August 11, 2022
By Shannon Scovel | Article originally published on NCAA.com
On March 18, 2022, Penn’s CJ Composto took the mat against Olympian Stevan Micic at the NCAA tournament with All-American honors on the line. His nerves were high, the pressure was intense and everyone was watching. Micic, seeded No. 24 after a mixed season at 141 pounds, could have been perceived as the favorite, despite his seeding because of his history of success, but that didn’t bother Composo.
This was his match.
He “put the blinders on,” blocked out the crowd and took the mat. Over seven minutes and ten points later, Composto was a freshman All-American.
That moment made headlines, but when Composto was asked about his season with Penn wrestling last year, this wasn’t the moment he wanted to focus on.
Instead, he wanted to talk about community service.
Composto, like many of his Penn teammates, is heavily involved in Beat the Streets Philadelphia, an organization founded by Penn alumni in 2009 to empower underserved youth and offer mentorship opportunities. The young All-American said he’s learned just as much through this program off the mat serving his community as he’s learned on the mat.
“[Head Penn wrestling] Coach [Roger] Reina said to me once, the only way that you can unleash your best potential is if you are helping others reach their best potential, and that really stuck with me,” Composto said. “Our coaches really just put that team-first mindset into us.”
Composto’s potential, and the potential of the Penn program as a whole, is certainly limitless, but last season offered a good preview of the kind of program Reina and Composto want to see in the years to come. The service culture at this Ivy League institution combined with it’s talented team and elite recruits makes Penn a notable program to watch heading into the 2022-2023 season.
Mentoring champions through service leadership
As the leader of this blossoming Penn team, head coach Roger Reina is in a unique position. The Quaker alum first led this program back in 1986 at just 24 years old before ultimately stepping down in 2005. Twelve years later, he returned to the position after spending time working various roles within the sport of wrestling including developing the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center (PRTC) and growing engagement with Beat the Streets Philadelphia.
The relationship between these programs — the PRTC and Beat the Streets — has created a special situation for Penn wrestlers like Composto who now have the opportunity to learn from Olympic-caliber athletes like Joey McKenna and Jordan Burroughs through the PRTC while also supporting younger athletes in the greater Philadelphia metro area as part of Beat the Streets. In fact, Composto described this situation as a “ladder of mentorship,” one where he’s grown as a leader by following the examples of McKenna and Burroughs and improved as a wrestler through teaching youth athletes.
It’s a system where everyone improves.
“It’s a team you want to be on,” Penn wrestling head coach Roger Reina said. “We just try to remind guys that there are lots of data points that ought to give them confidence going into the NCAA tournament.”
To be the best, you have to beat the best, and Penn has a schedule this year that will allow the team to compete against some of the biggest powerhouse college programs in the country even before the NCAA tournament. The Quakers will start their dual season with a meeting against Iowa on November 26th in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and they will also do battle with Rutgers, Wisconsin, Army, North Carolina and Stanford as part of their non-conference schedule. Lehigh, Brown, Harvard, Princeton and American will all also visit Penn at home in the The Palestra throughout the season, while the Quakers will go on the road to face Columbia, Cornell and Drexel.
Reina said that Penn will have ten returning national qualifiers on the roster this year, but he expects that a number of his star recruits including Andy Troczynski and Evan Mougalian will want to make their impact on the team. He’s starting to develop a reputation for talent, even talent that might be underestimated but could be primed for big moments that help put Penn on the map.
“Look at CJ [Composto]. He wasn’t like a Big Board Top 100 recruit, and all that,” Reina said. “He took third in New Jersey once, never placed at Fargo, and here he is as a freshman making big news, so I think we have quite a few guys that have been Big Board guys and then we have a bunch of other guys that can make an impact.”
(Re)building potential at Penn
Reina’s last half decade with Penn wrestling has been particularly unconventional, as he’s had to rebuild a team that just a few years ago did not have a single returning EIWA point scorer. COVID also complicated Reina’s efforts, canceling two NCAA tournaments in a row for the Ivy League. These challenges, though, haven’t stopped Reina and the Quakers. Through an intentional focus on development and a team-first mindset, Reina now has a squad that he expects could be challenging for EIWA titles down the line.
“Our culture is solidifying,” Reina said. “It’s more than just about winning wrestling matches. The process of building culture, the process of building a team, the process of working really hard within the sport, the output should be winning wrestling matches, but culture comes first… [and] I think our culture is primed to take that next step up the ladder.”
The Quakers finished last season with an 8-2 record including wins over Lehigh and Princeton. The biggest moment though, of course, came at the NCAA tournament when Composto fought his way onto the podium. Reina notes that Composto has developed into a strong younger leader for the Quakers and between his success at the tournament and the experience of his veteran captains Doug Zapf, Ben Goldin and Carmen Ferrante, Penn is now more prepared than ever for the season ahead.
There’s an expectation that Reina will bring Penn back to its historic levels of success, back to the era of multiple All-Americans and title contenders. But Reina doesn’t just want to go where Penn’s gone before. He’s more interested in exploring what Penn can do that exceeds expectations.
“Getting to new heights, that’s interesting to me,” Reina said. “I think this theme of unleashing potential, which is absolutely why we do what we do, we happen to do it through the sport of wrestling and through academic and professional opportunities for our guys, but regardless, within the Philly ecosystem, I think the excitement is around unleashing potential and reaching new heights that haven’t been achieved before.”
Shannon Scovel is a graduate of American University where she competed as a four-year member of the varsity swim team. She is also a former Fulbright Scholar and has previously written for Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports and USA TODAY.