ST LOUIS The March to the Arch is complete for the eight Penn wrestlers who earned bids to the 2008 NCAA Wrestling Championships. After over five months of training and competing, Day One of the tournament is upon us. The eight grapplers, only one of which is seeded in his weight class, will begin their new march this one to the podium at the end of the tournament and a spot on the All-America team.
Rollie Peterkin is the lone seeded Quaker, earning the ninth seed at 125 pounds. This marks his first trip to the NCAA Championships in his first full season starting for the Red and Blue. He has accumulated 28 wins this season to go against only three losses. He is well-prepared for the NCAAs, having gone 13-3 against wrestlers who qualified for this year’s tournament including six in a row in January. Peterkin won the 2008 EIWA Championship at 125 and is the 2007 Keystone Classic champion as well.
In his first round match, Peterkin will wrestle Jonathan Bittinger from Duquesne. Bittinger is 20-11 in 2007-08 and qualified by winning the championship of his conference. This is his second trip to NCAAs, his first since 2005.
Peterkin is not fazed by his seeding or the spectacle of his first national tournament.
“I don’t think that seeding is as important as others make it out to be,” the sophomore said. “Everyone here is a conference champion or top-ranked guy. Bottom line, everyone here is good and each match will be a tough one.”
Joining Peterkin at his first NCAA Championships is Rick Rappo. Fresh off his second place finish at the EIWA Championships, Rappo will wrestle third-seeded Kellen Russell of Michigan in the first round at 141 pounds. Rappo is 20-8 on the season. He started the season at 133 pounds, but bumped up to 141 in early January. He is 9-4 since the move, including an eight-match winning streak from 2/8-3/9.
Russell is 30-5 in his freshman season for the Wolverines and recently won the Big Ten title at 141. He started the season 18-0 and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Rappo is ready for the national spotlight to shine on him.
“I feel like I have something to prove this week,” he said. “I want to go out there and wrestle with the best and show I belong there with them.”
A wrestler who clearly belongs with the best in the country is Cesar Grajales at 149 pounds. Grajales qualified for his second NCAA Championships with a win at the EIWA Championships. In the final, he defeated the second-ranked wrestler in the country, Harvard’s J.P. O’Connor. He has nine wins over wrestlers in action this weekend in St. Louis. In the first round, he will wrestle the #4 seed, Jordan Burroughs of Nebraska. Burroughs is the Big 12 champion at 149 and was named Outstanding Wrestler of the Meet, an award Grajales won at his own conference meet.
Grajales qualified for the NCAA Championships in 2006, but missed last year’s tournament when he was out with an injury. He is excited to be back.
“There is no other tournament like this one,” he said. “There are no easy matches and you need to be ready to go immediately.”
Zack Shanaman is another Penn wrestler back at the NCAAs for a second time. He previously qualified in 2007. He has 24 wins to go with seven losses in 07-08. He took second place at EIWAs, losing in the final to the fourth-ranked wrestler in the country, Mack Lewnes from Cornell. Lewnes took the match, 6-4, in sudden victory. Shanaman will wrestle the seventh seed at 165 pounds, Jacob Dieffenbach from Oklahoma State. Dieffenbach is 19-5 in his only season as a Cowboy. He previously competed at Lindenwood University, winning two NAIA titles along the way. These two met in January at the Virginia Duals, with Dieffenbach scoring an 11-2 win.
Shanaman thinks having a rematch in the first round may be a good thing.
“I think having a match against Dieffenbach can help me,” he said. “There won’t be many surprises and I have a feel for how he wrestles. I feel very relaxed going into the weekend. This is the best tournament to wrestle in and I look forward to the challenge.”
Scott Giffin is the only freshman to qualify for Penn. He finished third at 174 pounds at the EIWA Championships to earn his spot in the field. In his rookie season, Giffin has compiled a 21-9 record, including four wins over NCAA qualifiers. He will also have a rematch in his first round, taking on Brandan Mason of Oklahoma State. In January, Mason defeated Giffin, 6-0. Mason is a returning All-American he finished fifth in 2007.
“Earning a trip to the NCAA Championships is a goal I set for myself when I came to college,” Giffin said. “I am very excited to be here and to have accomplished that goal. Now, I have new goals and that is to win. I feel that I have gotten better all season and my confidence is at a good level.”
Lior Zamir is the third EIWA champion from Penn and is the third Quaker with previous NCAA experience (2007). He is the 2007 Keystone Classic champion and was named first-team All-Ivy this season. His 68 career wins are the most by an active wrestler at Penn and he won 23 of those matches this season.
He also has a rematch in the first round, but this one is a bit different. He will wrestle Jake Varner, the undefeated number one-seed at 184 pounds. These two met in the first round of last year’s NCAA Championships, with Varner winning the bout, 5-0. This season, Varner is 25-0 and the Big 12 champion.
“You don’t get the chance to wrestle the top guy too often,” Zamir said. “I relish that opportunity and plan to be aggressive and take it to him. This is my last NCAA Championships, and I really want to make it to the podium on Saturday night as an All-American.”
Thomas Shovlin qualified for his first NCAA Championships after placing third at the EIWA tournament. Shovlin missed the most of his first two seasons with injury, but rallied in the second half of his sophomore season to earn the trip to the national championships. He is 14-8 this season, with four wins over NCAA qualifiers. His first round opponent is Patrick Bond of Illinois. Bond is 20-5 and is the ninth seed at 197 pounds.
On the eve of the tournament, Shovlin was ready to go.
“This is very exciting for me,” he said from the team hotel. “This was a goal at the beginning of the season and to accomplish that and be here, especially with so many of my teammates, is a very proud moment. Now, I need to focus on my opponent. He is tall, probably a foot taller than me, so I need to be ready to change things up a bit.”
The final member of the “Great Eight” who qualified for Penn is Trey McLean. The heavyweight earned a wild card entry to the NCAA Championships after finishing fifth at EIWAs. He is 23-10 in 07-08 and is making his first trip to NCAAs. He is the third Quaker to have a rematch against an opponent from Oklahoma State. McLean and his opponent, fifth-seed Jared Rosholt, met at the Virginia Duals with Rosholt winning, 4-0. Rosholt is the Big 12 champion and has won 14 of his last 15 bouts.
Past outcomes do not weigh to heavily on McLean.
“Each tournament and match is really its own entity,” he said. “What happened in the past doesn’t necessarily carry over into this match. I am just ready to start wrestling. That is why we are all here this weekend.”
Head coach Zeke Jones is no stranger to national tournaments and he knows what it takes for a team to succeed. He feels this year’s team is well-prepared to have a great weekend.
“These guys are ready. They are excited and loose,” he said. “The pressure is really on everyone else because of how they were seeded. We are in a good position because our guys can just go out and wrestle without any external pressure.”
Jones doesn’t think that his team will have any trouble facing opponents ranked higher.
“We may only have one seeded wrestler, but we know that we have beaten All-Americans and seeds, so we know we can make some noise here as the underdog. Our guys will be very motivated to prove just how good we are.”
He would not be surprised if on Saturday night, he sees multiple Penn wrestlers on the podium.
“If we focus on the process and wrestle in all positions in all periods well, we will be in a place to put together a lot of high finishes and then as a team, score very well. If anyone comes up to me and says they are surprised that one of our guys is an All-American, my response will be that I am not.”
Rappo put it a little more bluntly.
“We are a really solid team,” he said. “We have all wrestled top guys throughout the season and competed and beat them. There is no reason we can’t do that this weekend.”