It’s an exciting time for the nationally ranked Penn wrestling program. Fresh off concluding its regular season with a 37-0 demolition of neighborhood rival Drexel – their sixth straight win – the No. 21 Quakers are set for the EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) Championships at Rutgers tomorrow and Saturday, before they gear up for the NCAA Championships in Iowa from March 21-23.
Just days before the EIWAs, I went over to the team’s practice facility at Hutchinson Gymnasium and caught up with Penn wrestling coach Rob Eiter, who discussed the expectations for this year’s team and the state of the program, as well as the popularity of wrestling and what needs to be done now that the sport was controversially dropped from the Olympics.
What’s the mood of the team right now going into EIWAs?
Right now, they’re pretty excited. We had a real good year. It was a long year. I think now that it’s over, they’re excited to get to the tournament because it’s a pretty wide open tournament. There’s not really a true clear-cut team favorite right now. These guys are young and don’t know any better right now.
You guys haven’t won the EIWAs since 1999 and Cornell has won the last six – what it would mean for the program to finally win one after all this time?
It would be awesome. It would really kind of solidify what we’ve been saying the last two years with this team. There are quite a few banners hanging up here and we feel like the team now is back to that stage where we’re ready to really be a force – not only in the conference but NCAA-wise.
Did you get a little extra boost by finishing the regular season with routs of nearby schools Princeton and Drexel?
It’s always good to go out on a win. The nice thing about that was with the back-to-back matches, the kids actually wrestled better against Drexel than they did against Princeton. Usually it’s the other way around where it’s kind of a letdown that second day. So they felt real good about that. It’s a great way to end it and keep your spirits up for the next two weeks going into this tournament.
You recently became the fastest coach at Penn to reach 50 wins – what does that mean to you and did you have any idea that was something you were approaching?
In all honesty, I had no idea. We obviously don’t focus on that and it’s not a huge priority for me. But of course it’s real nice. It’s a nice honor to have but it’s a tribute to my assistant coaches and the team obviously. You can’t do it without those guys.
Individually, Micah Burak has come in second at EIWAs the last three years – what’s his mentality going into this and what would it mean to him and the program if he can win one?
Micah’s pretty even-keel. I don’t think he’s really dwelling on being runner-up for three straight years. But obviously you always want to go out on top. Micah’s training pretty hard right now. Nothing is guaranteed but he’s somewhat of an overwhelming favorite.
Who are some other guys we should really keep our eye on for this tournament?
My other senior, Mark Rappo, has a pretty tough weight but he’s pretty focused right now. On the younger side, at 133, Jeff Canforo has been wrestling pretty well for us lately. Casey Kent had a great year already for us. I just think up and down the line, the guys have wrestled pretty well all year and we should keep an eye on all of them.
Are you looking ahead to the NCAAs yet and what can we expect there?
Sure, you always look ahead and you always make sure you prepare as best you can. This tournament is vitally important to the seeding for the NCAA tournament. So a kid like C.J. Cobb, a kid like Rappo, Burak, they can solidify their seeds and earn a seed as well. But being in arguably the second toughest league in the country helps these guys quite a bit prepare for the NCAAs.
As a former Olympic wrestler, what was your reaction when you saw the news that the sport was being dropped from the Olympics?
It was kind of a shock. I’m not in day-to-day contact with USA wrestling, so I don’t know what they’ve known for years. It kind of sounds like that rumor’s been around for a while. There was always a rumor of Greco being the discipline to be dropped. But never did I ever think that wrestling would be dropped. I think that’s what hurts a little bit. It sounds like there wasn’t much done when the signs were there.
Is there anything that can be done to save the sport in the Olympics?
Yeah, collectively all the countries throughout the world have come together. USA Wrestling was just over in Iran at a huge tournament and a local kid, Jordan Burroughs, became a hero over there. So the fact that it can bring such opposite countries together I think has brought a lot of world recognition. We’re not the most popular sport as far as mainstream. But when it can bring something like that together, I think it shows the importance of the sport and I think that’s going to weigh heavy on the IOC’s decision – hopefully.
So they have to meet in May in St. Petersburg. There’s one spot left and I believe there are eight sports vying for that one spot. So they give a presentation and the IOC in September votes on one sport they want to bring back. Again, it seems like from what I’ve followed, it lit a fire under everybody and they got organized and they have a very powerful plan in place to present to the IOC.
You had mentioned popularity. Do you wish the sport were more popular? And specifically, do you wish the Penn program were more popular on campus?
Sure. It doesn’t have to be the NBA or the NFL but with the time and dedication these kids put in they deserve that attention. It’s a shame because if you’re just a general fan and you haven’t wrestled before it’s hard to understand what these guys go through. But it is right now one of the fastest growing sports at the youth level. So that’s obviously very encouraging. And hopefully those kids will stick with it as long as they can and then their kids will continue. Hopefully it will grow a little bit. But I think what happened with the Olympics obviously brought a lot of attention to it and it piqued a lot of interest and I think and how we handle it from here can really help the sport.