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Wrestlers Bow Out Early at National Championships

By Michael D. Ledecky, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard wrestling team’s co-captains wrapped up their collegiate careers Friday with early-round exits as three Crimson grapplers competed at the NCAA Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. Seniors Walter Peppelman (157 lbs.) and Steven Keith (141 lbs.) finished outside the top eight in their respective weight classes with consolation-round losses on day two of the three-day event.

“It’s not the way that you’d want to end your career,” Peppelman said. “It kind of hit Steven and me real hard, but we’ve both been blessed to have had wonderful careers at Harvard.”

Sophomore 197-pounder James Fox also finished off of the podium with first-round and consolation losses on day one. Harvard tied for 41st in the 66-school field with four points, as Penn State picked up its third straight team title.

“It was disappointing. We didn’t wrestle our best,” Crimson coach Jay Weiss said. “I think they fought hard, but things didn’t go our way.”

Ohio University redshirt freshman Spartak Chino upset the 11th-seeded Peppelman with a pin just over a minute into the first-round match of the 157-lb. bracket on Thursday.

“You never want to drop your first match; it’s obviously a terrible place to be,” Peppelman said. “I made a mistake early on and failed to adjust.”

It was the second time in two years that Peppelman had dropped his first-round NCAA Championship match. Last year, the three-time Crimson captain managed to battle his way onto the podium after a first-round loss with an eighth-place finish.

But with his back against the wall, Peppelman could not muster similar heroics. The senior fell the next morning to fifth-seeded Clarion All-American James Fleming, 9-0, after winning a 3-1 decision over Columbia senior Jake O’Hara Thursday afternoon.

“My focus coming into the last match was good. I just ran into a roadblock and didn’t achieve my goal,” Peppelman said.

The result was Peppelman’s lowest finish of his three career NCAA Championship appearances. The two-time All-American had finished eighth in the 157-lb. division in both his sophomore and junior seasons. He nevertheless ends his collegiate career as one of the most successful wrestlers in Harvard program history. Peppelman’s 110 career wins rank sixth on the Crimson all-time list. His 31 career falls rank third.

Keith, who sits just behind Peppelman on Harvard’s all-time list with 105 career wins, also earned his spot among Harvard’s top wrestlers with an eighth-place finish at last year’s NCAA Championships. This weekend, the senior All-American went 2-2 wrestling from an unseeded bid.

“Steven wrestled awesome last year at the NCAA tournament and really fought to get on that platform…. That was a huge accomplishment. This year, I think both [Keith and Peppelman] have had some ups and downs. It’s difficult to go into this tournament as an unseeded wrestler.”

Keith opened the tournament on Thursday morning with a fall over Oklahoma State sophomore Julian Feikert 39 seconds into the second period. In the afternoon, the senior dropped a 7-3 decision in the next round to No. 1 seed and eventual third-place finisher Hunter Stieber of Ohio State.

In the wrestleback, Keith won an 8-3 decision over Penn State senior Bryan Pearsall on Friday morning before falling to eighth-seeded redshirt sophomore Nick Dardanes of Minnesota, 7-4.

While NCAAs will likely be Peppelman’s last competition, Keith plans to compete past college.

Fox left Des Moines winless in the 197-lb. bracket. The sophomore is still looking for his first NCAA Championship bout victory after two invites.

“I don’t think [Fox] knows how good he really is,” Weiss said. “Now that he’s been on the mat his freshman and sophomore year, he’s got to figure out where he wants to be on that platform.”

Fox dropped his first round match to Ohio University redshirt freshman Phillip Wellington, 9-4, before falling to Iowa freshman Nathan Burak in the consolation bracket, 4-0.

Weiss is pleased with what his squad accomplished this year.

“I think the season was really good. We really came together,” Weiss said. “We’re a heavily freshman and sophomore team, which is exciting, and we’ve developed some depth.”

The Crimson will be joined by a top-20 recruiting class. Peppelman believes that Harvard will respond to the gaps that he and Keith will leave.

“I think we’re ready to go. We have a young team, we have a successful team. We’re bringing in guys who are great, top recruits—hard workers, great wrestlers, smart kids,” Peppelman said. “I think the future is really bright for Harvard wrestling. This was one little dark spot along the way, but there is going to be a lot of success to come in the future.”

—Staff writer Michael D. Ledecky can be reached at mledecky@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @mdledecky.

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