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Three-peat for Penn's Wrestlers

Win at Princeton brings third consecutive Ivy championship.
By Noel Hynd

ANY PENN TEAM that wins a championship by beating Princeton 39-4 has a soft spot in my heart. But it's not difficult these days to whip up enthusiasm about men's wrestling at Penn. The team has now notched three Ivy championships in a row, has won four in the 1990s, and has captured for the third straight year the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) championships against some very tough competition.
   The coach of the team, Roger Reina, C'84, has just completed his 12th year as head of the program. Reina was a four-year starter when he wrestled at Penn, was All-Ivy, and the team captain in his senior year. Clearly, the program is cooking, as Penn finished the season ranked first in the East. But ask Coach Reina about this year's squad and one of the first things he talks about is academics in relation to sports.
   "The academic success of our student athletes must be stressed," Reina says. "We have had many Class of '15 Award winners -- Clint Matter [W'97, C'97], last year -- and many Academic All-Americans and NCAA post-graduate scholarship winners. This is the fourth year in a row that our team has been nationally-ranked, and in the top 10 of all teams nationally in terms of GPA. Penn offers the highest level of wrestling and academics anywhere in the U.S. This is what we're about."
   The ease with which Penn won the Ivy championship indicates that Reina knows what he's talking about. Ranked 15th nationally at the start of the season (which improved to 13th by the end of the regular season), Penn (14-3, 5-0) won against Princeton with half of Penn's regular starters sitting out. (Among them was junior Andrei Rodzianko, a management and technology major with a 3.95 grade point average, who needed to prepare for a midterm.) Penn dropped only one bout to the Tigers -- Randall Braunfeld's 126-lb match, in which Braunfeld wrestled above his normal weight of 118 pounds.
   Junior Jason Nagle started the match with a 15-2 victory. Braunfeld then lost his bout, but Mark Piotrowsky (134 lb) regained the momentum for Penn with a pin in only 2:51.
   Sophomore Jonathan Gough then won the day's closest match with an 11-10 score. Gough competed at 142 lb in place of freshman Yoshi Nakamura (ranked 15th nationally), who was still bothered by an injury. The Quakers won the rest of their matches, highlighted by pins by freshman Rick Springman (150 lb) -- this year's Ivy Rookie of the Year -- and senior Joe Malachowski (190 lb). For Malachowski, the victory meant more than six team points. He ended his Penn dual-meet career with a pin in just 1:28. "It's always good to leave on a high note," Malachowski said. "And a pin is the best way to do that."
   This season's only losses have come against top-ranked Oklahoma State, second-ranked Iowa, and ninth-ranked West Virginia. But even after winning the Ivy championship, the team still had to encounter all its top Ivy foes -- Harvard, Cornell, and Brown, in addition to Eastern powers Lehigh, Army, and Navy at the EIWA Championship. To add to the challenge, the EIWAs were held at Lehigh, home of a traditional wrestling powerhouse and, in the understated words of Coach Reina, "not a friendly place" for Penn wrestlers.
   Nonetheless, Penn triumphed. Seniors Brandon Slay (1997 All-American and NCAA finalist) and Steve Walker led the way with individual championships. Slay defeated Ed Mosley of Harvard in the 167-lb final, 6-5. Walker captured the 126-lb title by edging Cornell's Nate Rupp, 6-4, in sudden-death overtime
   Slay, who received the Fletcher Award for most career points scored, compiled a 26-5 record in his senior season and is ranked third in the Amateur Wrestling News individual rankings. He has a 107-24 career record and is Penn's all-time winningest wrestler. Walker, meanwhile, has wrestled to a 26-6 record this season.
   Penn scored 136.50 points as a squad and had five wrestlers reach the finals and qualify to wrestle in the NCAA Championships, held March 19-21 at Cleveland State. Slay finished second in the NCAA competition.
   If all of this sounds like a lot of hard work and dedication by student athletes, it is. "During the season we train two hours each afternoon, and one or two mornings per week, with at least one day off per week," Reina says. (Penn's home matches are held at the Palestra, where a crowd of 1,800 turned out for the Lehigh match this year.) "It's very tough training, and requires a great deal of commitment. Off season we concentrate on strength-training and technical improvements. Some of our best athletes wrestle internationally. Brandon Slay went to Europe and several trained at the Olympic Training center last summer."
   Reina notes that the team started six athletes for their first season this year, which resulted in some "growing pains" early on. "We wanted to keep our goals just as high, despite the younger group," he says. "They worked hard, began competing better, and overcame much pressure and doubt. I am extremely proud of each and every one of them, on and off the mat!"

Noel Hynd, C'70, writes regularly on sports for the Gazette.


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