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Lions now face key changes

UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State wrestling fans need to make sure their seat belts are buckled and their chair backs are in the upright and locked position because there’s some turbulence ahead.

Nittany Lion head coach Cael Sanderson confirmed Tuesday in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex there will be two new starters at 197 and 285 starting this weekend.

Previous starters and All-Americans Kyle Conel (197) and Anthony Cassar, the defending NCAA champion at 285, have sustained season-ending shoulder injuries. Conel will be replaced by Shakur Rasheed, who is medically cleared to wrestle after undergoing ACL surgery in March. Freshman Seth Nevills will be pulled off redshirt and start in place of Cassar.

Conel injured his shoulder in the Penn match on Dec. 8. Cassar’s injury was sustained in the 125 kg freestyle semifinals of the 2019 Senior Nationals on Dec. 21.

As usual, though, Sanderson remained positive in the face of adversity.

“Well, I don’t know if confidence is the word. Our goal is always the same, we want to be the best that we can possibly be. We’re never going to give up, we’re never going to put our heads down and feel sorry for ourselves or count ourselves out,” he said.

“We feel like if we’re in striking distance in March, we’re gonna get after it. I like our team. I think we got it. We have the potential to score a lot of points. Obviously, there’s a lot of great competition, there always is, that’s what makes things exciting. But who knows what the results will be. Our job is just to take care of what we can control and let’s get out there with a good attitude and some enthusiasm.”

When the dust settled from that bombshell, Sanderson said Brady Berge is still the starter at 157, but he will be handled with an abundance of caution. Berge was knocked unconscious during a U23 World Championships repechage match at 74 kg in October. He has wrestled just one dual meet since, posting a 5-3 win on Dec. 6 at Lehigh. What the future holds for him from match to match, Sanderson couldn’t say.

“It’s going to be hit and miss a little bit. We just want to do what’s in his best interest, so our plan is we’re trying to get everything ready for March, at this point. So, it’s a maybe or maybe not, I don’t really know,” he said.

“It’s the same thing with all of our guys; it’s the same thing with Shakur – we want him to be ready in March, and what does that mean? We’ll figure that out as we get out on the mat and see where he’s at. He’s been wrestling hard here for a couple of months now and I think last week he got his official clearance and everything.”

While those weights are mostly settled, or will be in the postseason, two other weights are still up for grabs.

Sanderson said there is still no clear-cut starter at 125 or 149. He said Brody Teske, Brandon Meredith and Devin Schnupp are still trying to claim the starting spot at 125. Jarod Verkleeren and Luke Gardner are still vying for the 149-pound job.

Sanderson said Conel will have surgery this week on the same shoulder he injured a year ago while wrestling for Kent State. That resultant surgery ended his Golden Flashes career.

While Cassar is done wrestling collegiately this year, his Olympic aspirations are still in play. Sanderson said that Cassar decided to forego surgery and opt for rehab to try to get strong enough to wrestle in the 2020 USA Wrestling Last Chance Olympic Trials Qualifier on March 27-28 at Millersville University.

“He’s tough and he’s already back in here working and trying to get everything in place so he could be ready,” Sanderson said. “It just doesn’t make sense for him to wrestle matches here and there and the Big Ten and the nationals because his goal is obviously the Olympics.”

Cassar was seen walking past the media scrum around Sanderson, dressed in what appeared to be his workout gear. He did not appear to be wearing a shoulder harness or have his shoulder taped.

Sanderson said Nevills had planned to wrestle this season up until this summer when the NCAA granted Cassar an additional year of eligibility.

“He (Seth) was he was ready to go, he was planning to go. He’s doing well. I’m excited to watch him wrestle,” Sanderson said.

“We watched his brother (two-time All-American Nick) and he’s just a little bit bigger version, and don’t tell Nick but he’s a little bit more athletic. Nick has some great strengths too; they both come from a family of winners and I’m excited to see him go. He’s fun to watch wrestle.”

And, at least one of Nevills’ teammates said he thinks Nevills is up to the task of replacing Cassar.

“Yeah, he’s ready to go. And he’s big, he’s strong for, you know, just a kid pretty much,” 174-pounder Mark Hall said. “I think it’s an awesome opportunity for him. Anytime you get your redshirt pulled midseason I think it says something about you and what you’re all about.”

Lost in the wake of all that news is the fact that Penn State resumes competition a month after its last dual meet, Dec. 8 vs. Penn. The Nittany Lions welcome Illinois to Rec Hall at 7 p.m. Friday and Northwestern at 2 p.m. Sunday as they start the Big Ten portion of their schedule.

“I’m so excited that we have back-to-back matches at home this weekend,” 165-pounder Vincenzo Joseph said.

“It’s a good way to get started so that we don’t want to just like immediately travel out to the Midwest or whatever and have to wrestle out there. I mean, that’s fine. I love those matches. They’re fun. But coming back in at home is always great. Great atmosphere here at Rec and we love wrestling here.”

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