East Xtra: Latrobe grad hunts NCAA wrestling gold

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Nathan Pennesi entered the Big 12 wrestling tournament, but did not wrestle a match, yet still qualified for his third consecutive trip to the NCAA Division I tournament, which began this morning at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.

Pennesi (21-9), a graduate of Latrobe High Schoool, was chosen as an at-large selection in the 141-pound weight class.

"Nathan was out four weeks with a broken [middle] finger [on his left hand]," West Virginia coach Craig Turnbull said. "It happened when he was warming up for practice. It was a freak injury."

Turnbull immediately pulled Pennesi from the Mountaineers starting lineup to let him heal.

"With only four weeks until the NCAA tournament, we had to come up with the best strategy to get him ready, even if he couldn't do any live drilling," Turnbull said. "At that point, I didn't know whether we had enough time. We certainly didn't control of the cards."

Pennesi had a 21-9 record at the time and was ranked No. 11 in the country by the coaches poll.

"There was no way he could wrestle in the Big 12 tournament, so we decided to take a chance and hope the selection committee would choose him with an at-large berth," Turnbull said. "It was a risky move because we didn't know for sure that he would get picked."

With that in mind, Pennesi was entered in the Big 12 tournament and was given a medical default for each match.

"The referee had to begin each bout, then stop it one second later so that I could be given a medical default," Pennesi said. "That kept me eligible for the NCAA tournament. It was tough sitting at the Big 12 tournament and a bit stressful waiting for the committee to determine my fate."

"We informed the selection committee that it was a small bone in his hand and much different than something like an ACL injury," Turnbull said. "We had to show them that this injury would not significantly hurt his performance at the national tournament."

Pennesi wore a cast the first two weeks of his recovery, then switched to a brace for the next two weeks.

"The brace covered most of my hand and went up to my elbow," Pennesi said. "I was able to drill with the brace on. I was also able to work out on the bike and treadmill so I could stay in shape."

Pennesi was obviously relieved to find out the committee had chosen him as one of the 33 entries at 141 pounds.

"I will be wrestling without the brace," said Pennesi, whose father, Richard, wrestled at West Virginia. "But my hand will be taped with some padding."

The 141-pound weight class features five returning All-Americans, with Oklahoma's Kendric Maple as the highest place-winner. Maple (25-0) finished fourth last year, but is seeded No. 2 behind Ohio State's Hunter Steiber (31-0), last year's sixth-place finisher.

"I was a little surprised that Steiber was seeded first because Maple was ranked No. 1 all year," Pennesi said. "What I really like about this weight class is that we don't have a clear favorite, and no returning champions. It's a very tight weight class that is up for grabs.

"I'm confident in what I can do, but I'm not sure how my finger will feel. I just have to go out and wrestle and not worry about the finger."

Turnbull is confident that Pennessi can earn All-American status, but isn't sure how the finger will react.

"How he negotiates with his injury, who knows," Turnbull said. "He most likely would have been one of the 12 seeds if he wrestled in the conference tournament. He's wrestled almost all the top seeds and was competitive with all of them. We'll just have to wait and see."

Pennessi will face Hofstra's Luke Vaith (21-12) in the first round. The winner will most likely face Edinboro's Mitchell Port (30-3), the No. 4 seed.

"We're comfortable where Nathan is in the bracket," Turnbull said. "He needs to win four matches to get to the finals."

Pennesi was a three-time PIAA qualifier at Latrobe. He finished one win short of the school career record for victories with a 140-25 record. He was also a PIAA runner-up in 2009.

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