Penn wrestling officially finished its 2016-2017 season this past St. Patrick’s Day weekend, with five of the team’s top wrestlers taking on the nation’s best at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Seniors Brooks Martino, Casey Kent, and Frank Mattiace joined junior Joe Heyob in earning automatic bids to the NCAA tournament at the 165, 174, 197, and 184-lb weight classes, respectively, due to their strong performances in the EIWA conference championships. Junior May Bethea’s regular season record earned him an at-large bid in the tournament at the 157-lb. weight class.
2017 was Bethea’s second appearance at the Big Dance, coming off of a disappointing conference tournament that saw him win just one match, leaving his berth in to the NCAA tournament up to the selection committee.
He would make the most of the opportunity, however, as he made it the farthest of any of the Quakers competing in the NCAA tournament. Bethea defeated the 12-seed, Oklahoma’s Clark Glass, in his first matchup of the weekend before losing to Oklahoma State’s Joseph Smith in the second round. That defeat would send him to the consolation bracket, where he would score two victories before being defeated by eventual third-place finisher Michael Kemerer, the two-seed from Iowa.
Mattiace nearly mirrored Bethea’s performance in his match, falling one match earlier in the consolation bracket than did Bethea. The outcome of the match, however, was one of the most controversial of the weekend.
“It was a compilation of things really in Frank’s final match, so it was unfortunate,” said Penn coach Alex Tirapelle. “There was a series of close calls that just didn’t go our way. Those kind of added up, and the grand finale was really in the second period of overtime, after we had just come close to a takedown which I thought could have been called for us, the guys ended up out of bounds. Frank maybe lost focus for a second, and received his third caution of the match. He stepped on the line, reached across, and touched the other kid before the whistle blew. After three cautions, a point is awarded and in sudden victory, that’s what decided the match.
“It was frustrating for everybody. Frank I’m sure was frustrated with himself and how the match unfolded, the coaching staff was disappointed, and I would say even, by my impression of the crowd, the whole corner of that arena was disappointed in the call, so it was tough to take.”
The other three Quakers would all go 1-2 on the weekend. Seniors Kent and Martino, both seeded 12th, ended their illustrious careers with the Red and Blue in St. Louis. Both wrestlers earned multiple All-Ivy recognitions during their careers in University City, and Ken even earned an All-American nod after his fourth place finish in the 174-lb. bracket at last year’s tournament.
“For Brooks and Casey it was kind of their last hurrah. They’ve both contributed a lot to the program, in terms of wins but also leadership, guidance for our young guys, helping everyone take steps forward,” said Tirapelle. “Brooks wrestled in the national tournament twice, Casey three times and all-American honors last year, they really set the tone and showed the younger guys that we’ve raised the bar a little bit, that this is now the standard and the expectation.
“Both are great examples of being great wrestlers, but also incredible students. Their going to make big impacts in their careers going forward.”
For the remainder of the team, including the other three that went to St. Louis this past weekend, Tirapelle realizes the value of the experience for the wrestlers and the necessity for them to bring it back to Philadelphia next season.
“I think it’s important to get to the tournament before your last year of competition,” said Tirapelle. “Knowing the process of the tournament, just having a clear expectation of what it’s going to be like, what you’re training for, how you’re going to have to perform in order to get the podium is really important. For most guys, that first year is really an experience year. They need to get a sense of how they have to compete. So the fact that we have three guys returning who have been there before is huge.”
While the Quakers send off Kent and Martino for the last time, we will be sure to see them come out of the gate next season ready to send a new crop of talent all the way to nationals.