A redshirt sophomore who had only competed in open tournaments before this season was one of the highly anticipated new faces for Penn State wrestling in what looked like the most fire-powered lineup in the nation.
Jered Cortez, who was No. 10 at 133 lbs in the preseason, quickly lived up to the hype. He went 6-2 with four falls through the first month of the season.
No. 9 Scott Parker handed Cortez his second loss of the season by majoring him 12-4 in the Bryce Jordan Center dual against No. 14 Lehigh. During the match, Cortez suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
The next week, another redshirt sophomore George Carpenter filled in for Cortez without prior dual experience and it was business as usual for the Nittany Lions, tech falling Binghamton’s Ian Lupole.
That match on December 11 was the Nittany Lions’ last win at 133 lbs.
Carpenter has gone 0-6 since, losing by technical fall three times. The one dual match Carpenter didn’t wrestle, redshirt freshman Triston Law got thrown around for seven minutes before losing by a 17-2 tech fall to unranked Eli Stickley of No. 19 Wisconsin. Together during the Big Ten schedule, the two young Nittany Lions at 133 lbs have allowed nine bonus points while the rest of the team has allowed only four combined.
To be fair, Carpenter’s season has been baptism by fire. Each of the sophomore’s tech fall losses have been against three of the top five wrestlers in his weight class. On Friday, he’ll meet the No. 6 ranked wrestler and fourth top ten opponent in his last six matches with Zane Richards of No. 10 Illinois coming to Rec Hall.
“When you get thrown into big, competitive matches like this, you need to keep a good attitude and figure out how you’re going to improve,” coach Cael Sanderson said. “It’s hard to see if you’re improving against a guy like Nathan Tomasello or Cory Clark.”
Carpenter will have a bit of an easier match in his weight class against Maryland on Sunday. The trio is a combined 25-36, which could provide a much needed confidence boost for Carpenter heading into the postseason.
It hasn’t been all bad, though. In his first Big Ten dual of the slate, Carpenter dropped a tough 4-3 decision to No. 17 Mitch McKee of Minnesota — showing that he can compete in the best conference in the nation. Looking at the glass as half full, while facing perhaps as tough a slate of opponents as anyone in the nation, Carpenter has yet to be pinned this season. Amidst all his struggles, he has relentlessly come back for more each match.
“George has been a little outmatched but he’s been running out to the center and giving it his best effort and that says a lot about a person bigger than wrestling,” Sanderson said. “But we are a wrestling team and we want to win and be competitive. His effort’s great and we’re proud of him for that but now he just needs to improve.”
Although the Nittany Lions are still undefeated, their recurring issues at 133 lbs. could be what holds them back from winning the Dual Championship Series match on February 19 against No. 1 Oklahoma State and another NCAA title in March. Penn State won’t be able to afford to fall behind the Cowboys, who boast a top-ten wrestler in each weight class, in either the dual or the NCAA Championships.
Considering Carpenter’s struggles, he likely won’t place in the Big Ten Tournament and earn a bid to the NCAAs unless he makes the vast improvements Sanderson’s staff is expecting of him.
At the start of the season, an unproven Cortez was a strong dark horse candidate to place highly in the NCAA’s and bolster the Nittany Lions’ team total. Now, Penn State will more than likely be a man down to Oklahoma State, which could prevent one of the most talented Nittany Lion teams in this current dynasty from winning a sixth national title in seven years.
Although Carpenter is Sanderson’s guy at 133 lbs. for the time being, the eighth-year head coach has not ruled out change in the lineup.
“Nothing’s definite,” Sanderson said, “There might be a wrestle-off at some point, but Triston has to be ready and prepared for that and he hasn’t been up until this point. We’ll see how it goes along the way.”