Our ranks have changed this season, with former staffer (and credentialed wrestling friend of BSD) JP Pearson joining the staff for the season. Welcome, JP - or welcome back!
To start us off, we’ll go to Cari, with some words on the season:
For most Penn State sports, entering the season with high expectations means you’ll have an inevitable crushing disappointment somewhere down the road. Not so for Cael Sanderson’s boys. Last year’s disappointment was two weeks before it really counted, at the Big Ten tournament when they let the Buckeyes take the crown; of course, they rebounded in a huge way, and capped off an amazing tournament run with the best Saturday night performance ever in capturing five titles in five matchups. The Lions shouldn’t be without flaws, but, like all the teams since Sanderson became coach, they’ll be exciting and fun to watch – and will compete every single minute every single guy is out there. What a time to be alive.
And now onto the preview!
Which of PSU's five returning champs is *least* likely to repeat?
Clay: Vincenzo Joseph is a fantastic wrestler and very, very well could repeat. That being said, Zain, Nolf and Nickal are huge favorites at their weight and Mark Hall has gotten bigger and stronger in the offseason. Cenzo, as we saw last year, can beat anybody, but he'll have to go through Logan Massa and Isaiah Martinez yet again if he wants to repeat.
Cari: It’s gotta be Vincenzo Joseph. Cenzo’s finals match was the most entertaining of the night, but he was an underdog in it – and though he’s preseason ranked #1 (as one should be as a returning champion), he’s got two really, really good wrestlers right behind him in Imar and Logan Massa of Michigan. Any of those three could win the title and it wouldn’t be a surprise. Unlike, say, 149 or 157, in which any time a foe holds Zain Retherford or Jason Nolf to a regular decision it would be a surprise.
JP: Brad Penrith, Jim Heffernan, Lee Fullhart, Zach Esposito & Steve Mocco.
Those are the only members of five-champ teams who failed to repeat the next year. That's the list. Last March, Penn State joined 1986 & 1997 Iowa and 2005 Oklahoma State as the only teams to place five champions in one year, and we need to celebrate that achievement some more. Penrith & Heffernan lost in the finals the next year. Fullhart placed 3rd & 2nd in the two years after helping Gable bottle lightning in '97. Esposito & Mocco failed to join teammates Johny Hendricks & Jake Rosholt as repeat champs in 2006, the last year John Smith coached the Pokes to a team title. That 2005 team returned four of its five champions and went 2-2. 1997 Iowa returned three and went 2-1, with Mark Ironside & Joe Williams repeating. 1986 Iowa graduated Kevin Dresser, Marty Kistler and Duane Goldman, so Penrith & Heffernan put them at 0-2 for repeats in 1987. In toto, the nine champion members of the three 5-champ teams who returned the following year went 4-5 in repeat title chases. It's really hard.
With all five of its champions from last year returning this year, Penn State has a great chance to push that cumulative record over .500. Retherford & Nolf have been extremely dominant and were rarely challenged last year. Nickal dropped only one match. Hall & Joseph each have sick, deep weight classes to compete in. I'll say Hall, who probably has to beat a healthy Bo Jordan twice before Nationals to avoid facing both Jordan and Zahid Valencia in Cleveland.
Ben: Well, it isn't Zain or Nolf. You won't find anyone in the country that will pick against either of them. Bo Nickal and Mark Hall will both have significant challengers at 184 and 174, respectively. But the answer has to be Cenzo at 165. This weight is stupid deep. 14 of last year's top 16 return to the bracket, plus the weight adds super-frosh Alex Marinelli (Iowa), as well as D2 national champ (and former top 5 recruit) Isaiah White (Nebraska). More than half the bracket will justifiably expect to finish on the podium, and there won't be an "easy" match in any round.
Last year midseason Mark Hall came from virtually nowhere to win the NCAA title at 174. Which PSU wrestler is a darkhorse to make the podium in March?
Clay: While I'm not sure I'd say Mark came from "nowhere" to win, I think there are a couple of darkhorses on this team. The first would be Nick Lee, who will likely redshirt at 141 until January when we see how the Southern Scuffle goes. The second would be Anthony Cassar. Cassar hasn't wrestled in nearly two years with various shoulder injuries and prior the injuries he hadn't had any notable wins, but the 197-pounder is quick and athletic for his size and while he may not supplant Matt McCutcheon at the weight, should McCutcheon get hurt, Penn State could have something in Cassar.
