The Maroons finally placed one of their own in the playoffs. Second-year wrestler Sam Pennisi qualified for the D–III Nationals on Saturday at the Great Lake Regional with a third-place finish in the 184-pound weight class—highest among Chicago’s five wrestlers placed sixth or higher.
Pennisi rattled off four straight wins after losing his first match to the eventual second place finisher.
“I knew I had a tough match in the first round,” Pennisi said, “but I knew that I was still in a good position to go for third. I just tried to take it match by match.”
The Maroons finished eighth out of fifteen teams—Augsburg, St. John’s, and Elmhurst finished in the top three, respectively. The field included a handful of teams that the Maroons faced earlier in the year, including Wheaton, Knox, Augustana, St. Olaf, and North Central; the focus, though, was qualification, not team victory.
The team knew they would have a fair chance at qualification; four of the Maroons began the day seeded. Third-year James Layton earned the third seed because of his strong season at 165 pounds, first-year Devon Range the fourth seed in 157 pounds, first-year Ryley Hankenson the fifth in 174 pounds, and first-year Mario Palmisano seventh in 197 pounds.
“I was looking for a performance where team members matched or exceeded whatever they were seeded,” head coach Leo Kocher said.
Layton and Range did not place, but Palmisano and Hankenson grabbed fifth and sixth place, respectively. In addition, first-year Will Long and third-year Francisco Acosta, who wrestled up a class, placed sixth in 133 and 141 pounds, respectively. Palmisano and Acosta are both alternates for nationals, although getting a call to the national tournament would be unlikely for them.
Pennisi lost in 2:37 by a pin in the first round, but followed that with a 9–1 major decision, a 3–1 win in overtime, and a 5–1 decision. In the placing round, he faced an opponent who had won three straight rounds by pin.
“He tried to throw me almost right away,” said Pennisi of his last round, “but I stayed in a good position and ended up coming out of a scramble with him on his back.”
Pennisi acknowledges that he began the year slowly. His strong performance came as a result of continual focus and improvement.
“I always thought that Sam was capable of wrestling better than he sometimes did,” Kocher said. Kocher attributes Pennisi’s success to his hard work and to his consistent effort to “listen to his coaches and try to apply what he is being taught.”
Last year, the traditionally strong Great Lakes region had 19 NCAA place winners, and this year’s field is deep as well. Pennisi has two weeks until the NCAA D–III Championships at UW–La Crosse on March 9–10.
“The next two weeks are going to be about fine-tuning my wrestling and correcting the little mistakes,” Pennisi said.
The Maroons will continue to practice over the next couple weeks, albeit with a heightened focus on their qualifier.
The season is most likely over for the rest of the team, but there was still plenty to be proud of.
“Our [first-year] placers wrestled very well for their first Regional at the end of the long season,” said Kocher of Long, Palmisano, and Hankenson.
Next year should bring better results for the Maroons, who will lose only one fourth-year from a young team that will benefit from this year’s experience.
Before that, though, one Maroon will go alone, with his team behind him, to wrestle at the highest collegiate level of the sport available.
“I’m just really excited to get the chance to compete at this level,” Pennisi said.