Building a Division I wrestling schedule is like putting together a puzzle. When you’re a coach of the dominant dynasty of the day, competing requirements conspire to make the enterprise a challenging endeavor.
The NCAA sets the start and end dates and binds your “competition” date limit to 16 (with quite a few exceptions / exclusions that provide some extra flexibility we haven’t seen Penn State take full advantage of yet), and the Big Ten takes nine of those when it sets its conference schedule.
Penn State Wrestling is still chasing its goal of becoming financially independent of the PSU Athletic Department, so they need to make sure enough home matches are scheduled, to assure the program stays flush. Also to that end, they need to work with the owners of the Bryce Jordan Center, the PSU Auxiliary & Business Services Unit (not the AD) to score a weekend date that can hopefully bring in a 15,000+ attendance and a boatload of extra cash.
Inside of and in addition to those parameters, the PSU coaches want to keep late February relatively light in order to implement their own super-secretive training regimen that’s been so successful these past nine years in allowing their wrestlers to be in peak physical condition in time for the postseason. They also want to make sure they get their kids as much elite outside competition as possible during the middle-season grind.
Lastly, as the leaders of the premiere product in the current college wrestling marketplace, they want to continue to do what they can to #GrowWrestling by scheduling the best opponents and putting on the most entertaining show for the fans. Or, in a similar context, but against clearly over-matched opponents, by simply showing up with its own lineup of superstars.
That’s a lot to try to pack into a 16-week, two-semester season. With the full schedule now finally released by Penn State (we’ve had many of the dates gathered via official schedule releases from other schools), let’s take a look and see what we think.
Conference Dual Meets
The majority of wrestling schedule-making occurs after having received the Big Ten’s schedule, so we’ll start here. When the Delaneybot finally succeeded in adding that elusive NYC market share by adding Rutgers & Maryland, it set up seven pairs of “permanent rivals”. Each pair has the same conference schedule every year – they both wrestle the same 4 pairs of “permanent rivals”, plus each other, to total the nine conference duals.
- Penn State – Ohio State (skip 2 and 7)
- Iowa – Minnesota (skip 1 and 3)
- Michigan – Michigan State (skip 2 and 5)
- Indiana – Purdue (skip 5 and 6)
- Wisconsin – Nebraska (skip 3 and 4)
- Illinois – Northwestern (skip 4 and 7)
- Rutgers – Maryland (skip 1 and 6)
Last year, Penn State skipped the Wiscy-Nebby & Illinois-NW pairs. This year, Iowa-Minny & Rutgers-Maryland skip off. In the 2014 season, Cael Sanderson & Tom Brands famously took to twitter to correct this annoyance and give the people what we wanted: an amazing non-conference dual meet at Carver Hawkeye Arena. But for reasons unknown publicly, that stunt has never been replicated with an Iowa visit to Happy Valley.
With the Hawkeyes continuing to improve their recruiting and this year sporting an extremely solid-looking lineup at all ten weights, it’s a shame another “non-conference” dual meeting between the two wasn’t created this year. That 2014 scene appears to be a rare exception to the conference scheduling rule.
Minnesota is also slowly rebuilding from its turmoil at the end of legendary coach J Robinson’s era, but PSU fans will have to wait until the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis to get a look at their lineup. Same goes for Rutgers and Maryland.
Home Conference Dual Meets
Michigan, Feb 2nd Weekend. The “date/time tba” parentheses seem to indicate this Dual Meet will be at the BJC, and it should be a good one. Michigan has four returning All-Americans, including Stevan Micic, a returning finalist who will give new Penn State starter Roman Bravo-Young a good, stern test. Additionally, Penn State National Champs Vincenzo Joseph (2017 & 2018) & Mark Hall (2017) have returning 3rd place AA opponents in Logan Massa (2017) and Myles Amine (2018). They also have a few stud recruits as new starters.
Michigan fights hard and should provide a great show.
Michigan State, Feb 15. This will be a bloodbath at Rec Hall.
Wisconsin, Jan 13. Wiscy has a new head coach and another returning 3rd-place All-American for Vincenzo Joseph to defend his title against, in Evan Wick.
