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Penn State Wrestling Preview: Nittany Lions Ready To Bounce Back In Shortened Season

As the shortened NCAA wrestling season gets underway, Penn State enters the year ranked No. 3 in the nation.

Head coach Cael Sanderson and the Nittany Lions have nine nationally ranked wrestlers in InterMats’ preseason rankings, led by Nick Lee, who is ranked No. 2 at 141 lbs. As Penn State’s tri-meet season-opener approaches this Saturday against Indiana and Northwestern, it is time to preview Sanderson’s squad and look at what the upcoming season holds.

Coming off an unusual two-loss season, the Nittany Lions will try to bounce back in a shortened regular season against only Big Ten opponents. Climbing back to their usual No. 1 ranking will be tough, however, as conference opponents Iowa and Michigan take the top two spots.

After losing NCAA Champions Mark Hall and Vincenzo Joseph this offseason, Sanderson will need to search for new leaders in guys like Nick Lee, Roman Bravo-Young, and Aaron Brooks.

With an impressive season last year, Lee, a two-time All-American, will try to win his first national championship in a competitive 141 lbs. weight class. Lee spent last season flipping between the No. 1 and No. 2 spots at 141 lbs. with Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher.

He will have a tough task ahead of him to reach the top of the podium, as three-time All-American Jaydin Eierman, who majored Lee two years ago at the NCAA Championships, has transferred to Iowa and holds the No. 1 ranking. Another matchup to look for will be with No. 4 Sebastian Rivera, who transferred from Northwestern to Rutgers during the offseason.

At 133 lbs., Big Ten runner-up and third-ranked Bravo-Young will have to fight through a very top-heavy weight class. No. 1 Daton Fix of Oklahoma State and No. 2 Stevan Micic of Michigan are both returning to the mat after redshirting for the Olympics last season. After making massive improvements in his sophomore year, Bravo-Young will need to continue to use his rapid pace and lightning speed to get back to another Big Ten Championship.

184-pounder Aaron Brooks became the first true freshman in Penn State history to win a Big Ten championship last season, an impressive accomplishment considering the talent that has come through Penn State’s program. Coming into the season ranked No. 3, Brooks will attempt to build off his conference championship and fight for a spot atop the podium at NCAA’s. His first big test of the year will be against No. 2 Michigan on February 7, when he’ll square off against No. 1 Myles Amine.

Despite its strong and experienced leaders, Penn State will need to rely on some of its freshmen this season to stay among the best teams in the country. Redshirt freshmen Carter Starocci, Joe Lee, and Greg Kerkvliet are all expected to have big years despite their youth. Starocci is ranked fifth at 174 lbs., while Lee and Kerkvliet are both ranked sixth at 165 lbs. and heavyweight, respectfully.

Just like any year in wrestling, the Big Ten is stacked with talent. The conference boasts six teams ranked in the top 10 — Iowa, Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska, Illinois, and Ohio State. Overall, 11 Big Ten schools are ranked in the nation’s top 25.

After mostly dominating the Big Ten over the past decade, Sanderson and the Nittany Lions have some work cut out for them if they want to get back to the top. However, if there is one thing we know about Sanderson over the years, it’s that he’ll have his team wrestling at peak performance by the time the postseason rolls around.

“We’re not going to overthink it. We know we’ll be ready by the postseason,” Sanderson said during the team’s media availability Wednesday.

In a strange year with COVID-19, Penn State’s lineup could change from week to week. The team’s first match against Rutgers was postponed due to positive tests within the team. The following week, its next match with Michigan State was also postponed out of precaution. Sanderson believes his team is ready to roll despite the recent interruptions.

“We should be good to go now. It just takes so long to get some of these guys back, there’s a backlog with getting these guys tests taken and getting them read by the right doctors,” Sanderson said. “That’s a big challenge probably in all athletic departments right now just because there’s so many teams trying to start and with all the positive cases it’s a real challenge.”

Considering the unpredictability of the season, don’t be surprised if the Nittany Lions roll out a different lineup each week. The magic number for wrestlers to be available for the postseason is four matches.

In Sanderson’s opinion, the Big Ten coaches need to cooperate with eachother if the shortened season is going to be successful.

“As a conference, we should all be on the same page where we’re trying to let our student-athletes that need the matches get the matches, That’s got to be the priority,” Sanderson said.

Overall, this Penn State team will be very competitive throughout the year. While this year’s squad doesn’t have the experience or top-ranked guys that fans are accustomed to, the Nittany Lions have a wealth of young talent that can compete with the very best on any given day. Boasting a coach as talented as Sanderson certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

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About the Author

Max Tolson

Max is a senior majoring in print journalism. He hails from the small town of Millsboro, DE and loves to watch the Eagles and Penn State wrestling. Follow him on twitter @TolsonMax or send emails to [email protected] Go Birds!

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