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Q and A with Penn coach Rob Eiter

Rob Eiter is beginning his fifth season as the head coach at the University of Pennsylvania, and he’s excited about the start his team is off to.

Penn is coming off back-to-back wins over No. 21 Lehigh and Hofstra this past weekend. It marks the first time that the Quakers have defeated both Lehigh and Hofstra in a dual meet during the same season.

The Quakers earned a 24-12 win at Lehigh on Saturday. It was Penn’s first win at Grace Hall since 2007, and its first win over a ranked opponent since 2009. The Quakers are now ranked 22nd in the Division I Coaches Poll.

Penn’s Canaan Bethea clinched the big win over Lehigh by moving up a weight to down John Bolich 3-1 at 197 pounds. That gave the Quakers a 21-12 lead before Penn’s Steven Graziano capped the meet with a win at heavyweight.

Penn freshman Casey Kent also scored a pivotal 4-2 win over No. 17 Eric Hess at 165 in the win over Lehigh.

The Quakers are led by senior Micah Burak, who placed seventh at the NCAA Championships this past March. Burak is ranked No. 6 nationally at 197.

Penn senior Mark Rappo, a past NCAA qualifier, is ranked 12th nationally at 125 while sophomore C.J. Cobb is No. 17 at 141.

Eiter served as an assistant at Penn from 2006-08 under Zeke Jones, now the U.S. National Freestyle Coach.

Eiter, a 1996 U.S. Olympian in freestyle wrestling, took time out of his busy schedule to talk with USA Wrestling communications manager Craig Sesker about his Penn program.

What kind of impact did your win over Lehigh have on your program?

It obviously was a great win on a couple of different levels. We have a nice rivalry with Lehigh and they’ve had our number in the last couple of years. To beat them, especially in Grace Hall, was pretty special. We weren’t even at full strength with a returning All-American out of the lineup. The neat thing was it was a full team effort. We had to bump a couple of guys around to different weight classes and they came through. Confidence-wise, it was a great win for our team.

We are wrestling a pretty demanding schedule. The reason we did that is because we have a special group and we want to test them. They’ve been doing the right things with training and with having the right attitude.

How impressed were you with the job that Bethea did in moving up to win?

Our best shot to win at 197 was to bump up Bethea, who is a pretty physical 184-pounder. It was a good match for Bethea. He was excited, because he knew what was at stake. He got the job done for us.

When do you expect Burak to return to the lineup?

Our target would be Midlands, if he stays on track and we feel like he is ready. If he’s not quite ready, we will wrestle him the following weekend. He had a small meniscus procedure done on his knee. He hurt it at the Binghamton tournament at the start of the season. Micah’s a tough wrestler. He’s beaten (2011 NCAA champion Dustin) Kilgore before. He beat Kilgore two years ago at the Southern Scuffle. That’s a big confidence-booster for Micah. This is his last year, and he is gunning to be in finals and win the whole thing. There is no reason that he can’t do it. He has the skills and the strength and the attitude to do it. It’s just a matter of putting it all together.

What did you gain by wrestling a top program like Oklahoma State on the road earlier this season?

We didn’t have our best performance against Oklahoma State, but we bounced back against Lehigh and Hofstra. It was huge for us to wrestle Oklahoma State though. It gave us an idea of where we were at. If you want to be the best, you have to wrestle the best. It was a great environment to wrestle in. It helped prepare us for the Lehigh crowd, which is very vocal. Oklahoma State beat us 35-10, but we did win three matches even with Burak out of the lineup.

Which wrestlers have stepped up in the early part of the season for your team?

I am real happy with Mark Rappo’s progress. He had a real good overtime win over Steve Bonnano of Hofstra, who was ranked 17th. And we have two super young guys with C.J. Cobb at 141 and Casey Kent at 165. We think we have something special there with those guys. Casey beat the No. 17 kid against Lehigh and came back to wrestle well against Hofstra. Casey has a real nice college style. He’s a real tough kid. I am real pleased with the progress of all of the guys on our team.

So what does your team do between now and the holiday break?

We are off from competition until Midlands. It’s a good time to get some more training in. The kids will take a short break after final exams for Christmas, and then we will come back for Midlands after that. Our guys are pretty excited to see what we can do.

What are your goals for where you envision taking this program?

We really think we can be a top 10 program. We think we have the pieces in place to make the jump into the top 10 nationally and stay there. We have a really good young team.

It starts in the practice room obviously. We want to make sure our guys are doing everything they possibly can to put themselves in position to win matches. We need to push each other and hold each other accountable. We want our kids to be accountable off the mat as well and stay on top of their academics. On the mat, we want to wrestle the full seven minutes and score in all possible positions. We want to score at the end of the period, no matter what the score is. We’ve been working hard on wrestling on the top and bottom, and we are emphasizing scoring back points and pinning guys.

How difficult is it to win at a school like Penn that has such high academic standards?

There is no question that you can win and achieve your athletic goals wrestling in the Ivy League at Penn. We market Penn to our recruits as the best of both worlds with academics and athletics. It’s a pretty neat situation for a young man. It’s great to see these kids go on to succeed in life because of what they gained academically here at Penn.

What is it like coaching at a prestigious academic school in the Ivy League?

It’s been a great experience. Our kids definitely keep me on my toes. If I send an email to the team, they will correct my spelling and my grammar. We have very smart kids here, and it’s a little bit of a different dynamic. Some of the conversations they have about school and their classes are mind-blowing. They will be sitting in the locker room talking about quantum physics or medieval history or something like that. They are as focused on their academics as their athletics. When they come in the wrestling room, all I ask is for them to take their mind off school for a few hours and just focus on wrestling. We definitely have some brilliant kids here.

How excited are you about returning to your native Chicago to take part in the historic 50th Midlands Championships later this month in Evanston, Ill.?

A lot of my friends and family are back there in Chicago, so it’s always fun to come back home for the Midlands. I’m looking forward to it. It will be a great tournament. It should be fun for our guys to wrestle in it. Hopefully, we can keep moving forward and keep progressing as a team.
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