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Fans or no fans, Lions ready for competition

Cael Sanderson

When the Big Ten selected Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center as the site of this year’s Big Ten Wrestling Championships, there were probably visions of putting on a grand spectacle, particularly with the finals, at a sold-out arena.

Of course, the sold-out arena is going to happen because of COVID-19 fan limits. Penn State is reviewing the relaxed restrictions on indoor fan attendance (15 percent of capacity, no matter the size of the venue) Governor Tom Wolf issued on Monday. Only the family of wrestlers will be able to attend, a Penn State spokesperson said on Tuesday.

Fans or no fans, Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said his wrestlers just have to be ready to wrestle when the tournament starts Saturday.

“Wherever you’re competing, you just have to make it your own,” Sanderson said in a zoom press conference Tuesday. “I think you can find positives and negatives regardless of whether you’re on the road or home. It’s our job to just be a little better, little stronger, little more focused, little more motivated because we’re at home whether we have fans here or not.”

The first session on Saturday begins at 10 a.m. The semifinals and consolations are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Sunday’s wrestling begins at noon with consolation rounds. The championship finals and medal bouts are set for 4 p.m. The Big Ten Network and Big Ten Network + will combine to televise the entire tournament.

Senior 141-pounder Nick Lee and junior 133-pounder Roman Bravo-Young also met with the media. They provided vastly different perspectives on fan attendance

“The fans are definitely a huge part of it,” Nick Lee said, “especially at Penn State. I think a lot of other programs would say the same thing for their fan base in their community. It’s not who you do it for, but it’s definitely a part of it. They’re very important to the overall experience.”

“I kind of like the no fans thing,” Bravo-Young said. “Everyone keeps talking about fans, fans. I like the no fans approach. It’s all hectic. I’m just a chill guy. I just lay back, chill, do my thing and get off the mat. (With) fans, it’s noisy; you can hear it in your headgear.”

They agreed, though, that it’s a big advantage wrestling in the tournament at home.

“I think the biggest advantage is I don’t have to spend time packing a bag,” Lee said. “I usually wake up the morning we leave and I’m like, ‘Oh, I need to pack.’ Some of the guys would rather sleep in my own bed. I love my hotel bed. I really sleep really well in hotels. I don’t know why. But it’s definitely cool to have it in State College.”

“It’s actually a vibe,” Bravo-Young said. “I’m just going to be sleeping in my own bed. I can go home after each session if I want to. We get to train in our wrestling room. It’s cool not having to travel because that gets old.”

Bartlett, Kerkvliet to wrestle

Sanderson confirmed that freshmen Beau Bartlett and Greg Kerkvliet will be in the lineup for the tournament at 149 and 285, respectively.

Kerkvliet made his surprising debut last Monday against Maryland, recording two pins. Sanderson chose Kerkvliet over Seth Nevills (4-1).

“Kerkvliet brings a lot of energy to the team,” Sanderson said. “He loves to compete. Obviously he’s very talented, and he’s had a lot of success, even at the senior level. He wants to be a national champion, and we believe he’s right there right now. Every day, he’s stronger and bigger. He’s already probably put on 10 pounds since the last time he stepped on the mat.”

There has been a lot of excitement regarding over the six freshmen in the lineup. But the postseason brings a lot of pressure with it. Can the young guys handle the pressure?

“They have experiences with high-level, competitive competition,” Sanderson said, “whether it’s state tournaments or national tournaments. They’ve been on the squad for almost a year, and so it’s ready or not, here we go. It’s time to go compete in the Big Ten Tournament.”

“We have some competitors who are freshmen,” Lee said. “These guys are having a lot of fun in the room. They bring a lot of energy. They motivate me most days. I know there’s some uncertainty on how they may compete, but I know how they’re going to compete. They’re going to be relaxed. They’re going to have fun. They’re going to kick some butt.

“They looked better than I was when I was a freshman, if you ask me.”

Iowa is favored

Iowa breezed to the Big Ten Tournament title last season, but the Hawkeyes didn’t get to repeat that feat in the NCAA Championships because the tournament was canceled.

Penn State didn’t get to wrestle Iowa this season. Sanderson considers Iowa as the favorite to win the team title again this year.

“It’s tricky with the Big Ten Tournament and the nationals,” Sanderson said, “whether you’re trying to peak for both or one or the other. Obviously our goal is to be at our best in March at the nationals, but we want to compete great in the Big Ten.

“We’re going to have some guys who are going to have to really scrap and win some tough matches just to get there just because of the circumstances of this season and the limited matches.”

Murin seeded second

Speaking of Iowa, Central Cambria graduate and current Hawkeye junior 149-pounder Max Murin is seeded second according to the preseeds that were released on Tuesday.

Murin is seeded behind Ohio State’s Sammy Sasso. All seeds aren’t final until Friday.

Bravo-Young and defending 184-pound champion Aaron Brooks are No. 1 seeds, while Lee is seeded second behind Iowa’s Jaydin Eirman.

Freshman Carter Starocci is third at 174, while Brady Berge (157) is seeded fifth and freshman Joe Lee (165) is sixth. Freshmen Michael Beard (197) and Kerkvliet (285) are seventh, while Robbie Howard (125) and Bartlett are 11th.

The Big Ten gets seven automatic qualifiers to the NCAA Championships at every weight but 149 (six), 197 (five) and 285 (six).

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