The Palestra on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania may hold a special place in Philadelphia basketball lore, but from March 8-9 it played host to a different sport: wrestling. The Drexel wrestling team was there along with the rest of the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association for the EIWA Championships with bids to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
Drexel has gone through its fair share of bumps in the road on the season, but the two-day event marked a significant peak in the Dragons’ season as they sent five wrestlers to the podium with two earning automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament in Oklahoma City, beginning March 20.
The Dragons were led by freshman Kevin Devoy Jr. and senior Brandon Palik, both punching their tickets to Oklahoma City. Devoy wrestled his way all the way to the finals for 133 pounds as the No. 6 seed, where he ran into the No. 1 seed at the weight class, Lehigh University’s Mason Beckman. He was able to keep it close, but dropped the match by a slim 4-1 margin and earned second place honors.
“It was awesome,” Devoy said. “I knew in the morning I had one match to go [to qualify for NCAAs] or I would have had to wrestle back against a number of tough kids to make it to nationals. I went out there and gave it everything I had against a tough opponent ranked top 20 in the country, and I just thought I’d leave it all out there and it worked in my favor.”
“Devoy is the shining star,” head coach Matt Azevedo said. “He did what we knew he was capable of. He finally put it together consistently. It was exciting to watch. It was exciting to see him perform to the best of his ability.”
Devoy’s experience level will certainly be aided by qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, but it’s an opportunity he almost missed. Devoy began the season as the team’s 125-pounder and struggled to make weight and keep up the necessary energy and strength levels to win. The midseason bump up to 133 pounds opened up a new world of opportunities for the team’s talented freshman.
“I think I wrestled pretty well at 125, but I didn’t feel my best,” Devoy said, adding later, “I definitely feel a lot better at 133, so it was definitely the right decision.”
Palik went into the EIWA Championships as the No. 1 seeded 197-pounder, and his expectation was to continue his winning ways and take home the title at his weight class. The events on the mat did not work out the way that the senior star had anticipated. Although he finished in seventh place, it was high enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
“Coming in here as a senior being seeded first, good spot in the bracket, and after I lost my first match I just did a complete 180,” Palik explained. “It was a big eye-opener, but it is what it is. I did what I had to do.”
“He did get the job done to get the NCAA Tournament, which is what this tournament’s number one purpose is,” Azevedo said. “But I know he’s upset because his goal was to win the tournament.”
Devoy and Palik were not the only Dragons to shine at the Palestra. Senior Austin Sommer finished in fifth place at 157 pounds, one spot away from automatically qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. Sommer, who wrestled one of the toughest schedules of any Drexel mat man this season, continued to get dealt the tough hand. Going in unranked, Sommer pulled off upsets over the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds in the tournament before dropping matches to the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. Sommer took home fifth place after the No. 3 seed took the loss on a medical forfeit.
On Wednesday, Sommer was rewarded for wrestling a tough schedule and upsetting ranked opponents at the EIWA Championships with an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Freshman Tanner Shoap placed eighth at 125 pounds, the pinnacle of a season that saw great growth. Shoap started the season as the backup 125-pounder, but when Devoy moved up to 133 pounds, Shoap stepped in. Azevedo has been impressed by how he has progressed in his new role.
“Tanner went through a little rough patch there,” Azevedo explained about his freshman. “He had some tough losses at the end of the season, but he showed up ready to wrestle. Even in the matches he lost, he wrestled hard and gave great effort. He saved his best wrestling for the end of the year, which is what you want.”
Junior Noel Blanco went into the tournament seeded No. 8 at 149 pounds and came away finishing one spot better. Blanco was able to shake off a tough loss to the No. 1-seeded wrestler in his weight class and a pin to take home seventh place.Overall, though, the trip down 33rd Street was a success for Azevedo’s wrestlers. The third-year head coach was proud of what his team was able to accomplish in its first postseason tournament as a member of the EIWA, coming over from the weaker Colonial Athletic Association.
“Overall, [I feel] really good,” Azevedo concluded. “Overall, our guys stepped up and wrestled really, really well.”
Drexel wrestling and Azevedo are not done with their season, as they look to prep Devoy, Palik and Sommer for the NCAA Tournament and represent the Dragons on the national stage beginning March 20.