Sanderson downplays whether Suriano will wrestle for Lions

By Andy Elder

For The Mirror

UNIVERSITY PARK — As the week has worn on and word has spread of the possibility that Penn State freshman sensation 125-pounder Nick Suriano might not wrestle at the 2017 Big Ten Wrestling Championships, a debate has raged.

Can the Nittany Lions defend their Big Ten title, and make it six titles in the past seven years, with only eight wrestlers doing the bulk of the scoring?

“We’re hoping to get 10 through. The more important part is getting guys through who are gonna score the big points. Individuals have a chance to score a lot of points at the national tournament; you don’t necessarily need 10 guys to win,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said at the team’s Big Ten Championships Media Day on Monday.

Sanderson’s assessment could apply to the Big Ten tournament on Saturday and Sunday at Indiana University, too.

Since Suriano had to injury default his match with a left ankle injury against Oklahoma State on Feb. 19, wrestling fans have wondered about Suriano’s diagnosis and prognosis.

One person who knows, Sanderson, won’t tell. At least not much.

“It’s coming along. It’s improving. I’m not going to talk much about it, obviously. It will be kind of a game-day decision on Saturday,” he said.

“Physically, he’s just a monster. He’s recovering quickly. Mentally, he’s fine. He’s a tough kid, obviously extremely tough. He’s put a lot of time in – hours – and (trainer) Dan’s (Monthley) been putting a lot of time in with him. We’re optimistic.”

The Big Ten earned 77 automatic qualifying bids for the NCAA Championships on March 16-18 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

Eight returning Big Ten champs highlight the field in two-time national runner-up Cory Clark (133) of Iowa, 2015 NCAA champ Nathan Tomasello (133) of Ohio State, 2016 NCAA champion Zain Retherford (149) of Penn State, two-time NCAA champ Isaiah Martinez (165) of Illinois, 2016 national runner-up Isaac Jordan (165) of Wisconsin, All-American Sammy Brooks (184) of Iowa, national runner-up Bo Nickal (184) of Penn State and NCAA, Olympic and World champ Kyle Snyder (285) of Ohio State. Tomasello, Martinez and Jordan are all two-time conference title holders.

Penn State captured the 2016 Big Ten Championship in Iowa City with a total score of 150.5 and boasted three champions in Retherford, Nickal and Morgan McIntosh (197). It was the Nittany Lions’ fifth B1G crown and first since 2014. PSU went on to win the national title at Madison Square Garden weeks later.

A healthy, productive Suriano puts Penn State in the driver’s seat to repeat as Big Ten champs and win its sixth title in seven years. An absent or depleted Suriano tightens the gap between the Lions and Iowa or Ohio State.

Shortly after the media was ushered out of the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, then conference released the tournament pre-seeds. Every Lion but one was seeded in the top four of his respective weight, predictive of Penn State advancing nine wrestlers to nationals.

Retherford (149), Jason Nolf (157) and Nickal (184) were top seeds. Suriano (125), Jimmy Gulibon (141) and Mark Hall (174) were seeded second. Nick Nevills (285) earned a third seed. Vincenzo Joseph (165) and Matt McCutcheon (197) were seeded fourth. Triston Law was seeded 14th at 133.

Ohio State also has three No. 1 seeds: Tomasello, Bo Jordan (174) and Snyder.

Two Lions expected to produce some of those big points are Retherford and Nolf. Sanderson said they have been working on countering a tactic opponents have been using to slow them down.

“Yeah, for sure, especially Nolf and Zain. I mean they (opponents) back up and hit them in the face. They club the face, strike to the face … kind of a stalling tactic and that’s something that we have to get through,” he said.

Retherford said tactics and attitude will defeat that strategy.

“I’m just looking to get to my attacks and where I want to be. We’ve been working on that and I’ve been focusing on that. But you don’t want to get frustrated because then you get tired and you start getting mad. I’ve been focusing on staying patient, staying in position and getting to my tie ups,” he said.

“I want to score. I think our team is that way, we want to score points. I want to do that as fast as possible. At the same time, wrestling is you’ve got to pick and choose sometimes and be patient. I’m learning that more as I’m gaining experience out here on the mat and competing.”