Success of Penn State freshmen no surprise

UNIVERSITY PARK — Some people might have been surprised by Penn State freshmen Robbie Howard and Carter Starocci pulling off upset wins Sunday against veteran Michigan wrestlers in an 18-13 win. Nittany Lion Coach Cael Sanderson wasn’t among them.

“We know they’re winners. They know how to win; they’re competitors,” Sanderson said via Zoom Tuesday during the team’s weekly media availability. “They have a history of doing just that. So, I wouldn’t say we were shocked by anything.”

Despite the on-again, off-again nature of this abbreviated season, Sanderson has said repeatedly that he believes the Nittany Lions will improve with each match. The results suggest he’s right.

Howard, who was making his varsity debut, met redshirt junior Jack Medley, a national qualifier last season who was the only wrestler to hold Iowa national champion Spencer Lee to a decision win (8-1).

“Howard was off the mat last week so we weren’t even sure if we were gonna have him in the lineup,” Sanderson said. “Still, he stepped in there and he did really well and beat a tough competitor in a good, quality, competitive match; we were very happy with that.”

Starocci, who is now 4-1 after losing his varsity debut, faced second-ranked Logan Massa, a fifth-year senior and All-American who won the 74-kilogram title at the USA Wrestling Senior Nationals late last year.

“Carter wrestled great and wrestled one of the best kids in the country at not just the collegiate level but senior level as well. I don’t think anyone in our program was really surprised; they just know how good Carter is and how hard he works,” Sanderson said.

“You still (have to) go out there and do it, and we still believe our best matches are coming up here, so that’s exciting.”

Even though he’s in just his first season as a starter for Penn State, Starocci doesn’t lack for confidence.

“Honestly, I don’t feel like any of these guys are higher ranked than me. I’m No. 1, and that’s what it is with me and all of our team and that’s all that matters,” Starocci said Tuesday.

“I feel like I’ve grown a lot. And I’ve matured a lot over the season. I took that loss and it kind of stung a little bit but, I learned a lot of lessons through that. And at the end of the day, it’s not about wins and losses, it’s about how you compete. I know I’m the best guy out there and I have to go out there and prove it and do my thing and have fun with that stuff, and that’s all that’s to it, honestly.”

Starocci scored four key points when he caught Massa on his back during a scramble in the first tiebreaker period. He said he’s benefited from the talented workout partners he finds in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex every day.

“I feel like Coach Cael is … he’s as funky as it gets, he’s always doing rolls and all types of things so I go with him a lot,” he said. “I’m real good in the scrambles and all that stuff and I have a lot of different partners too. I’m going with the guys in our club team and guys on our team and our whole lineup is pretty solid. I couldn’t be more blessed and more grateful to have better partners.”

With just two dual meets left — 7 p.m. Friday at Ohio State and 6 p.m. Monday at Rec Hall — before the Big Ten Championships on March 6-7 at the Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State’s lineup is all but set.

The one remaining question is who will the starter be at 149 pounds?

“That’s something we’re trying to figure out. We’ve had a round a wrestle-offs and we’re still looking for the guy that’s going to bring the most energy and believes that they’re supposed to win,” Sanderson said.

“For the most part in our sport, you can wrestle guys off and the winner goes. But we’re trying to figure out what’s in the best interest of the team and just make sure everyone has a shot. It will probably come down to just making a decision as a coaching staff. We have had several guys that have a lot a lot of potential there, as everybody knows, so that’s gonna be a tough call.”


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