Penn Spoils Columbia’s Senior Night with 21-20 Win

Eli Horowitz | Medium Talk Co-Creator

NEW YORK – At Columbia University’s Dodge Fitness Center, a wrestling mat is set up in the middle of the student basketball court. Scattered bleachers surround the mat as undergraduates watch through glass panels while they workout in the adjacent weight room. Above, students run on a rubber track overlooking the court as Penn’s wrestling team warms up.

Penn wrestled just hours earlier in a matinee win at Binghamton, but you could hardly tell. The Quakers started strong with a tech-fall, regular decision and a pin in the first three matches, and held off a Columbia comeback to win 21-20.

“It was a long weekend for us, but it will definitely make us better going into the postseason,” said Penn captain May Bethea. “I was proud of the teams’ effort.”

After a rough 32-6 home loss to Princeton Friday, Columbia had extra motivation Saturday as it was Senior Night. The Lions honored seniors Austin Coniker, 174 lbs., and Johnson Mai, 125 lbs. Although Coniker fell by tech-fall to Penn captain Casey Kent in the opening match, Mai was able to win by decision in front of his sister and cousin to cut Penn’s lead to 14-8.

“It means a lot,” said Mai after the match. “It’s the culmination of my career and all the hard work I put in these four years.”

Mai led 4-3 with 20 seconds left in the match and simply had to avoid giving up a point. With his family looking on, the senior stayed on his feet to win.

“I used to have trouble closing out matches with the lead,” said Mai. “I’d give up those last second takedowns. I just tried to stay focused; controlling ties, making sure his lead hand wasn’t able to attack my leg, making sure I was moving him around and my feet weren’t in one place at one time. Just making him guess. You’ve got to stay focused and mentally tough, even when you’re exhausted.”

After Mai cut the deficit to six, Columbia’s Alec Kelly, 133 lbs., made quick work of Penn’s Carl Antrassian, pinning him in the first period to tie the dual at 14. For the freshman Kelly, it was his second pin in three matches.

“I knew right away I was going to have to get some bonus points for the team,” said Kelly. “I’m starting to hit my stride. I’m feeling more and more comfortable every time I step on the mat.”

With the dual tied at 14, Columbia’s Jacob Macalolooy, 141 lbs., beat A.J. Vindici 8-1 to earn a decision and a 17-14 team lead, but fell a point shy of a major decision, which proved costly as the Lions would lose by one. Columbia coach Zach Tanelli was visibly furious that Vindici was not called for a stall, which would have awarded Columbia the needed point.

“What is going on with this match,” he yelled at the referee.

Tied at 17, the penultimate match featured Penn captain Bethea, 157 lbs., who led 10-4 and needed one takedown to go up by eight and earn a major decision. He continued to ride Columbia’s Lawrence Kosoy towards the edge of the mat, trying to bring him down. During a stoppage, Tanelli again got heated with the referee.

“He cannot ride him out,” he said face-to-face with the referee as the Columbia fans booed. Then, with 20 seconds left, Bethea finally got the takedown for the major decision.

“I knew one takedown to get the major, so just going all out for 10 seconds,” said Bethea, still panting after the match. “I came to a body lock and just finished.”

The major decision gave Penn a 21-17 lead, setting up the final match between Columbia captain Tyrel White, 157 lbs., and Penn’s Joe Veliquette. While favored, White needed a major decision to force overtime, or a tech-fall or pin to win outright. After Veliquette got a surprising takedown to go up 2-0, White controlled the rest of the match and won 8-4, but the decision gave Columbia just three points, one shy of forcing overtime.

“We were down by four, that’s not Ty’s [Tyrel White] problem,” said Tanelli. “We had nine other matches to put ourselves in a position to be ahead. Ty did a great job, that’s as good as I’ve seen Ty in a long time.”

After the match, Penn coach Alex Tirapelle praised Columbia for fighting back after falling behind 14-0.

“They showed a lot of heart,” he said. “We fully anticipated them to continue to wrestle.”

After three duals in less than 24 hours, Tirapelle was pleased with the focus his team showed as they prepare for the postseason.

“We’re getting effort from 10 guys, we’re getting seven minutes of matches,” he said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction at the right time of year.”