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Owning an impressive 21-7 record in individual matches this season, junior May Bethea can make an even greater impression on the NCAA wrestling selection committee with a strong effort this weekend.

Credit: Pranay Vemulamada

Long before champions are crowned, they are made.

Through hours of blood, sweat and tears, athletes spend countless hours training and fine-tuning their skills in order to compete at the highest level when it matters most. After almost a season’s worth of preparation, Penn wrestling (6-7, 4-5 EIWA) will compete in one final meet against Drexel (11-6, 7-3) this Sunday in what will be its final chance to iron out any wrinkles before the EIWA and NCAA championships.

It is no secret that by this point in the year, most grapplers know where their chances of qualifying for the NCAA Championships stand. For a select couple, qualification seems everything but a lock. Both Frank Mattiace (197 pounds) and Casey Kent (174 pounds) have had incredibly successful and consistent years, and seeing them miss out on the NCAAs (even in the event of a slip-up at the EIWAs) would be a surprise. For many other wrestlers, the NCAAs either never were in the picture or have since faded from it.

However, there is a subgroup that will see this weekend as an especially valuable opportunity to generate momentum heading into the EIWAs. These are the grapplers whose NCAA fate is alive but uncertain — “on the bubble,” if you will. This list includes Brooks Martino (165 pounds), May Bethea (157), Joe Heyob (184) and Joe Oliva (149). All four will certainly be in the spotlight against Drexel this weekend.

“It’s my last chance to get out there and really test myself before the important stuff at the end of the year,” Bethea said. “If there’s something I need to improve, I need to do it now.”

Coach Alex Tirapelle agrees with Bethea, noting the mental gains that can come from late-season success.

“I think this meet is as much about confidence as it is about winning,” Tirapelle said. “Heading into the EIWAs feeling good about what you’re doing is key.”

For Bethea, the season has been something of an enigma, grinding out tough wins but also suffering questionable losses. Despite great numbers across the board (21-7 overall, 12-2 EIWA), the one statistic that could prove problematic for the Trenton, N.J. native is his record against unranked opponents. Bethea’s two wins against top-20 opponents are best on the team, but that may not be enough to outweigh his four unranked losses. Against Drexel this weekend, Bethea will likely square off against another unranked opponent. If he is serious about earning his bid to the NCAAs, he will need to show his best against the Dragons.

Heyob has a similar problem, but he does not boast the top-20 wins that Bethea does. For that reason, his match against Drexel’s Alex DeCiantis this weekend is vital in terms of preparing Heyob for a strong run towards automatic NCAA qualification at the EIWAs.

Martino has returned to competition this semester and impressed, but his issue lies in his early-season absence. Because of his sheer lack of matches, the likelihood of him picking up an at-large bid to the NCAAs is slim to none. Consequently, the automatic EIWA qualification seems like Martino’s best bet. Drexel’s Austin Rose will pose a test for Martino ahead of an immensely vital EIWA championship.

But perhaps the most important match of the weekend will be for Oliva. The Ridgewood, N.J. native has an outside chance at qualifying for the NCAAs, one possibly so slim that a strong performance at the EIWAs might not be enough if he does not also take care of business against Drexel.

However, his contest will be no walkover. Oliva’s Drexel counterpart is No. 18 Matthew Cimato, and Oliva has struggled against ranked opponents this season. But if there was ever a time to notch his first top twenty win, it would be now. Look for Oliva to leave everything on the mat and try to keep his NCAA dream alive.

Notably, the meet is also Penn’s Senior Night, meaning that Kent, Martino, Mattiace and Jeremy Schwartz will all be wrestling in the Palestra for the final time. The senior class has contributed greatly to the program for years and will hope to end their regular season careers with a victory.

During a meet in which there is already a healthy local rivalry, look for the heat to be ratcheted up even more for the wrestlers who need to finish strong to qualify for the national tournament.

“We know their guys pretty well, and they know ours,” Tirapelle said. “Everyone will be focused, and I don’t expect there to be many surprises.”

Bethea echoed his coach’s note on concentration.

“I think the rivalry has heated up in recent years,” Bethea said. “But this weekend is really about getting in the zone and preparing ourselves for these upcoming tournaments.”