Penn State wrestlers will juggle Olympic, NCAA aspirations
UNIVERSITY PARK — The 2019-20 Penn State wrestling season promises to be unlike any other in the Cael Sanderson Era, and arguably in program history.
It will be fraught with challenges with the schedule, training and juggling dual pursuits. They are problems of Sanderson’s making and he couldn’t be happier.
“I think this year being an Olympic year you’re going to see a number of different teams that we’re going to put out there, just trying to be creative and give our guys the best chance to not only be successful in the NCAA tournament, but also with the Olympic Trials back here two weeks later. The plan and what they’re doing will be important in that process,” Sanderson said Tuesday in the Rec Hall Media Room during Penn State Wrestling Media Day.
Penn State, perhaps more than any team in the country, has elevated itself to a place that many of its starters will be pursuing both NCAA championships and berths in the Olympic Trials on April 4-5 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Returning starters Nick Lee (141), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174) and Anthony Cassar (285) all have expressed world and Olympic aspirations.
In addition, the coaching staff will be helping to guide a host of former Nittany Lions and other members of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club through the process of earning places on the U.S. Olympic team ladder.
Among those are David Taylor, Bo Nickal, Jason Nolf and Zain Retherford, to name just a handful.
“We have several guys who have a legitimate chance of qualifying for the trials and competing for the team. Those guys, we’ll look at the season a little differently for them individually and what’s in their best interest. At the same time we’ll try to manage our team and be ready for our dual meets and trying to give our team the best chance to be successful at the same time,” Sanderson said.
Even facing the prospect of replacing a pair of three-time NCAA champions in Nickal and Nolf, Penn State is a preseason favorite to win a fifth consecutive NCAA title, which would be its ninth in the last 10 years. It also figures to extend its 59-match winning streak.
Sanderson wasn’t exactly forthcoming when asked who his starters would be when the season kicks off at 2 p.m. Sunday in Rec Hall against Navy. But putting together clues from his comments and those of his wrestlers, the pieces of the puzzle start to take shape.
The 11th-year coach said there won’t be many changes from last year’s team, with the exception of the slots Nolf and Nickal vacated, and position battles at 125 and 149. It’s safe to say that Sunday’s lineup will differ from the one Sanderson and Co. send on to the mat come the postseason push in March.
At 125, Sanderson said the starter will emerge from a battle between two-year starter junior Devin Schnupp, redshirt freshman Brody Teske and redshirt freshman Brandon Meredith.
Returning sophomore All-American Roman Bravo-Young will reclaim the starting role at 133 and junior two-time All-American Nick Lee is back as the starter at 141 for the third year in a row.
The presumed starter at 149 is Jarod Verkleeren, who saw a number of starts in place of Brady Berge a year ago. Sanderson said, though, that senior Luke Gardner and junior Bo Pipher may have a say about that.
Berge, who reportedly made a drastic weight cut to wrestle at 149 a year ago, will be the eventual starter at 157. But Sanderson said he doesn’t expect him to wrestle on Sunday.
Video of Berge wrestling at the Under 23 Freestyle World Championships last month showed him unconscious on the mat.
“I would guess that we’re probably not going to wrestle him on Sunday,” Sanderson said. “You saw the video. He took a knee or something, it’s not really clear, to the head and was unconscious for a little bit. Obviously, you’ve got to take that very seriously, but he’s doing well now.”
Gardner or Pipher are likely replacements for Berge.
The rest of the lineup will mirror last year’s, with the exception of 197. All five wrestlers in the final weights will be seniors.
Senior three-time finalist and two-time champion Joseph is back at 165. Three-time finalist and one-time champ Mark Hall will go again at 174.
Granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA, Shakur Rasheed, who earned All-America honors two seasons ago at 197, is back for a final go-round at 184. Sanderson revealed that Rasheed wrestled with a torn ACL, which he had surgically repaired after NCAAs, during the second half of last season.
At 197, senior transfer Kyle Conel, who was an All-American for Kent State two seasons ago, will spend his final year of eligibility trying to duplicate that feat.
And, at 285 pounds, defending NCAA champion Anthony Cassar, who was also granted additional eligibility by the NCAA, will try to repeat as champ.
Even with all of the challenges that lie ahead, Sanderson said he and his wrestlers are excited to get the season started, especially with a long-time rival like Navy.
“We’re really excited for them to come in. Any time you have a military team, you know the kids are tough. They’re making the ultimate sacrifice for what they’re choosing to do for a career,” he said. “We have all the respect in the world for them as individuals and competitors. We expect them to come in here and wrestle hard, so we better be ready to go.”
Here is a sampling of highlights from the wrestlers:
Teske, in the limited time he has spent with the media, has presented himself as a serious competitor who rarely smiles. So, when he said the following, it was the media members who were left smiling, while Teske remain stone-faced.
“I’m really focused on four things. One, on having fun, working to become the best version of myself, growing a good ‘stache and growing a good mullet. All of them have a pretty solid foundation right now and there’s work to be done … that’s where I’m at,” he said.
Penn State has assembled a group of incoming freshmen that some would say rivals the best classes any team has assembled: Joe Lee, Aaron Brooks, Seth Nevills, Carter Starocci and Michael Beard are all technically true freshmen, even though several of that group greyshirted last year.
“It depends on the weight class, the situation of your team,” Sanderson said. “I think any of our redshirts would be willing to go and excited to compete if the circumstances changed. It just makes sense for our team right now to redshirt them and for them to really take advantage of that year and really get ready for next year.”
As it stands, Lee is behind Joseph, Starocci is behind Hall, Brooks is behind Rasheed, Beard is behind Conel and Nevills is behind Cassar.
The wrestling world was abuzz with news earlier this fall that Snyder would leave Ohio State, where he wrestled in college and won an Olympic gold medal, and come to train with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
Perhaps no one was more excited than Cassar.
“I was pumped. Any time I get another big guy in here — I already have the best training partners in the world — adding him, I’m getting spoiled,” he said. “It’s a great addition. He’s fit in super well already. We’ve been training a few times the past few weeks. I feel I’ve jumped levels already and I feel like I’ve helped him as well so we’re gonna continue to do that.”
Even though Joseph is a three-time NCAA finalist and a two-time champion, many think he has something to prove after his loss in the 2019 finals. While Joseph flatly rejected that notion, he did say the loss inspired what Sanderson said was a higher level of discipline this offseason.
“I’m a little more focused now, just a little more drive,” Joseph said. “Losing last year I guess kind of helped me refocus and not take things super lightly and just enjoy the sport.”