Nebraska, Jan 20. The Big Red will bring a red-faced coach and a couple returning AA’s to Rec Hall and should provide an entertaining Dual. One of their AA’s is Zeke Moisey, a transfer from West Virginia, who made it to the finals in 2016 and placed 8th last year. He should be an interesting mid-season bellwether for presumed 125-pound starter Gavin Teasdale.
Tyler Berger placed 3rd last year at 157 and should be interesting to watch try to solve Jason Nolf for the 5th time in his career. Chad Red vs. Nick Lee at 141 will be fun, as will 4th place finisher Taylor Venz vs. Shakur Rasheed at his new weight of 184 (he placed 7th at 197 last year).
Away B1G Schedule
At Northwestern, Jan 11. NW only has one returning AA, but their coach is a former Penn Stater who a.) wears a mullet and b). dresses extremely well—quite a unique combination!
At Purdue, Jan 25 & at Indiana, Jan 27. Neither of these schools return any AA’s, but both have young coaching staffs whose squads will be interesting to watch for intangibles like toughness and grit.
At Illinois, Feb 17. It’s bad luck that this Dual didn’t happen last year, when we could have been treated to yet another big battle between Vincenzo & former champ Isaiah Martinez. As is, we’ll be excited to watch Shakur Rasheed take on returning 3rd place AA, Emory Parker, at his new weight of 184, and to see if Nick Lee can avenge his loss in the Big Ten Semifinals to Mike Carr.
At Ohio State, Feb 9th Weekend. The thrilling Dual at Rec Hall last year was the highlight of the season for many Penn State fans, as Ohio State brought a loaded lineup and one of their best chances ever to upend the Lions. It was not to be then, and it’s less likely to be this year, as the Buckeyes attempt to replace three wrestlers who combined for 16 All-American placements and four National Championship placements.
Still, Ohio State Tom Ryan continues to chase Cael’s Lions and is doing a great job in the recruiting game. The Buckeyes are definitely reloading, in addition to returning some absolute stud All-Americans. A few lineup decisions remain for the Buckeyes, but a rematch at 141 between Joey McKenna & Nick Lee and new first-time bouts between Myles Martin & Rasheed at 184, and Bo Nickal & Kollin Moore at 197 highlight what should be another straight fire Dual.
It looks like tOSU is still working out details to host this Dual at their larger venue.
Penn State’s mid-season tournament schedule remains unchanged for the second year in a row, and the coaches may soon need to rethink it for next year. To their credit, they did try to add a mid-season tournament in the 2017 season, the Reno Tournament of Champions, but the team got snowed out and was unable to attend.
Penn State wrestling in this one-day tourney consisting of mostly mid-majors and schools local to the Philadelphia area mainly satisfies that last category of scheduling goals: helping out a smaller program by merely showing up with its own superstars. In 2016, Penn State came home with eight of the ten titles, and last December, it crowned seven.
The tourney is hosted by the University of Pennsylvania and this year’s field list includes Appalachian State, Drexel, Duke, Franklin & Marshall, Harvard, Rider, Sacred Heart, VMI, Penn State & Penn. Cael is close with the head coach of the Penn Regional Training Center, Brandon Slay, and the tourney’s location on the Penn campus in the storied Palestra certainly makes it an easy trip, but with such a small & weak field, there just isn’t much competition for this elite Nittany Lion lineup.
The Southern Scuffle used to be a powerhouse mid-season field, but it has suffered from the withdrawal of Cornell, whose head coach, Rob Koll, has successfully created and is growing a new event in Florida around the same time: the “South Beach Duals.” The quotation marks are a little sarcastic, since the event is held in Fort Lauderdale, an hour away from South Beach, Miami, but the field is nothing but serious. Last year, Cornell, Minnesota and Missouri headlined the event, and this year they’ve added NC State and Lehigh.
Penn State fans of course see enough of Lehigh every year, but Wolfpack coach Pat Popolizio is building a rising powerhouse in Raleigh, and I personally covet a home & home Dual schedule with them sometime soon.
