UNIVERSITY PARK - Zack Beitz thought his second season on the Penn State wrestling roster was all planned out.
He would compete at 141, win the spot, build experience throughout the season and then make a run at a national title.
It was a solid, yet ambitious plan.
The 141-pound spot was open. The leading contenders would be Beitz and incoming freshman Zain Retherford. Head coach Cael Sanderson prefers to redshirt freshmen unless they demonstrate a clear advantage over the next guy at the weight.
Retherford demonstrated that clear advantage early on, going on to upset two-time defending NCAA champion Logan Stieber in December. Retherford wouldn't lose until a 7-3 setback to Stieber in the Big Ten final.
When Retherford claimed the 141-pound spot, Beitz had a choice: either toil away behind the freshman or move up a weight and fill a void. Incumbent Andrew Alton was slow to recover from offseason shoulder surgery and contender James English was battling injuries of his own.
"I came in expecting to be going in at 141 and that didn't work out," Beitz said. "We had a thing where I might as well go up and I started getting bigger, going up to 149. The opportunity actually presented itself where I started going out there and representing Penn State. I went out there the whole year wrestling 149."
That's when he started to shine. While his 11-9 record wasn't overly impressive, some of those 11 wins were. Several early on showed outsiders that this little-known kid from Mifflintown was ready to run with the weight's big dogs.
In a dual meet with Ohio State, he defeated No. 19 Ian Paddock, 5-3. Then, in a road dual against Iowa at Iowa City, Beitz hit a big five-point move to defeat the Hawkeyes' Michael Kelly, 6-1. It was a crucial moment in the Nittany Lions' win. At the Southern Scuffle, he dominated No. 9 Scott Sakaguchi of Oregon State, 10-4.
He was on his way.
"It was hard to get started at first. I felt a little gassed going out in my matches at 149. After you get a couple matches in there you start feeling good, relaxed and it takes care of itself," he said.
"I don't know if there was an actual turning point. I always told myself, 'you can compete with them. It's just a mentality to have if you're going to go out there and wrestle.' I don't know if there was a point where I actually thought any differently. It just started happening. It just started clicking for me and things started rolling."
They started rolling so much so that he was ranked No. 17 in the country.
Although Beitz was the starter for most of the rest of the season, Andrew Alton was reinserted into the lineup a couple times but didn't produce the results the coaches wanted.
Then, in the final dual of the season, against Clarion, English got the start. Sanderson explained after the match that the sixth-year senior had won a three-way wrestle-off and he would be the postseason starter.
"That was a very unusual situation. We had three guys we had confidence in. You have Beitz, who has done a phenomenal job for us, won some huge matches for us. He's a freshman who stepped up a weight class to do that. He gets better every match. He fights, hustles, does everything we ask," Sanderson said.
However, Beitz's season was over.
"It's tough because it's not what I wanted. I had expectations that I wanted to go win a national title," he said.
"At the end of the day, English is still on our team. He's a great guy. I'm cheering for him. I want him to succeed. I want the team to succeed. Him getting better is only helping me. I have to come up with new goals and start working toward next year."
That's what he's doing now. While the 10 Nittany Lions are in Oklahoma City, Okla., later this week trying to bring home a fourth consecutive NCAA team title, Beitz will be working back at University Park, trying to establish new goals while he works to get better.
"This year has shown me I'm close to a lot of top competitors, guys who are competing to win a national title. I was right there with a lot of those guys. It shows that I'm right there. I just need to put a little bit more work into it and come out ready for next year," he said.
"I need to open up more shots. I need to be able to ride guys, because that's a big part of it. I need to fill out a little bit more."
Part of the plan to get better is to wrestle freestyle in the spring and summer.
"That helps with a lot of continuing wrestling. A lot of freestyle is you take your guy down and, boom, you're right into your turns. It helps a lot with transitioning into folkstyle," he said.
Beitz admitted while he won't physically be in Oklahoma City, his mind will. He said he'll be following the tournament all day online and on TV. He'll do so wistfully, silently wishing he was there. He said it will give him a new perspective for next season.
"Just enjoy every minute of it. That's the best part," he said. "Coming to practice I enjoy."