It all comes down to this. For Penn wrestling, the entire season culminates in St. Louis when five Quakers will travel to the Scottrade Center for the NCAA Tournament.
The Quakers are hoping for a third all-American in the last four years. They will have several key chances to do that, with five wrestlers in the middle of the lineup jockeying for accolades.
First is May Bethea, the 157-pounder and team captain. In just three years wearing the Red and Blue, Bethea is now making his second appearance in the national tournament. He earned an at-large bid after an impressive regular season and is searching for his third win over a ranked opponent, which would tie him for most on the team.
At 165 pounds is Brooks Martino. After an NCAA performance in 2015, Martino was determined to get back to the big tournament. Despite missing the first few weeks of the year, Martino leveraged an excellent dual season into a high seed at the EIWA tournament.
He upended the competition and even scored a pin against the #2 seed before a second place finish. He will wrestle West Virginia’s Dylan Cottrell for the second time this season. In their first match of the season, at the Southern Scuffle, Martino fell 4-1.
Twelfth-ranked Casey Kent is one of the most likely candidates to be named an All-American after earning those accolades in 2016. The Norristown, P.A. native has had another great season in 2017 at 174 pounds. His first opponent in the tournament is Navy’s Jaaden Bernstein, who Kent defeated in his most recent match to claim third at the EIWA tournament.
Joe Heyob is the team’s 184-pounder and is perhaps the Quakers’ biggest surprise entrant. He lowered weight classes early in the season but ran through the competition en route to a 22-10 record. He struggled against Cornell’s Gabe Dean in the EIWA tournament -- Dean has dominated all opponents thus far -- but found his way into an automatic bid to NCAAs. The Ohio native still has another year left in the Red and Blue and could become an All-American in 2017.
The teams 197 pounder, twelfth-ranked Frank Mattiace, enters the tournament with the most momentum of the bunch. He was perhaps the Quakers’ most impressive grappler in 2017, pinning five of his opponents this year. His strong performances continued into the conference tournament, when he picked up two sudden victory decisions and placed first in his entire weight class.
The five of them have a great chance of making waves in St. Louis, even if the Quakers as a team is unlikely to dazzle on the scoreboard.
Once again, the season will come down to Penn’s wrestlers performing at their highest level. That is no easy task on such a big platform in front of thousands of fans, but there is plenty of experience on this year’s qualifiers. Martino, Kent and Bethea have all wrestled at the tournament in prior years and should have no concern about the event itself.
In coach Alex Tirapelle’s tenure at Penn, the Quakers have only sent five qualifiers one other time, in 2015. Adding some more All-Americans to the team’s impressive history could help bring the program back into its days of being nationally ranked. At the very least, it gives the Quakers another opportunity to show the rest of the nation that they have some of the country’s best grapplers.