Lions looking ahead to season after missing NCAAs
The Penn State wrestling team had just wrestled in the Big Ten Championships and was actually practicing in March for the NCAA Championships when word came that there would be no NCAAs.
The coronavirus pandemic caused the cancellation of the tournament, which meant the Nittany Lions wouldn’t be able to seek redemption from a sub-par Big Ten Tournament. The Lions finished fourth in the team standings as they qualified seven wrestlers to the NCAAs and had two champions in senior Mark Hall at 174 and freshman Aaron Brooks at 184.
“Last year was tough for everybody in a lot of different ways, and college wrestling is no exception,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said on a zoom press conference on Tuesday. “You have another chance. Obviously you feel bad for the seniors, but everybody else kind of gets a re-do.
“I’m hopeful they don’t need extra motivation or a reason to want to be the best they can be. I think that’s ingrained in them regardless of the circumstances. It really doesn’t do us much good to talk about what we could have done or should have done. We’re looking ahead.”
There was talk locally months ago that the Lions would redshirt most of their starters from the previous season because there was so much uncertainty regarding how COVID-19 would affect the wrestling season.
But the NCAA ruled the 2020-21 season won’t count toward the wrestlers’ college eligibility. So the plan to use wholesale redshirts was scrapped at Penn State.
“I think it’s going to be a really exciting year, especially with the NCAA making this a free year of eligibility,” Sanderson said. “I know that changed our lineup. A lot of our kids weren’t willing, and I don’t blame them at all, obviously, to risk not having a season.
“We had guys who were planning to take Olympic redshirts, and we were redshirting pretty much everybody we could. As soon as they made it a free year, why not, let’s go. So everybody’s best team, I assume, is wrestling this year.”
The Lions were scheduled to open the condensed nine-meet season at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at Rutgers, but the match was postponed on Wednesday. The program paused all team-related activities due to positive COVID-19 results “among Tier 1 personnel,” according to a Penn State wrestling release.
No makeup date has been set yet.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and the broader community are of the utmost importance,” the release said. “Therefore, as part of the protocols established by the Big Ten Conference and Penn State Athletics medical staff and in consultation with university, local and national officials and guidelines, individuals with a positive test have been put into isolation.
“In addition to isolation, contact tracing procedures have been implemented, which includes quarantine and testing for those individuals who might have been exposed, even if asymptomatic.”
The Lions’ first home match is Jan. 24 against Michigan State. Fans won’t be permitted in the Big Ten arenas.
Sanderson said if any wrestlers in the Big Ten are diagnosed with COVID-19, they’ll be sidelined for a minimum of 17 days. As a result, the Lions are trying very hard to not come down with the virus.
“When we compete, we’re not wearing masks,” Sanderson said. “Coming into practice and out of practice and every second of the day, basically, when they’re in the weight room, they’re wearing masks. We’re getting tested six times a week.
“We’re just like everyone else. We’re just rolling with the punches and kind of learning as we go. We’ll see if anything is modified, but we’re just looking forward for just an opportunity to compete and get these guys out of the room.”
Among the wrestlers returning are Brooks (184), Big Ten runners-up Roman Bravo-Young (133) and Nick Lee (141) and ninth-placer Jarod Verkleeren (149).
There are also a number of talented freshmen and redshirt freshmen looking to step into the lineup. Freshmen Robbie Howard (125) and Beau Bartlett (149) and redshirt freshmen Joe Lee (149-157), Carter Starocci (174) and Michael Beard (197) are just some of the names.
“We don’t have our lineup set,” Sanderson said. “If you follow the program, you probably have a pretty good idea. We have some good young kids coming up. We’re actually fairly young as a program. We have some weight classes that are more competitive. Obviously there are some that aren’t.”
One new change this year is teams are permitted to have extra bouts before the main match begins. It sounds like an old-school junior varsity high school match, but these matches will count as varsity participation a Penn State spokesman said.
“We’re very excited about that, actually,” Sanderson said. “The rules committee has really done a great job in the wrestling world. You have to have four matches to be considered for a (NCAA Championships) wild card. Assuming that there’s going to be missed matches, unfortunately because of COVID, this just gives you chances to get your starters those four matches.
“We’re going to wrestle as many exhibition matches as we can each week. That’s a great blessing for the guys who aren’t starters this year. It keeps everybody engaged and something we can do as a sport moving forward.”
The Lions, whose lineup was always changing, went 12-2 overall and 8-1 in the Big Ten last season. The top-ranked Lions saw their 60-match win streak snapped by Arizona State, 19-18. Later they lost to Iowa, 19-17, for their first conference dual meet loss since 2015.
But it’s a new year — a chance for the Lions to actually wrestle and compete for a Big Ten title and win their ninth NCAA title in the last 11 years.
“I think we can be really good,” Brooks said. “I think we can win five national championships. Our team is really young, but I believe everyone has what it takes to get the job done.”