In a sport defined by pushing one’s mental and physical abilities to the brink, this weekend presents the greatest test in fortitude that Penn wrestling has faced all year.
For this weekend, Penn will travel to Bucknell to compete in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Championships, a two-day event that will determine which Red and Blue wrestlers will resume their seasons March 16 in St. Louis at the NCAA Championships.
In order to to solidify a spot in St. Louis, the Penn wrestlers will have to place at or near the top of their respective weight classes. Each weight class has been allocated a certain number of spots that would guarantee NCAA qualification.
This allocation process stems from the collective performance of the conference in relation to the other conferences in the sport. Fortunately for the Red and Blue, they compete in one of the best conferences in America, and accordingly, the EIWA has been granted 43 spots spread across 10 weight classes. These 43 spots will make the EIWA the second-most represented conference in the country at the NCAAs.
However, the strength of the EIWA is a double-edged sword for Penn wrestling. Sure, more opportunities to make the field have been granted, but they’ve only been granted because the quality of the field is so apparent.
For this reason, Penn must put its best foot forward.
“Regardless of how many slots you receive, you need to wrestle hard and just not make any mistakes,” senior captain Brooks Martino said. “It’s grind time, and everyone out there is vying for a spot.”
Headlined by junior captain Joe Oliva in the 149 pound bracket, junior captain May Bethea at 157 pounds, Martino at 165 pounds, 2016 All-American and senior Casey Kent at 174 pounds, junior Joe Heyob at 184 pounds and senior Frank Mattiace at 197 pounds, the Quakers have the talent to qualify across several weight divisions.
Still, no matter how great the talent, it must be augmented by a specific, detailed practice schedule.
“This past weekend we did simulation matches where we came in on Saturday and Sunday,” Martino said. “We did morning and evening sessions just to simulate getting up, wrestling, taking a break in the middle of the day, and then coming back being ready to wrestle again.”
Although the tournament’s schedule might be different from most of those in which Penn has competed this year, the opposition won’t be new at all. The fact that this is a conference tournament naturally means that the Quakers should be quite familiar with the competing wrestlers, having faced most of them already this year.
“There are pros and cons [to the familiarity],” Martino said. “We can scout them. They can scout us. They know what we do. We know what they do. I wouldn’t say that it’s a bad thing as opposed to going up against someone that I’ve never wrestled before.”
Hopefully for Penn, that familiarity will breed success, as the Quakers have high expectations for this weekend.
“We have two or three guys that have a shot to win the conference,” coach Alex Tirapelle said. “I think at 165 [Martino], the competitive field is fairly even, so we have a shot there. I think we have a shot at 157 [Bethea]. I think we’ve shown that. Then, I’d say we have a shot at 197 [Mattiace].”
For Tirapelle, those potential wins would be doubly sweet — his wrestlers would fulfill their dreams of going to the NCAA Championships, and his squad would have a chance to win the coveted EIWA title.