Penn State wrestling recovers to defeat Illinois
UNIVERSITY PARK — The No. 3 Penn State wrestling team’s 22-16 win over Illinois on Friday night carried a double dose of significance for heavyweight Seth Nevills.
Not only did the freshman make his Nittany Lion debut in front of a Rec Hall sellout crowd, his win sealed a closer-than-expected dual meet for Penn State.
“When you’re a heavyweight, you kind of always think that it can happen and as the dual was going on, I could sense that it might come down to that,” he said. “You know, it kind of just excited me. My first dual could mean a lot. It would mean a lot no matter what, but it’s just icing on the cake.”
Few expected the unranked Illini to give the Nittany Lions much of a test. Penn State, however, was forced to send a patchwork lineup on the mat due to undisclosed illness and injuries.
Nevills’ Nittany Lion debut came because of Anthony Cassar’s season-ending shoulder injury. Penn State was also missing starters at 133, 157 and 165. And Shakur Rasheed made his season debut at 197, his first action after undergoing knee surgery in March for a torn ACL.
The Lions were able to win six of 10 bouts and accumulate a 19-11 edge in takedowns to turn away a young, but talented Illinois squad.
“We had some opportunities that I don’t think we took advantage of. I think we wrestled OK. We were aggressive. We scored some points. We were pretty offensive. We’re getting better,” Illini coach Jim Heffernan said.
His team won four of the first six bouts to run out to a 16-7 lead after 155 pounds. Penn State’s wins came from Nick Lee, who used five takedowns in a 13-5 major decision that broke the ice for his team, and a 6-2 decision from Jarod Verkleeren at 149.
Lee said that stepping on the mat with his team on the short end of a 9-0 deficit did enter his mind.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t, but I try to wrestle the same way. We’re always looking for bonus points, whether we’re down by nine or up by nine,” he said. “I just try to go out there and wrestle as my best self every match. So, I would like to get more bonus points but sometimes you’ve just got to beat guys any way you can.”
Illinois got a 6-0 win at 125 and a pin from No. 7 Travis Piotrowski over Austin Clabaugh, who was making his varsity debut in place of Roman Bravo-Young, who Sanderson seemed to infer was sick.
They added wins at 157, where Bo Pipher subbed in for Brady Berge, who is still out with the after effects of a concussion sustained in the U23 World Championships in October, and at 165, where Konner Kraeszig replaced Vincenzo Joseph, who Sanderson said was not cleared to wrestle.
At 174, Mark Hall dominated No. 8 Joey Gunther, rolling to a 17-6 lead before Gunther was disqualified for stalling at the 6:40 mark.
Freshman Aaron Brooks faced a 16-13 team deficit when he stepped on the mat. He led 4-2 heading into the third and, leading 5-4, scored an escape, takedown and riding time point for a 9-4 win that tied the match at 16-16.
Heffernan said he thought that was a turning point in the dual.
“At 184, I thought that was a pivotal situation where I think if Braunagel gets another takedown he might win. To me, that was probably the one match I think that could have changed. Brooks was way more aggressive than him early,” he said.
With his match tied 0-0 through two periods, Rasheed used an escape and late takedown to win 3-0 and set up Nevills’ debut.
“I don’t think we should be thrilled about the way we wrestled. The guys did a nice job coming back and winning a match that we very easily could have lost under the circumstances,” Sanderson said. “When we don’t have guys in the lineup, it’s hard to hard to win tough matches like that so these guys sucked it up and found a way and so I think we have a lot of positives and that’s what we got to build on right now.”
Heffernan admitted that Rec Hall is a tough place to compete in, especially for a young team.
“This place is really hard. It really is,” he said. “I think we have four freshmen in the lineup. It’s an eye-opener for those guys. They’re freshmen, but they’re good freshmen. They’re going to develop and they’re going to be very good throughout their careers. So, this was a good experience, I think, for our guys, the younger guys especially, and the other guys, too.”