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Disappointed Lions aim high at NCAA event

Penn State finished second behind Iowa and qualified nine wrestlers to the NCAA Championships, but more is expected of the Nittany Lions within and outside of the program because of the dynasty coach Cael Sanderson has built.

“I definitely think we came out of the Big Ten disappointed, obviously,” Sanderson said. “But when you take a step back and look at it, our team probably wrestled above where we were supposed to, or at least to that level, at the majority of the weights.

“We just kind of have this belief and expectation that we’re going to have these awesome performances every time. We’re definitely grateful for the opportunity to have a national championship and to be going with nine student-athletes. We have a lot to be really excited about. It still comes down to each individual just being the best they can be.”

The Lions can gain some redemption at the three-day NCAA Championships, which begin at 11 a.m. on Thursday at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. Most of the tournament will be televised by either ESPU or ESPN 2. ESPN will air the finals, scheduled for 7 p.m.

There are two sessions on Thursday, with the second starting at 6 p.m. Friday’s quarterfinals begin at 10 a.m., while the semifinals are slated for 7 p.m. The consolation semifinals begin Saturday’s action at 10 a.m. They’ll be followed by the medal bouts for third, fifth and seventh place.

If the Penn State wrestlers perform better than they did at the Big Tens, they could help the program win its ninth national championship in the last 10 tournaments.

“I still believe that we’ll have our best tournament at the nationals,” Sanderson said. “That’s kind of how we gear everything.”

That’s true. While the Lions have won NCAAs eight times, they’ve only won the Big Tens six times and turn up the intensity for the NCAAs.

Plus, the Big Ten is so deep at every weight that it’s a challenge to just get through and advance to the NCAAs.

“I think the Big Ten is just tough,” Sanderson said. “That first match you’re wrestling a really good wrestler. That’s exciting. That’s one of the reasons kids go to the Big Ten. I think it’s a blessing. I think history would show the Big Ten has had just a ton of success. That’s something we take a lot of pride in as a conference.”

The Lions didn’t get a chance to defend their NCAA title last year. They had just wrestled in the Big Ten Championships and were actually practicing 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 fourth-place finish in the Big Ten team standings. Mark Hall and then freshman Aaron Brooks were coming off of Big Ten titles.

“Obviously it was unfortunate,” Brooks said. “That’s the part of the season that you train the hardest for. You want to go out there and compete and show people what you’re capable of and glorify God. Whenever it’s taken away, it’s hard on you, but what we have now is another opportunity to go do that.”

Brooks (9-0) is seeded No. 1 at 184 pounds for the tournament. He won his second Big Ten title with a 10-5 win over Nebraska’s Taylor Venz at the Bryce Jordan Center. He accomplished that feat despite injuring ankle early in the tournament.

“It showed me how much heart I truly have,” Brooks said. “To go out there and still perform and get the job done, it lets you know hey I can still do this with adversity. When adversity comes in the future, it’s like I’ve done this before. Let’s just keep this positive mindset and get it done.”

Penn State has two No. 2 seeds in junior Roman Bravo-Young (9-0) at 133 and senior Nick Lee (8-1) at 141. Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix, an NCAA runner-up two years ago, is the top seed at 133, while Iowa’s Jaydin Eirman, who beat Lee, 6-5, in the Big Ten finals, is the No. 1 seed at 141.

Freshman Carter Starocci is seeded third after finishing second at the Big Tens and being named the conference’s Freshman of the Year. That honor came a year after Brooks was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

“I think that’s important for any program,” Sanderson said of the freshmen having success. “I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful – just having kids place high at the nationals and having four-time All-Americans. Carter is very confident and he works very hard. He’s obviously very talented. We’ve seen him win some matches against some very experience, very tough wrestlers.”

The Lions enter the tournament with five freshmen qualifiers – more than any other team that Sanderson has coached at Penn State.

“Yeah, I think this is a unique season,” Sanderson said. “I think the experience our kids were able to get at the Big Ten Championship is very valuable. Obviously it’s up to us and them to just take advantage of that and move forward.”

Area wrestlers in NCAAs

Three former Mirror Wrestlers of the Year will be wrestling in the NCAA Championships in Central Cambria’s Max Murin (149), Chestnut Ridge’s Justin McCoy (157) and Huntingdon’s Jacob Oliver (174).

All three qualified for last year’s NCAAs, but they never got the chance to wrestle.

Murin (4-3), a junior at Iowa, is the 12th seed at his weight. Murin went 0-2 at the Big Ten tournament, but he received an at-large berth in the NCAAs to give the Hawkeyes a 10-man contingent. It’s the third time he’s qualified for the NCAAs.

McCoy (9-2), a redshirt sophomore at Virginia, is seeded 16th. McCoy finished second at the ACC Championships, losing 12-3 to North Carolina State three-time All-American Hayden Hidlay, who is a Mifflin County graduate.

Oliver (11-4), a redshirt junior at Edinboro, is the 21st seed at 174. Oliver finished third in the MAC Championships. It’s the third time Oliver has qualified for the NCAAs.

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