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Penn State Wrestling: Youthful Lions face uphill climb to conference title

Iowa enters as prohibitive favorite

UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State Coach Cael Sanderson may have prepared more decorated and more experienced teams for a postseason run, but one thing is clear about his 2021 Nittany Lions — he’s never had a younger postseason squad.

With six freshmen in the starting lineup, Sanderson faces a tall task if he wants this team to add a seventh Big Ten tournament title in his 12-year tenure Saturday and Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center. A talented, veteran Iowa team is the favorite of just about everyone not looking through blue-and-white tinted glasses.

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a secret in any way. I mean we believe in our team and our individuals but Iowa earned that and they’ve had really an excellent year last year … crushed the Big Ten tournament, and they’ve been doing the same thing this year and they have the same squad back … maybe even better than they were last year,” Sanderson said via Zoom on Tuesday during Penn State’s pre-Big Ten Championships media availability.

“I think Iowa has a great team and there’s a handful of really good teams that have a lot of potential and a lot of opportunity. We’ve just got to focus on us being the best that we can be and scoring as many points as we can score and letting everything else take care of itself.”

Some might think that not having to live up to the expectations of being a favorite might suit Penn State. Senior 141-pounder Nick Lee isn’t among them.

“No, we like to be the top dogs. It’s kind of weird going in, honestly, not being at the top,” he said. “It doesn’t make a difference; we’re gonna go in, we’re gonna compete with enthusiasm, we’re gonna have fun. And it would be that way whether we were ranked at the top or ranked at the bottom.”

The 2021 Big Ten Championships are on tap Saturday and Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center. A total of 76 automatic bids to the NCAA Championships, March 18-20 at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis are on the line.

The Big Ten announced tournament pre-seeds Tuesday afternoon and all 10 Nittany Lions were seeded no worse than 11th. Here’s Penn State’s starting 10, with seeds in parentheses:

125: Freshman Robbie Howard (11); 133: Junior Roman Bravo-Young (1); 141: Senior Nick Lee (2); 149: Freshman Beau Bartlett (11); 157: Junior Brady Berge (5); 165: Freshman Joe Lee (6); 174: Freshman Carter Starocci (3); 184: Sophomore Aaron Brooks (1); 197: Freshman Michael Beard (7); 285: Greg Kerkvliet (7).

As expected, Iowa led the way with four No. 1 seeds in Spencer Lee (125), Jaydin Eierman (141), Alex Marinelli (165) and Michael Kemerer (174). Other No. 1s are Ohio State’s Sammy Sasso (149), Northwestern’s Ryan Deakin (157), Nebraska’s Eric Schultz (197) and Minnesota’s Gable Steveson (285).

There’s no denying that Penn State’s lineup is loaded with talent and potential, but it’s going to have to be realized in a hurry if the Nittany Lions want to run with the Hawkeyes.

“These guys have a history of doing that, and I think they’re big-match guys. I think the bigger the match, the better our team’s gonna wrestle. l think that’s always been the case and I’m excited to see them take advantage of this opportunity on Saturday,” Sanderson said. “More than anything, we just want to have fun and be ourselves. I know we say that a lot but if our guys are just having fun being themselves, we’ll be content with the result either way. Then we can take that and build and grow on it.”

Big Ten Network plans to televise all four sessions, a first for the network. That announcement came when Pennsylvania guidance would have allowed only 500 people in the BJC. With Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, Penn State said Tuesday it is exploring the possibility of allowing wrestlers’ parents to attend.

Lee said not having a packed house will detract from the usual raucous environment.

“The fans are definitely a huge part of it and just the community, especially at Penn State. I think that you know a lot of other programs would say the same thing for their fan base in their community. It’s not who you do it for but it’s definitely part of it. I mean they’re part of the program, they’re part of the community and they’re very important to the overall experience,” he said.

“I feel over the years that there’s just been increasing engagement with the wrestling community, and I hope that doesn’t slow down because of this year. It’ll be interesting to see. But just from an athlete’s perspective, the fans are a very important part and I would say they’re one of the main reasons why it’s so fun. So, I’m looking forward to having people back in to watch our matches.”

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