’s Alex DeCiantis, Penn went into halftime uneasy, knowing its lead could soon evaporate. “Going into halftime it wasn’t like we were celebrating, you know, popping the corks of champagne,” Tirapelle reflected.
With the end of halftime came the realization that it would take miraculous circumstances for Penn to hold off Drexel. Penn’s scheduled wrestlers after intermission had a combined record of 13-60 going into the day, and Drexel’s pair of ranked juniors, No. 11 Kevin Devoy at 133 pounds and No. 17 Joey Goodhart at 285, were slated to face that weaker portion of the lineup.
Furthermore, Penn has been ravaged by injuries at the lighter weights, and that continued to show in this meet. With the team already having lost senior Caleb Richardson, sophomore Tristin DeVincenzo and freshman Jake Lizak, freshman Carl Antrassian was forced to wrestle up a weight class to face a ranked wrestler. It was a tall order and one that proved costly as Drexel gained five points from that match by technical fall. Tyler Hall, 0-12 in dual meets, was the other Penn wrestler to match up with a ranked Drexel wrestler and Hall was unable to pull off the upset. Behind their dominant second half, the Dragons ended up taking the meet by a decisive margin.
But looking back after the match, it is clear the losing team did not blame or chastise the group who wrestled after intermission.
"May could have gotten more points, I could have gotten more points, the matches that we won [early] we could have gotten more points,” Kent lamented.
However, even with the tough loss, it is important to celebrate what has been a very strong senior class for Penn, and the program did that with its annual Senior Day ceremonies. Richardson, Mattiace and Kent in particular have had extraordinary careers for the Red and Blue. Between All-American and All-EIWA honors, this group has exemplified what it means to be Penn student-athletes.
“It’s kind of crazy thinking that’s the last time I wrestle here,” Kent said. “It went by fast. The main lesson I take away is that hard work pays off in the end. If it takes three years or four years it eventually pays off.”
Although Penn may have lost a big lead today, this is but a small setback for a senior class that will be looking to add to its legacy in the upcoming conference and NCAA tournaments. As for this event, next year’s seniors will certainly be hoping they can bring the Abner’s Cheesesteak Trophy back home.