Lions’ “process” paying off

UNIVERSITY PARK — For the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, the “process” meant playing as bad as possible for seasons on end so that the team could accumulate enough talent to finally be good enough to compete.

For the Penn State wrestling team, the “process” is the opposite. The Nittany Lions compete at the highest level all season long so that when March rolls around, those postseason tournaments seem just like any other competition.

“I think our team is excited. I think everyone is relaxed and ready to go,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said Monday in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex. “We really have just a couple more days of work and then rest up and get ready to compete on the weekend. It’s a year-long process and you hope to be ready to go at the end.”

From the preseason in November through the regular season, Sanderson and his charges continually talk about everything they do pointing toward the ultimate payoff coming in the postseason tournaments.

With the 2019 Big Ten Wrestling Championships scheduled for the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena Saturday and Sunday, the Lions talked Monday about cashing in that hard work.

“At this point of the season, this is the fun part. We’re not stressing, really, at this point,” 141-pounder Nick Lee said. “We’re comfortable at our weight and we’re comfortable wrestling, so it’s time to have fun.”

Lee and the other nine starters were all made available to the media. Those starters will include: 125-pounder, Devin Schnupp; 133, Roman Bravo-Young; 141, Lee; 149, Brady Berge; 157, Jason Nolf; 165, Vincenzo Joseph; 174, Mark Hall; 184, Shakur Rasheed; 197, Bo Nickal; 285, Anthony Cassar.

About the same time the Nittany Lions were meeting the media, the Big Ten Conference was releasing the tournament pre-seeds. The Nittany Lions were awarded four No. 1s, three No. 2s, a 4, a 6 and a 12.

Nolf, Joseph, Hall and Nickal received top seeds at their respective weights. Lee, Rasheed and Cassar were seeded second. Bravo-Young was fourth, Berge sixth and Schnupp 12th.

Penn State was the only team to receive multiple top seeds. Northwestern (125), Michigan (133), Illinois (141), Rutgers (149), Ohio State (184) and Minnesota (285) received one top seed each.

While those seeds won’t be official until after the Big Ten Coaches meeting early Friday afternoon, they rarely change. They can also result in a slightly easier path to an NCAA tournament berth, depending on matchups.

The NCAA recently released the number of automatic qualifiers the Big Ten will receive at each weight, which also has a bearing on how hard it is to earn a coveted trip to nationals: 125 – 9, 133 – 8, 141 – 9, 149 – 6, 157 – 9, 165 – 9, 174 – 8, 184 – 8, 197 – 5, 285 – 7.

Bravo-Young, Berge and Rasheed all missed matches in the second half of the season. Bravo-Young and Rasheed were because of knee injuries. Berge’s absences went unexplained. Sanderson, though, said all are ready to go.

“I think they’re as ready as they’re going to be,” he said. “You watched Roman wrestle a week ago. He was moving really well. He’ll probably keep his knee taped up. It shouldn’t affect the way he’s moving. Shak’s gonna wear a brace but he’s been moving well with the brace and it shouldn’t affect the way he’s wrestling. So, yeah, they’re ready to go. We’ve been wrestling since November and training year-round for the most part. There’s always nicks and bruises.”

Penn State has won the last three NCAA championships, but in the last two years has finished as the runner-up to Ohio State in the Big Ten. Hall was at a loss to explain why.

“I have no idea why the Big Ten tournament, the last two times we’ve lost it. I couldn’t really tell you. We have to keep that same mentality like we do at nationals, bonus points,” he said.

“I would say at Big Tens the tough matches come a lot quicker. At the NCAAs, typically the first two rounds guys like Bo and Jason can get pretty quick falls. You have one match (at Big Tens) and then you’re in the semis where you’re wrestling top guys in the country. That’s how good the Big Ten is.”

Lee said he looks forward to the elevated level of competition.

“Because there are so many good matches, every match is going to be good. That’s kind of what I look forward to is the idea that every match is going to push me to be at my best,” he said.

Nickal said that the goal is to win the tournament every year, and he thinks the Nittany Lions will reclaim the title in Minneapolis.

“We want to win every, single tournament that we compete in. I think when it comes down to it, when the spotlight’s on, the bigger the match, the better that we’re going to wrestle,” he said. “We’re going to go out there definitely expecting the team to put a good performance out and win the team title this year.”

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