On Penn wrestling’s Senior Day in February 2016, then-senior 165-pounder Ray Bethea thought that it might be one of the last times he took the mat as a collegiate grappler.
Yet, his wrestling career has managed to find one last year of life — but instead of donning the Red and Blue, Bethea’s final season of collegiate wrestling has come at the University of Virginia, where he is a graduate student.
“I thought maybe my last season was just going to be right there at Penn,” Bethea said. “But I’m really happy with the way things did fall into place.”
Even though he graduated from Penn in 2016, Bethea has been eligible to compete this year since he missed almost all of his freshman season in 2012-2013 with an injury. This meant that he had used only three of his four years of eligibility as a member of the Quakers.
With this fact in mind, in early 2016, Bethea began talking to Virginia wrestling coach Steve Garland about attending a graduate program there and competing on the team. Eleven months later, Bethea took the mat for the first time for Virginia at the Clarion Open with a commanding 15-4 victory in his opening match, finishing sixth in his weight class overall.
Bethea compiled a storied career at Penn, going 48-27, which included a first-place finish at the East Stroudsburg Open and a second team All-Ivy nod during his sophomore season.
Given this record of success, it wasn’t hard for his new teammates to welcome him to the team.
“Coach Garland, his staff, and the rest of the team really embraced me with open arms,” Bethea said. “It’s been easy to fit right in with things on the team.”
Bethea has smoothly adjusted to new competition, as he moved from wrestling in the EIWA for three years to the ACC — a conference that includes top-ranked programs such as Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and North Carolina State. He has helped the Cavaliers attain their No. 23 national ranking this year on the back of a 20-11 record.
“They’re both really good competition. The EIWA is a really good conference — they have a lot of guys wrestling at [the NCAA Championships],” Bethea said. “The ACC is no different — it’s a really high level of competition, and we have a tough schedule. Wrestling at Penn and in the EIWA definitely, at the least, prepared me for the ACC.”
Despite Bethea’s smooth transition, there has been one area where it’s been particularly hard to adjust — the absence of his brother, May, currently a junior 157-pounder who still wrestles for Penn.
“My brother has played a really big role in my wrestling career in my life and in my time at Penn,” the elder Bethea said. “We practice together a lot, we do extra workouts together, and he supports, encourages and motivates me. It took me a little awhile to adjust to not having him right there in the same room.”
Bethea still keeps in touch with his former teammates, making the trip from Charlottesville to Philadelphia for Senior Day ceremonies when Penn faced Drexel last weekend. While Bethea hasn’t had a chance to face any of his former Red and Blue teammates on the mat this season, he may have the opportunity to do so if he qualifies for the NCAA Championships, taking place from March 16-18 in St. Louis.
While this season will be Bethea’s last as a collegiate wrestler (for certain, this time), he will by no means be saying goodbye to the sport for good. Currently studying for a degree in higher education, Bethea sees the possibility that he will coach in the future.
“I definitely plan to be around the sport,” Bethea said, “and have it involved in my life for a very long time.”
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