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Lions on fire in opener

UNIVERSITY PARK – Luke Gardner is one of those many Penn State wrestling veteran backups who have been a part of the program but have had to accept their roles while working hard in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex.

The redshirt junior finally got his chance to wrestle on the big stage on Sunday afternoon before a sellout crowd of 6,490 at Rec Hall.

Gardner, who was 15-10 in wrestling in open tournaments in his career, stepped in at 149 pounds in place of Jarod Verkleeren and pinned Navy’s Jon Park in 1:46.

“I’ve just been staying the course and doing everything my coaches asked me to do,” said Gardner, who was one of four making their Penn State debuts. “So, when the time presented itself, I jumped on it, and I’m very grateful for that opportunity.”

Gardner’s pin was one of three falls by the top-ranked Nittany Lions in their 45-0 rout of the Midshipmen in the defending NCAA champions’ dual meet opener. The new-look Lions also had a technical falls and a major decision in the shutout.

“I really didn’t come into the match with a lot of expectations,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “We were just hoping our kids would compete hard. We won some close matches. Navy wrestled tough. These guys did a nice job. We’re happy with how they competed. More than anything, it’s just getting started so we know where we’re at.”

After the Lions were recognized for their 2019 NCAA title with the championship trophy sitting on the mat, fans held up their lighted cell phones as they watched a slick video of the home team’s eighth national title in the last nine years.

Nick Lee started the onslaught by building an 18-5 lead on Cody Trybus and pinning him in 6:16. That’s when Gardner took the mat.

Gardner, who backed up Zain Retherford two years ago, took Park down twice, hooked up a low-leg cradle, rocked him to his back and got the fall.

“Coach Cody (Sanderson) got me ready for that,” Gardner said. “He was like ‘Work on your breathing,’ because it’s very different wrestling in the room. It’s something you’re used to, but then you come out here and wrestle in front of so many fans and the lights. It’s a lot different. It gets your blood going a little bit. I just worked on my breathing a little bit and calmed myself down. I knew I had a job to do, and I went out there and did it.”

Redshirt junior Bo Pipher, who has filled in numerous times, stepped in at 157 for Brady Berge (concussion) and eked out a 7-6 win over Scout Skidgel. Pipher, who trailed 4-1 at one point, escaped before the final buzzer to win.

After three-time All-American Vincenzo Joseph rolled up a 21-5 technical fall over Tanner Skidgel in 6:02 at 165, fellow three-timer Mark Hall wasted little time at 174, pinning Spencer Carey in 58 seconds. The Lions led, 26-0, at halftime.

Redshirt freshman Creighton Edsell made his debut in place of Shakur Rasheed at 184 and earned a 5-2 win over Andrew Buckley. The Wyalusing graduate countered a Buckley shot and earned a takedown at the buzzer.

“I wasn’t too nervous,” Edsell said. “I just thought to myself how grateful I was of the opportunity, especially in Rec Hall, all the fans and people behind me who put so much time and energy into me.”

“I think they took advantage of the opportunity, as they both said,” Sanderson said. “We’ve got a lot of matches ahead, and the matches just get bigger. The opportunities will keep coming, and they’ll have to chance to take advantage of them.”

Kent State transfer Kyle Conel has big shoes to fill at 197 after the graduate of three-time NCAA champion Bo Nickal. Conel and Jacob Koser were tied, 2-2, entering the third. Conel reversed with 50 seconds left in the bout, gave up an escape and eked out a 4-3 win.

Defending 285-pound NCAA champion Anthony Cassar decked John Birchmeier in 4:41 to give the Lions a 38-0 lead.

Redshirt freshman Brody Teske made his debut at 125 and earned a 2-1 win over Logan Treaster. Returning All-American Roman Bravo-Young hit late four-point move to earn a 17-6 major decision over Casey Cobb at 133.

“We didn’t wrestle at our best,” Sanderson said. “I’m sure they didn’t feel like they wrestled at their best, but it’s November. That’s kind of to be expected. We know what we can work on moving forward.”

Notes: Military veterans were recognized, including a 96-year-old, at the center of the mat ahead of Veterans Day. “As a program, we’re very appreciative of our military, and what they mean to this nation and to everything that we do,” Sanderson said. … Penn State wrestles at the Army-West Point Invitational next Sunday. … The Lions had a 29-3 takedown advantage.

141–Lee, PS, pinned Trybus, 6:16; 149–Gardner, PS, pinned Park, 1:46; 157–Pipher, PS, dec. S. Skidgel, 7-6; 165–Joseph, PS, tech. fall T. Skidgel, 21-5, 6:02; 174–Hall, PS, pinned Carey, :58

184–Edsell, PS, dec. Buckley, 5-2; 197–Conel, PS, dec. Koser, 4-3; 285–Cassar, PS, pinned Birchmeier, 4:41; 125–Teske, PS, dec. Treaster, 2-1; 133–Bravo-Young, PS, maj. dec. Cobb, 17-6.

Records: Navy (2-2), Penn State (1-0)

Attendance: 6,490

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