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Penn State Wrestling Reestablishes ‘Dominant Culture’ With Electric NCAA Championships Run

As Cael Sanderson raised his ninth national championship trophy as Penn State’s head coach Saturday night, there wasn’t any question left as to who the most dominant team in college wrestling is.

Sanderson was surrounded by his decorated group of wrestlers, who totaled 131.5 points, secured a team championship before the finals even started, and went on to win five individual titles Saturday night.

Roman Bravo-Young, Nick Lee, Carter Starocci, Aaron Brooks, and Max Dean all proved to be at the top of their weight classes by winning national championships at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit during session six. Those first four stars all won titles during last year’s national tournament, but the Nittany Lions couldn’t secure yet another team title during that 2021 battle in St. Louis.

This year, however, Penn State returned to its dominant ways in a major fashion. No one can appreciate that more than Lee, who became Penn State’s first-ever five-time All-American during this weekend’s action. He finished things off by securing the 141-pound crown with a 10-2 decision over North Carolina’s Kizhan Clarke, which was his 26th consecutive victory for the Nittany Lions.

“My freshman year of college, obviously some of the best teams ever,” Lee said. “Then there’s definitely a few years there where we were younger and there had to be some adjustments for younger guys to learn how our culture is, why it’s a winning culture.

“And I really feel like we’ve gotten to the point where again it’s just a dominant culture,” Lee added.

That culture that Sanderson’s developed was seen in Lee’s win and Bravo-Young’s victory just before, but also in the fight that Starocci and Greg Kerkvliet showed over the weekend. Penn State’s heavyweight secured a fourth-place finish for the Nittany Lions, as he ended up medically forfeiting the battle for bronze against Lehigh’s Jordan Wood. Sanderson explained during his Saturday night presser that Kerkvliet wasn’t 100% entering this weekend’s tournament, but managed to battle through the bracket to earn some team points for the Nittany Lions.

Meanwhile, the head coach also noted that Starocci has been dealing with a broken hand since January, but elected to delay surgery and wrestle through the rest of the season.

While the sophomore out of Erie, Pa. dealt with that knock, he still managed one of the most impressive performances of the night. Starocci won a 6-5 decision in a tiebreaker period over Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, sealing his second consecutive 174-pound crown.

Saturday night’s victory was just another key moment in Starocci’s already impressive collegiate wrestling career. He noted during his post-bout presser, however, that the high level of success remains to be his expectation in Happy Valley.

“There’s a lot of reasons I came to Penn State. I want to be the best wrestler in the world. I want to be the best version in myself,” Starocci said. “This is what I trained for. This is why we do it. We don’t come here not to win. Everyone wants to win, but not everyone truly wants to win.”

Just after Starocci battled through his broken hand, Aaron Brooks showcased his desire to win with a clutch revenge performance over Michigan’s Myles Amine. After falling to the Wolverine at the Big Ten Championships earlier this month, the junior from Maryland burst out of the gates and won a 5-3 decision that included a full second-period ride out.

Brooks’ win was yet another example of the mental strength that Sanderson and his coaching staff develop. The Nittany Lion made the necessary adjustments to take down a talented wrestler who had beaten him just two weeks prior, and did so with relative ease.

Brooks noted during his presser Saturday night that his week of prep for Big Tens wasn’t up to his standards, but he managed to reset over the last two weeks to reclaim the 184-pound title. When asked how much he worked with Brooks to reset for an Amine rematch, the head coach noted that it was minimal.

“Very little. He knew what he needed to do,” Sanderson said. “He made some adjustments and wrestled great.”

With a laundry list of accolades and a seemingly never-ending group of talented wrestlers, Saturday electric victories and team championship serve as just another feather in the cap for Sanderson. While sometimes a man of few words, the head coach expressed his excitement for his team’s return to the top of the podium before finishing up his press conference Saturday night.

“Culture is obviously everything. You want a stronger culture,” Sanderson said. “I think these guys care about each other and they compete as individuals…We just have a great group of kids, and they’re competitors. They step up in these big moments, and they did this weekend.”

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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