Sometimes the toughest battles are not against the opponent but against one’s own teammates.
Penn wrestling can certainly relate to this, as competition for starting roster spots began on day one and has continued through the beginning of the season.
Much of this competition can be attributed to the departure of last season’s talented senior class and the emergence of seven freshmen on the team this year. Of the freshmen, four — Evan DeLuise, Khamari Whimper, Gianni Ghione, and Daniel Planta — have already competed in at least one dual this season.
Because of these new wrestlers, as well as the returners from last year, the roster is filled with talent, as evidenced by the team’s three wins in the Hofstra Duals. While this plethora of strong wrestlers is clearly a plus for Penn, it also means that difficult decisions must be made regarding the team’s starting personnel, as only one wrestler per weight class can compete in each dual.
For example, in the 149-pound weight class duals at Hofstra, senior Joe Oliva competed in the duals against Campbell and Hofstra, while DeLuise was featured in that position versus The Citadel. The 141-pound class, for its part, featured three different Penn wrestlers — senior Marc Mastropietro, junior Tristin DeVincenzo, and sophomore Jake Lizak — throughout the Rider dual and the three duals at Hofstra.
The fact that so many different wrestlers are already in the mix this early in the season is a positive, according to Lizak.
“It definitely helps the competition level because you always want to be the guy [starting] at that weight,” the sophomore from Schnecksville said. “You never want to get the spot from an injury, but you’ve gotta be ready to jump in if an injury does happen.”
As Lizak alluded to, the Quakers have suffered a couple of injuries already this season, at times forcing wrestlers to compete in multiple weight classes. Senior Joe Velliquette knows all about this, as he moved down to the 157-pound weight class in the competition versus Rider, only to move back up to 165-pounds at the Hofstra Duals two days later.
Velliquette explained the team’s positive attitude and confidence, even when injuries do arise.
“It’s not always easy to get everyone in the lineup, which makes everybody eager to jump in at any moment that they can,” Velliquette said. “When an injury happens, we shift the roster and still have a solid lineup, and we see it as an opportunity to prove ourselves.”
Just as the wrestlers themselves embrace this competitive spirit and next-man-up mindset, so too does Penn coach Roger Reina. Reina, after his incredibly successful tenure as the Quakers’ coach from 1986 to 2005, is back as head coach and wants to keep that competitive attitude at the forefront.
“[Competition for starting jobs] is understood as part of the sport,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “[Wrestling] is really self-selecting. We evaluate through head-to-head competition [in practice] and through results against common opponents. So it’s much less of the coach choosing and much more of the straight-up performance.”
Another factor that is easily forgotten is the contributions that those not in the starting lineup can make in both practices and at the duals themselves. Reina expressed the importance of everyone buying into the system, no matter each person’s role.
“Just like in any work or team environment, [the wrestlers] have to accept certain roles that come their way,” Reina said. “This program has had many examples of individuals who didn’t get into a starting role until their junior or senior year, but when they did, they were prepared because of the way in which they approached those previous roles.”
The Red and Blue will look to continue this trend of unwavering commitment as their season progresses. Penn’s goal is to establish a starting lineup by January, when it approaches Ivy League play, but with a sport as physically taxing as wrestling, the Quakers will inevitably have guys banged up throughout the season.
This means that there will often be positions that need to be filled — and everyone on the roster will be more than ready to step up.