Some Penn Athletics programs are given seven days between competition, but the Red and Blue wrestling squad will take on two opponents this weekend with only a four-hour break in between. Making things even more difficult, the Quakers will welcome a pair of stellar teams in Harvard and Brown, two conference rivals that have given the team problems in the past.
The Quakers (3-5, 1-4 EIWA) do enter the weekend’s busy slate with momentum: they nearly took down Bucknell on Friday and bested American on Sunday in impressive fashion. The victory over the Eagles was the team’s first EIWA win of the season, bringing confidence to a team in need of a jolt.
“Getting our first conference win is a good step in the right direction. We’ve had a bunch of good duals, lost a couple close ones, but I think we’re improving each time out,” junior Joe Oliva said. “Getting one of those EIWA wins under our belt is good heading into the rest of the conference slate.”
Oliva has had a quietly successful season at the 149-pound weight class. He is 10-9 on the season and 5-3 in dual meets in his first full season starting for the Red and Blue. A few highlight wins to round out the dual season could put Oliva on a fast track to an appearance at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, MO.
Now in his third year, Oliva is used to competing multiple times in a day with little intermission. For that reason, he believes in the importance of focusing on each opponent, one at a time.
“Right now we’ll be focused on Harvard and then quickly we’ll turn around, refocus, refuel and get ready for Brown for a few hours after that,” Oliva said. “Nothing changes. We’re used to competing multiple times in a day.”
The Crimson (2-5, 2-2) are the more imposing challenge of the two teams. The team features a few highly qualified grapplers, including AJ Jaffe at 141-pounds and Josef Johnson at 174-pounds.
Jaffe will in all likelihood wrestle Penn sophomore AJ Vindici. The Randolph, N.J. native was inactive for one of last weekend’s two duals but should be in the starting lineup this weekend, according to coach Alex Tirapelle.
Johnson, Harvard’s junior captain, will renew his rivalry with Penn’s star at 174, Casey Kent. The Norristown, PA native has picked up right where he left off in 2016 when he earned All-America status. The two grapplers have wrestled a handful of matches in the last two years, with each side picking up close points.
Johnson is unranked at the moment, but Kent recognizes that he’ll still pose a challenge. That said, the preparation is unchanged.
“Same as always. I know he’s pretty tough,” Kent said. “[Still,] same mindset as any other match.”
Like Harvard, the Bears (4-6, 1-4) do not have any ranked starters, but have still given the Quakers trouble at times. With such a short turnaround time between matches, it’s important for the Red and Blue to avoid a trap.
That is why the key to the weekend, according to Tirapelle, is consistency.
“We’re competing pretty well. Guys have made some strides, taken steps forward. We just need to make sure no backwards steps,” Tirapelle said. “If everyone does their job and takes care of business, we should be in control of our own destiny this weekend.”
Kent points out the importance of a quick start: “As a team, if we start out strong, that’s when we seem to be doing the best. I think it’ll be a pretty good indicator.”
Perhaps the most interesting storyline heading into the weekend is at the 165-pound weight class. Senior Brooks Martino returned to the lineup in January and had started all of the team’s dual meets until last Sunday when junior Joe Velliquette stole a start and picked up a major decision victory.
Tirapelle believes that a friendly competition is a good problem to have from a coaching standpoint and that there is little rush to name a starter.
“I think we’ll probably see one of each. They’re doing an outstanding job,” Tirapelle said. “It’s a good problem to have when you have two athletes that are performing well.”
A two-win weekend would do wonders for Penn as it looks to continue building up momentum. The victory over American last week was a step in the right direction, but the goal now will be to build up a streak.
“We’re improving and have hit a little bit of a stride,” Oliva said. “Everyone’s working hard, getting better, and looking forward to continue building until the conference tournament.”