Seven return to lead PSU
UNIVERSITY PARK — When the Penn State wrestling team opens the season against Navy at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Rec Hall, the Nittany Lions will be looking to continue their bulldozing run under coach Cael Sanderson.
The Nittany Lions have won eight of the last nine NCAA titles and have posted four straight undefeated regular seasons.
They return seven former All-Americans, including surprising 285-pound 2019 NCAA champion Anthony Cassar, 2017 and 2018 champ and 2019 runner-up Vincenzo Joseph (165) and 2017 champ and two-time runner-up Mark Hall (174).
Two-time All-American Nick Lee (141), 2019 seventh-placer Shakur Rasheed (184), and eighth-placer Roman Bravo-Young (133) also return. Kent State transfer Kyle Conel (197), who took third two years ago, will also be in the lineup.
“I’m excited,” Cassar said Tuesday at the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex on media day. “There’s going to be some fresh faces (in the lineup), and I think that we’re going to surprise some people. We have a lot of the studs back, but we have some more studs coming in. I’m excited to just have that fresh feel and go out and dominate once again. Winning becomes expected, but it never gets old.
“I expect us to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing,” Joseph said. “We have a great team again, and I’m really excited. I love these guys. We put a lot of work in, and we’re ready to go. (Winning) gets more fun the more you do it. There’s a lot of good competition, and we’re excited and ready for it.”
The Lions will be without graduated three-time NCAA champions Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal, who just won an Under 23 world title.
“Bo and Jason are special,” Sanderson said. “They’re two guys who are as good as anybody who has ever stopped on a college wrestling mat. They had just an unbelievable run individually and as a team for four years. We’re not trying to replace them. You can’t really replace guys like that.”
The only two spots in the lineup that appear open are at 125, which was the problem weight last season, and 149. The 125-pound starter will likely come from the group of last year’s starter Devin Schnupp, redshirt freshman Brody Teske and redshirt freshman Brandon Meredith. Veterans Jarod Verkleeren, Bo Pipher and Luke Gardner are vying for the 149-pound spot.
With 2020 being an Olympic season, Sanderson will be using different lineups throughout the year to get his guys ready for the Olympic Trials, which will be held April 4-5 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“Those are two of the more competitive weight classes that our kids are fighting for,” Sanderson said. “Outside of that, things are kind of set. I think this year being an Olympic year, you’re going to see a number of different teams that we put out there just trying to be creative. We want to give our guys the best chance to not only be successful in the NCAA Tournament but also with the Olympic Trials, which will be back here two weeks later.
“For those guys, we’ll look at this season a little differently individually and what’s in their best interest. At the same time, we’re trying to manage our team and being ready for our dual meets.”
Hall was rumored to be taking an Olympic redshirt, but he decided he wanted to come back for his senior season.
“I just wanted to be done with school,” Hall said. “If I took the year off, I knew I’d have to go back to school. I’m definitely excited for my senior year. I just want to get on with my career and wrestling freestyle.”
Sanderson was asked about his thoughts on wrestling the NCAA season rather than taking an Olympic redshirt.
“I’m not here to say which way is better or worse,” Sanderson said. “I’m confident, just based on history that running through the NCAA season can be a blessing. You’ve seen several guys in the last few cycles alone that come off of an NCAA season, make a world team and win medals.”
Conel likes relaxed atmosphere
Conel made a surprising run through the NCAA Championships two years ago as an unseeded wrestler. Last year, he wrestled only two bouts for Kent State before suffering a season-ending injury. He was also awarded a sixth year of eligibility.
He said he was surprised by the relaxed and fun atmosphere within the program when he visited last season.
“That’s how I truly feel it should be,” Conel said. “I don’t think we should be putting a ton of pressure on ourselves because at the end of the day, I’m only going to be wrestling for another year. I have so many years for the rest of my life I have to worry about everything that isn’t wrestling.”
“He’s obviously a good wrestler,” Sanderson said. “Everyone from Penn State remembers him because he had some big matches that helped our team out. He also went into that tournament unseeded. Our goal is to help him with his weight and just being more consistent and hopefully jumping a level. I think he’ll be a lot of fun to watch wrestle.”
Bravo-Young has fun plans
Bravo-Young became a fan favorite last season as a freshman because of his exciting style of wrestling. One of the Arizona native’s wins was over Ohio State’s sixth-ranked Luke Pletcher.
He’s looking to ramp up the fun.
“I’ve got some fun, exciting stuff that I’ve been saving up and getting ready to do out on the mat,” Bravo-Young said. “I’m just going to continue to be entertaining.”
What new things is he going to do?
“I can’t tell,” he said. “You’ve just got to wait and see.”