While most students were relaxing over winter break, Penn wrestling kicked it into full gear with one tournament and two dual meets.
The Quakers started their slate of matches before the new year when they travelled down to Illinois for the prestigious Ken Kraft Midlands Championships, where they finished with their best team score in 16 years. A week later, Penn travelled to the west coast for a dual meet double-header against Cal Poly and Stanford. There, they dominated Cal Poly 32-13 but lost a nail bitter to Stanford 21-20.
At Midlands, senior Frank Mattiace etched his name into Penn history, becoming only the 11th Midland finalist in Red and Blue history. On his way to the finals of the 197-pound weight class, Mattiace defeated South Dakota State’s Nate Rotert, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and No. 6 wrestler in the country at the time, in the semifinals.
In the finals, Mattiance grappled valiantly with Iowa’s Cash Wilcke, No. 8 in the country at the time, but came up short.
Mattiace was one of three Penn wrestlers to finish in the top 10 in their respective weight classes. Aside from Mattiace, fellow senior captains May Bethea and Joe Heyob finished sixth and fifth in the 165 and 184-pound weight classes respectively. As a team, the Red and Blue netted 54 points, good enough for ninth out of 36 programs.
Penn (4-3) evidently carried that momentum into its dual meet against Cal Poly (0-3), only surrendering three out of 10 matches. In the 125-pound weight class, with the win already clinched, coach Roger Reina elected to forfeit the match to give an injured Daniel Planta rest going into his more challenging match against Stanford’s Gabriel Townsell.
Aside from Planta, Reina also elected to rest 157-pound senior Joe Velliquete in the Cal Poly match in anticipation for his matchup against reigning All-American Paul Fox. In his place, sophomore Jon Errico won by an 11-7 decision in a come from behind victory.
“Jon has been competing well and we wanted to give him the opportunity to compete against Cal Poly,” Reina said. “So long as we won the first two matches against Cal Poly, Jon was going to get the nod in that meet.”
After finishing off Cal Poly, Penn faced off against a scrappy Stanford (3-2) team. After splitting the first six matches, including Velliquete’s near upset of Fox, and surrendering a pin, Penn was down 12-9.
Enter Frank Mattiace.
Fresh off his incredible showing at Midlands, No. 15 Mattiace was set to square off against No. 16 Nathan Traxler in the marquee match of the night. In the second of three periods, Mattiace torqued Traxler to take his second pin of the day.
“As a team collectively, we are always looking to score points when we can,” Mattiace said. “In terms of ranking, at the end of the day it’s just a number and I am just out here wrestling to the best of my ability. I try not to focus to much on what someone’s ranked.”
The six points from the pin gave Penn a 15-12 lead going into the final three matches, but the next two matches did not end well for the Quakers. Not only did senior Patrik Garren and freshman Daniel Planta lose by a decision and fall respectively, but both left their matches with injuries.
Garren suffered a right leg injury in the middle of his match against No. 11 Nathan Butler. Though Garren finished the match, he was in obvious pain and will be looked at by team doctors, according to Reina.
Following Garren, Planta is being looked at for a possible concussion after getting slammed to the ground.
Despite the injuries and consecutive defeats, freshman Gianni Ghione had the opportunity to win the match for Penn. Down 21-16, Ghione needed either a fall (five points) or a pin (six points) to keep Penn’s hopes alive.
“I was excited to get on the mat,” Ghione reflected. “I love those situations.”
Given the situation, Ghione took more of an offensive approach. However, Stanford’s Anthony Le also knew the situation, wrestling only to avoid a fall or pin rather than going for a win. Despite his best efforts, Ghione could only attain four points via decision.
Despite the loss, Coach Reina is proud of his teams effort and is excited about what the future holds for the Quakers. From making history to potentially losing two starters to injury, its safe to say Penn wrestling had one of the more eventful winter break’s in all of Penn Athletics.