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Hawkeyes easily win Big Ten crown

UNIVERSITY PARK — Most wrestling fans knew it would take a Herculean effort to knock off defending champion Iowa for the title at the 2021 Big Ten Wrestling Championships. As it turned out, it was too heavy a lift for Penn State and the other 12 conference teams.

The Hawkeyes crowed four champions and amassed 159.5 points to easily outdistance second-place Penn State, which had two champs and 124 points, for the team championship Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center. Nebraska was third with 105.5 points, followed by Michigan in fourth with 92 and Minnesota in fifth with 77.5.

Aaron Brooks (184 pounds) repeated as champion and Roman Bravo-Young (133) won his first. Nick Lee (141) and Carter Starocci (174) each lost in the finals. Robbie Howard (125), Brady Berge (157) and Michael Beard (197) placed sixth. Joe Lee (165) placed eighth.

Starocci was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Iowa’s Spencer Lee was the Wrestler of the Year, Iowa coach Tom Brands was Coach of the Year, and Minnesota heavyweight Gable Steveson was Wrestler of the Championships.

“I think some guys wrestled well. Some guys wrestled not so well. To me, I want to see great effort and I’m not sure we saw great effort all the time.” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “That’s probably the hardest thing as a coach. We’ve got some time to figure some things out and be better by the nationals.”

With the exception of the first half of his first bout, Brooks was never really challenged in his march to a second consecutive title. In the finals against Nebraska’s Taylor Venz, the only wrestler to defeat Brooks in college, the Nittany Lion sophomore shook off a first takedown and was in control from there. He scored a takedown in each period and amassed 3:03 in riding time for a 10-5 decision.

“That was a tricky moment there when he was on the mat because we’re trying to figure out how do we get this kid to the nationals. Does he finish the match? Can he finish the match?” Sanderson said of Brooks’ match Saturday against Nelson Brands of Iowa in which Brooks injured his ankle and couldn’t stand on it for a bit.

“He just decided to suck it up and not just finish the match, obviously, as he did but win the match and then go on and win the tournament. Gutsy performance by Aaron. He was a little a little banged up, but it wasn’t something that we thought was going to get worse if he continued to wrestle. He did a great job. He’s provided us consistency for the program.”

Brooks seemed to owe his performane to the coaches.

“It’s a great feeling knowing your hard work paid off and that you’re in the right place with the right coach and the right people,” he said.

Bravo-Young earned his first Big Ten title with a crafty, tactical 5-2 win over Iowa’s Austin DeSanto. Bravo-Young emerged from a first-period flurry with a takedown for a 2-0 lead. DeSanto escaped 23 seconds later. DeSanto escaped to start the second but Bravo-Young hit a slick snap by for another takedown and 4-2 lead. He rode DeSanto the rest of the period and led 4-2 heading into the third. Bravo-Young escaped and then played defense in the third period for the win, a year after losing in the finals.

“I think the sky’s the limit for Roman in his career and in his life and it’s fun to see him finding more success,” Sanderson said.

Nick Lee lost a tight 6-5 decision to Iowa’s top-seeded Jaydin Eirman and, in the final analysis, 1:59 of riding time in the first period for the Hawkeye was the difference. Lee struck first with a nifty slide by takedown. Eirman, though, escaped and turned Lee’s single-leg shot and a score of his own and rode Lee the rest of the period. Eirman added an escape in the second for a 4-2 lead into the third. Lee converted on a single kicked Eirman free. Lee picked up the pace and coaxed a second stall call against Eirman for a point to tie the match at 5-5. Eirman had 1:26 in riding time and defended a flurry of Lee takedown attempts to hold on for the win.

Starocci was the unfortunate victim of a breakthrough win for Iowa’s Michael Kemerer. The Hawkeye senior had lost previous finals matches to Penn State’s Jason Nolf and Mark Hall. This, day, though, he had a little too much veteran savvy for the Nittany Lion freshman, using a couple takedowns and a two-point nearfall to fashion a 7-2 decision and his first Big Ten title.

Kerkvliet posted a 10-2 major decision in the consolation semifinals to earn a berth in the third-place bout. But, against a much larger Tony Cassioppi of Iowa, the Nittany Lion freshman couldn’t handle bigger man in a 9-0 major decision loss. Kerkvliet’s fourth-place finish was three spots higher than his No. 7 seed.

Howard dropped his final two matches of the tournament to finish 3-3 and in sixth place, five places above his No. 11 seed. Berge, too, ended 3-3 with a sixth-place finish.

Berge dropped a 3-1 sudden victory loss in the consolation semifinals and then medically forfeited his fifth-place bout.

Beard dropped a couple of close decisions Sunday, 6-5 and 6-4 to end the tournament with a sixth-place finish and a 3-3 record.

Lee ended the tournament 2-2 and finished eighth, two spots higher than his sixth see, after losing a 10-6 decision in the seventh-place bout.

Penn State has fewer than two weeks to use what it learned at Big Tens and get ready for the 2021 NCAA Wrestling Championships on March 18-20 at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. Sanderson seemed to indicate his team has some physical and mental adjustments to make before then.

“You should be trying to beat your opponents worse every time. It’s hard to get kids to buy into that system. It’s just persistence and wrestling in your tie-ups and wrestling your style. I think we’ve seen that over the years in our program,” Sanderson said.

That’s not necessarily the attitude right now, but that’s what we have to get back to and get on with is trying not just to win, but to win my more points every time you wrestle that same opponent.”

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