Cari: I define “make the podium” in this sense as top three (which, I know, is not a universally lauded definition) – since Hall was projected to be All-American, but not really on many peoples’ radar to win the finals against Bo Jordan, especially after the Big Ten tournament. And if you go with that definition, the biggest dark horse that I expect to make a strong running to the finals, depending on seeding, is Nick Nevills. He made a huge jump from his redshirt freshman campaign (which saw him injured most of it) to last season, when he finished fifth. No one is going to beat Kyle Snyder this year, again; but if Nick can be seeded in the opposite side of the bracket, he has the ability to make the finals, as evidenced by his preseason performance this past weekend.
JP: During the 2016 preseason, pundits and fans were positing lots of takes like 'the incoming freshmen have too many questions to be projecting championships or AA placements.' It was basically the Aint Played Nobody chorus from college football debates. Then Redshirt Freshmen Jason Nolf & Bo Nickal bonused their way to the national finals, and True Freshman Myles Martin won a title. The following year, True Freshman Mark Hall and Redshirt Freshman Vincenzo Joseph won titles. Upperclassmen are still the majority on the podium steps, but it's become more accepted that each year is likely to introduce a handful of high-achieving utes. Penn State's coaches have been crushing the recruiting game the past few years, so it's no surprise they've got another True Freshman stud who has a likely path to represent PSU at one of its weights in Cleveland. Here now in the preseason, TRFR Nick Lee still qualifies as a dark horse, and I'll guess that we won't see him compete attached until after the Southern Scuffle. Rumors out of the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex are conveying that he significantly dominates PSU's likely early-season starter at 141, Jered Cortez, but with no hurry or mandate, Cael is likely to follow a similar path to Mark Hall's journey last year. So I'll take my dark horse answer one step further and say it'll be Cortez. After he cuts to 133 and beats out 5th-year Senior transfer Corey Keener.
Ben: Corey Keener, 133-lbs, grad-transfer from Central Michigan. In three previous trips to NCAAs, Keener's not won more than 1 match. Few expect him to reach the podium, which qualifies him for darkhorse status. HOWEVER - the Blue Mountain product's defensively stout, good on top/bottom, and tough as nails. He's battled significant injuries every March, and those, more than ability/skill, have kept him from making a deeper run through the bracket. Granted - picking up a Big Ten schedule doesn't bode well for staving off injuries in collegiate year 6. But, again - darkhorse. Plus his will be a great storyline: PA Wrestler Comes Home, Accomplishes Original Mission.
What new addition to the Penn State lineup are you most looking forward to seeing hit the mat?
Clay: Nick Lee. The former Indiana state champ and stud recruit could well be in the lineup at 141 for Penn State and is non-stop action from neutral, similar to Jason Nolf. Lee could have some early struggles from bottom, as true freshmen are wont to do, but he's been on campus since last fall and should be well ahead of schedule.
Cari: There’s not too many holes, and the biggest places new guys could fit in already have hammers in them! I’m excited to see if Shakur Rasheed can take down Mouse at 197. I can’t wait to see Nick Lee and Mason Manville, but I think it’ll be another year (at least) before we see either of them wrestle attached.
JP: Bermudian Springs' Austin Clabaugh. 7174Lyfe, yo! With the tedious & confusing Nick Suriano saga completely behind us now, Penn State is challenged to find a new winner at 125. Clabaugh went 146-31 in his PIAA career and only earned one medal: a Silver this past March. He gave Gavin Teasdale, a 3x PA Champion and PSU recruit for next year, all he could handle in a tough 13-5 MD loss in the finals. I haven't seen him wrestle yet, but word round the Giant Center is he's a cradler and rides tough on top. Mat wrestling is usually a freshman's biggest learning curve during the jump to D1, but if this dude's weakness is wrestling on his feet, I'll take this coaching staff's track record in neutral and assume we'll see some big improvements at this weight as the year grinds on.
Ben: Ditto Nick Lee. The Scuffle is down this year, competitively speaking. But if Nick has the contender look, he could be the answer to our current 141-lb question mark, and that would go a long way toward pushing PSU over the top in March.
Check back tomorrow for the second installment in our season preview!