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PSU dynasty continues

Champion Lions claim five titles

Photo by Andy Morrison/Detroit News via AP PSU’s Aaron Brooks hoists the team trophy amid celebration.

DETROIT — His voice breaking and tears welling in his eyes, Max Dean sat at the podium Saturday night trying to explain the meaning behind his emotional embraces with Casey Cunningham and Cael Sanderson after winning the 197-pound championship.

“A whole lot. Honestly, I was kind of at a place where I was so tired of what was going on with our season (at Cornell), whether or not our season was going to be canceled. I was losing a lot of my purpose. I was kind of done. I needed something. And they gave it to me,” he said.

“So, just thinking of those guys and so many people I know I wouldn’t be here tonight without them. It’s emotional because they’re just such classy guys. They’ve been so good to me.”

Dean’s title capped a perfect 5-0 finals performance for Penn State as it won its ninth championship under Sanderson and 10th overall at the 2022 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Little Caesars Arena. That set the Nittany Lions’ record at these championships at an incredible 33-7.

Penn State has won nine of the last 11 contested championships. It’s no coincidence that in seven of those years, five Nittany Lions wrestled in the finals. During the 13-year Sanderson era, the Nittany Lions have averaged six All-Americans, four finalists and nearly three champions every year.

“Well, we’re a team but we’re made up of individuals. So, we just want to see our kids, the same thing I say every time, we want them to be happy and reach their goals when they come to Penn State,” Sanderson said.

“Our job is to help give them, like I said yesterday, just give them the resources and whatever we can do to help them be the best they can be. When it works out for them that’s great. It doesn’t most of the time. So, when it does, it’s a special thing.”

Once again Saturday, it worked out perfectly as Roman Bravo-Young (133), Nick Lee (141), Carter Starocci (174) and Aaron Brooks (184) all repeated as champions. Dean, new to the team this year, won the fifth. Greg Kerkvliet, who finished fourth earlier Saturday, was Penn State’s sixth All-American.

With its five champs, Penn State ran away with the team race, accumulating 131.5 points. Michigan was a distant second with 95 points. Iowa was third with 74 points and Arizona State claimed the final team trophy for a fourth-place finish and 66.5 points.

Penn State and Michigan led the way with six All-Americans each.

As it has in the past, Penn State clinched the championship in the morning session. For Lee, the difference between his last two championships was striking.

“I mean, it’s different winning the team title in your hotel room versus my freshman year. I was sitting in the back after my last match with our strength coach and Bo pinned the Ohio State guy and we went nuts,” Lee recalled.

Bravo-Young once again met Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix in the 133-pound final, a rematch of last year’s final, Bravo-Young converted a slick heel pick into a double for the first points of the match. The rest of the way Bravo-Young’s precision baseline defense, where at times he knew what Fix would shoot, was impenetrable in a 3-2 win.

“I’ve only been taken down twice this year. Had almost 90 takedowns. I keep records of everything. That’s one thing I pride myself on,” Bravo-Young said. “A lot of people say I stalled, blah, blah, blah. I’m finding ways to win. It’s not easy and I’m a two-time national champ.”

If this really is the end of Bravo-Young’s career, he went out on a 35-match win streak.

Lee found himself in unfamiliar territory early in the match — behind. Clarke hit a quick takedown, but Lee escaped just as quickly.

“I wasn’t asleep. He’s a good wrestler so he got that takedown, good technique and everything. But I think I just stayed calm and did my thing and the results kind of took care of themselves,” he said.

Clarke, who lost in the semifinals of the ACC Championships and received an at-large bid, was the lowest seed in the finals at No. 15. His Cinderella run to the finals then hit midnight. Lee outscored him 10-1 after that on his way to a 10-3 win.

Fans of the sport know that often good wrestlers are clumped together and make each other stronger, better. Lee said that’s the case with him and Bravo-Young.

“I’ve learned a lot from Roman. I won’t speak for him. I hope he’s learned some things from me, maybe not,” Lee said. “But I think just in terms of our styles I think anyone can tell you, even people who have never watched the sport, you can see that our styles are different. I think it’s important we learn from each other, learn each other’s patterns and that’s definitely made me a lot better.”

Lee joineed three other wrestlers — Rutgers’ Sebastian Rivera, North Carolina State’s Hayden Hidlay and Michigan’s Myles Amine — as five-time All-Americans.

Starocci met Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis in a showdown of former national championshps, Starocci in 2021, Lewis in 2019. Each of them scored a takedown and added two escapes as regulation ended 4-4. It remained deadlocked through the sudden victory period. Starocci won it in the tiebreaker periods, accumulating 15 seconds of riding time for a 6-5 win.

“World title is next. Anyone and everyone is getting taken out. World title is next, then get back to folkstyle, keep getting better and improving,” Starocci said. “There’s a lot of reasons I came to Penn State. I want to be the best wrestler in the world. I want to be the best version of myself. And I believe those coaches cannot only help me be a better wrestler, these coaches hold you to a high standard off the mat too, which helps you grow as a person. That’s the bigger picture.

“And I mean this is what I trained for. This is why we do it. We don’t come here to not win. Everyone wants to win but not everyone truly wants to win. You can kind of see how in our wrestling.”

Brooks made it four in a row for the Nittany Lions with a convincing 5-3 win over Myles Amine, who had beaten him in the Big Ten final. This time Brooks controlled the action, amassing 3:26 in riding time in a 5-3 win.

Brooks said he tweaked some technique after his loss at Big Tens.

“I like to wrestle hard, and sometimes I get overzealous and I come, come, and raise both my hands. That’s when you see Amine was able to shoot under and in 30 seconds get two takedowns (in the Big Ten final). Just being patient with that in the open, making sure I’m standing ready, my head and hands are ready. So he can’t get underneath me,” he said. ”

“So tactics, of course. Like I said, my coaches are masters. So just listening to them, going out there, staying calm, pursuing the game plan and wrestle hard.”

Dean made it a clean sweep with his 3-2 win over Iowa’s Jacob Warner in the 197-pound final. After a scoreless first, he and Warner traded escapes at the start of the next two periods. With fewer than 40 seconds left, Warner shot and Dean countered by spinning behind for the deciding takedown.

“I felt confident that he wasn’t going to score off anything except maybe if I took a bad shot. First time I wrestled him, I don’t want to get too much into the game plan; I’m not going to tip my hand too much, but he took a bad shot and I scored on him. That’s what happened,” Dean said.

A reporter related to Dean that an ESPN camera caught his brother, Gabe, crying in the stands after Max’s win. That brought more tears to Max’s eyes.

“I just remember watching him doing it and I remember being so happy. And thinking, man, I just want to be just like him because he’s — not only is he so tough but he’s such a great athlete and he’s so fearless,” Max said.

“There’s been so many times in my career where I didn’t live up to that. But he’s been such a role model to me. He loves me so unconditionally. And just to get my hand raised tonight to know that I have that in common with my brother, it just means a lot.”

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