Lions loaded for another title run
UNIVERSITY PARK – The Penn State wrestling team has built a dynasty under coach Cael Sanderson, winning seven of the last eight national championships, posting three straight unbeaten seasons and crowning 20 national champs in nine years.
The top-ranked Nittany Lions begin a new season on Sunday at home against Kent State.
Three-time NCAA champion Zain Retherford has graduated, but with three two-time NCAA champions Jason Nolf, Vincenzo Joseph and Bo Nickal, 2017 champ and two-time finalist Mark Hall and three other All-Americans returning, the expectations are high for the Lions.
They know, though, that another NCAA title won’t be handed to them.
“We’re just staying focused on what we want every year,” Nolf said. “Nothing has changed. We haven’t won a national championship yet this year. That’s what we want, and we’re focused on it. We want it just as bad as every other year.”
The Lions, of course, have some talented freshmen on the roster. Most followers expected Jefferson Morgan’s four-time state champ Gavin Teasdale to step in at 125, but Sanderson said redshirt sophomore Devin Schnupp, who was 1-14 last season, will start at 125.
“Schnupp has put a great effort in this summer, and he’s worked real hard,” Sanderson said at Penn State wrestling media day on Tuesday. “But we have five months, right? But for now, we’re going to roll with Schnupp and see what he can do.”
Freshman Roman Bravo-Young, who started classes in June, will go at 133. Bravo-Young won four Arizona state titles and went 182-0.
“He’s done really well,” Sanderson said. “He’s very competitive. He’s a really incredible athlete, has great speed. He’s got the tools, but he’s got the mindset as well to be very successful. He’s going to be a lot of fun to watch. No one will leave their seat when he’s about to come up because he’s pretty special.”
Sophomore Nick Lee, a returning All-American who placed fifth at NCAAs, returns at 141, Redshirt freshman Jarod Verkleeren will likely go at 149 after the graduation of Retherford.
A healthy Nolf returns at 157. Nolf injured his knee late in the season, but he still won an NCAA title.
“Jason Nolf is one of a kind,” Sanderson said. “Him returning and winning a national title under the conditions that he did last year was nothing short of a miracle in my mind. Our trainer, Dan Monthley, did a fantastic job, but, obviously, Nolf had to believe, had to be patient. If you watch him wrestle, he’s the most patient kid. He wants to get things done right now, and we love that about him.”
Nolf said he didn’t think it was a miracle that he won.
Nolf didn’t really want to talk about last season, but he disagreed that his accomplishment was a miracle.
“God definitely gave me some blessings,” he said, “but other than that, I just did what I had to do.”
Nolf will be followed by Joseph at 165 and Hall at 174. Senior Shakur Rasheed, who finished seventh at 197 to become an All-American last season, has dropped to 184.
Rasheed has dropped because Nickal has moved up to 197 from 184. He could win his third NCAA title at three different weight classes. How is he handling the jump in weight?
“I’m not really worried about him,” Sanderson said. “I think he’s a competitor, and he has the frame to move up. He’s well over 200 pounds, and it’s what he wanted to do. I think he’ll do just fine there.”
“He’s the man,” Hall said. “Everyone knows he’s the man. He can go at any weight, I believe, do some damage and win.”
Senior Nick Nevills, a two-time All-American who was fifth at 285 last season, returns to heavyweight. Nevills had surgery immediately after the NCAA Championships after an undisclosed injury.
“There were a lot of rumors flying around,” Sanderson said. “You probably saw when he got hurt. He did a great job by coming back and winning a match the third day. He’s wrestling hard right now.”
What about Parsons?
Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, who wrestled in junior high but not high school, said recently he’d like to wrestle also.
“I know he wrestled up through eighth grade, and I heard he was a really good wrestler,” Sanderson said. “He’s a phenomenal athlete, obviously. I don’t know. I think he likes to joke around and just kind of play games. I think that’s kind of his personality. I met him on his recruiting trip, so we’ve texted a few times.
“I saw his name on my phone during the summer when I was away at a camp. He called me right away, and he was like ‘Coach, I want to come and try out for the team.’ I was like ‘You need to talk to Coach Franklin about that. You’re a five-star recruit, and I don’t think he wants you wrestling.’ He was like ‘Well, I’ve got Coach Franklin right here sitting next to me. You’re on speaker phone.’
“That was kind of the last of it. I just think he had some free time there.”
Lorenzo to be inducted
Rich Lorenzo, who coached the Lions to 188 wins from 1979 to 1992 and coached five champions, will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame on June 1.
“I was very happy to see Coach Lorenzo get inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Sanderson said. “I say it every chance I get that Penn State wrestling is what it is today because of Coach Lorenzo. He’s really special. I would have loved to have watched him in his prime – just hard-nosed, tough individual. He’s no nonsense, completely honest with you. He’s the kind of guy you want to coach your kids, there’s no doubt about it.”