Sometimes coaches say every spot is up for grabs, even if they don’t mean it.
Penn wrestling coach Roger Reina is not one of those coaches.
Other than the 285-pound weight class, which features only one grappler in freshman Ben Goldin, every dual meet starting spot is truly up for grabs.
“[With] the nature of the team that we have this year, we have a lot of unanswered questions in each of those weights,” Reina said. "Typically we’d have a set of core returning guys like last year when we had returning NCAA qualifiers Frank Mattiace and May [Bethea] and Joe Heyob. This year, we have a lot of new faces with the incoming freshmen, a nationally ranked class."
As it stands now, the current freshman class has a chance to occupy seven of the 10 starting dual meet spots. Aside from Goldin, Carmen Ferrante at 125 pounds, Doug Zapf at 133 pounds, and Anthony Artalona at 149 pounds, are the current frontrunners to start at their respective weights.
Ferrante and Zapf are attempting to unseat returning starters from last season.
Ferrante, the No. 18 ranked recruit in the country at 132 pounds, according to InterMat, will attempt to replace sophomore Daniel Planta, currently dealing with an injury and unable to compete at the Keystone Classic this weekend. As a starter, he posted a record of 2-3 in dual meets before missing two months of last season to injury. A strong performance from Ferrante this weekend could make it tough for Planta to hold off the talented freshman.
Zapf, one of the best grapplers in Pennsylvania high school wrestling history, currently holds the top spot in the 133-pound weight class with sophomore Gianni Ghione nursing an injury. Ghione, a 2017-18 second team All-Ivy selection, was the strongest performer in last year’s freshman class, posting an overall record of 16-9 overall and 11-4 in dual meets. Despite last season’s accolades, Ghione is not a lock to start, and like Planta, could fall further behind in the race depending on Zapf’s performance this weekend.
Artalona does not have a returning starter to compete against, with senior Joe Oliva electing to put on more weight to compete in the 157-pound weight class. The No. 7 ranked wrestler in his class by FloWrestling, Artalona has capitalized on the opening created by Oliva's change.
According to Reina, Artalona is a near lock to start; barring injury, though, fellow freshman Jeremy Ridge and junior Jake Lizak are still in the competition.
Oliva’s move to 157 pounds will not guarantee him a starting spot. Junior Jon Errico, who challenged Oliva for the starting spot last year, will once again push the senior captain.
“The sport of wrestling always requires continued hard work, discipline. You've always got to improve year to year,” Oliva said, on once again battling for his starting spot. “We always have a lot of talent in the room, and everyone contributes in different ways, but at the end of the day, there’s going to be 10 guys that compete in dual meets.”
The most wide open weight class is at 184 pounds. It features a tight three-way battle between sophomore Ryan Farber, junior Jalen Laughlin, and senior Robert Ng. All three struggled at points last season, posting a combined record of 3-18, though Laughlin only wrestled in three matches.
With no clear frontrunner, Reina is eager to use the upcoming tournament as another evaluative tool in determining the eventual starter.
“This weekend at the Keystone we can enter as many guys per weight as we like,” Reina said. "Our selection process for who ends up getting the starting nods is a combination of the Michigan State Open, the wrestle-offs we’ve had this past weekend, and then the Keystone Classic. Then we are going to evaluate based on that body of work who will be starting in dual meets.”
The only other three-way battle for a starting spot occurs at the 197-pound weight class between seniors Patrik Garren and Tyler Hall, in addition to freshman Greg Bensley. Hall had a far better record than Garren in dual meets last season even before Garren went down with a season-ending injury. Still, neither are entrenched as starters, giving Bensley a chance to overtake both of the upperclassmen come dual meet season.
With the graduation of a number of all-time greats in addition to the influx of talented freshmen, Reina will have a lot of tough decisions to make when selecting the 10 starters. With the first dual meet only a week and a half after the Keystone Classic, the upcoming slate of matches could go a long way in determining how Reina and his staff fill out the lineup.