Cael & Koll have an odd coaching relationship, and there’s some adversarial history there. In the summer of 2012, when the #GrowWrestling movement was really getting warmed up and still smarting from February’s threat by the IOC to remove the sport from the 2020 Olympic Games, Koll led some shenanigans at the NWCA Coaching Convention. Cael was in London, coaching Jake Varner to an Olympic Gold Medal, and unable to attend the convention, where an interesting vote was raised to try to modify the college National Championship structure to include some Dual Meet results component. Lots of arguing ensued—from lots of different sources—and eventually the National Championships were left unchanged, and they continue to thrive. As do Dual Meet attendances as well, for that matter.
But there definitely remains some bad blood, to the point that in this year’s preseason letter to fans, Koll pre-addressed the matter of a Cornell vs. Penn State Dual Meet:
Next year cannot get here too soon. I am currently finishing our schedule. Our team will be more mature, therefore I plan on adding a few more challenges. One match you will not see is a dual against Penn State. I only bring this up because I get asked by a Cornell or Penn State fan at least once a week why we don’t wrestle. I assure all that I try to arrange this match every year.Unfortunately the enthusiasm for a match between the perennial top two teams on the East Coast is not shared by our Happy Valley brethren.
Two beers to the intrepid local beat writer who successfully pulls off putting this question to Coach Cael anytime this year!
But back to the struggling Scuffle.
It’s hosted again by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, but longtime Mocs head coach Heath Eslinger resigned this July, and the Scuffle has not yet published its list of attendees. A brief list of teams with the Scuffle listed on their own published schedule, such as Air Force, Columbia, Navy, a very-nearly-dead program (and entire University if we’re being honest) at Edinboro, does not excite.
However, two entries that could turn fans’ frowns upside down are Lock Haven, a local program growing at the hands of former Penn Stater Scott Moore, and the new-look Iowa State being rebuilt by native Iowan Kevin Dresser.
During the 2017 National Championships, ESPN had Dresser on the mic, an eye-witness commentator to Penn State’s Saturday night performance that resulted in five individual titles and another team championship. Quipped Dresser then: “if you want to do anything in this sport going forward, you have to pay attention to what Penn State is doing.”
It looks like Dresser is bringing his team to the Scuffle to pay even closer attention.
Non-Conference Dual Meets
The Scuffle’s a two-day tourney, but because it is on back-to-back days, it qualifies for one of the NCAA’s event count exceptions. The South Beach Duals do as well: because they also are on back-to-back days, and two Duals one day are also excepted, Cornell’s four Dual Meets in the South Beach Duals only count as one NCAA event! Koll has creatively used the NCAA schedule exceptions to book 20 different competitions into the 16 allowable spots.
The Penn State coaches haven’t yet taken similar advantage, but with the Big Ten booking nine spots and the Scuffle and Keystone two more, Penn State had—at least—five spots left to fill.
Arizona State, Dec 17. This is the big daddy, and a great score, for both teams. Zeke Jones, a national finalist on ASU’s 1988 National Championship team and former head of the USA Wrestling Freestyle team, took over as head coach of the sleeping giant in the desert in 2014. He soon landed two massive recruits in the Valencia brothers, Zahid & Anthony, and with them in the lineup, the Sun Devils have improved each year. The past four years at Nationals, the Sun Devils have placed 28th, 36th, 12th & 10th. They could have four returning All-Americans in the lineup when they come to Rec Hall in December.
The superstar matchup will be Round 4 between Zahid Valencia & Mark Hall, a series Zahid leads 2-1. Hall got the best of Zahid in the 2017 National Semifinals, 4-3 (with the help of a correctly-called headgear penalty on Valencia). Then last year, Zahid won an extremely tight 3-2 bout in the NWCA AllStar Classic, and took the series lead on the raised stage in Cleveland, in a wild 8-2 decision full of amazing scramble action that ignited the crowd.
Zahid’s a big body and there has been no shortage of speculation that he might bump up out of the 174-pound weight class this year, but in August, TrackWrestling’s David Mirikitani confirmed through a conversation with ASU Assistant Coach Lee Pritts that Zahid was staying. He also confirmed that brother Anthony, himself a major cause for the bump-up speculation, would be taking an NCAA redshirt this year, after having used an Olympic Redshirt during the 2016 season.
Another rematch that could be exciting is at 141, where Mason Smith, a transfer from Central Michigan would try to improve on the 5-0 elimination loss he took to Nick Lee in the consolation round of 24 at Nationals in March. Josh Shields, an AA last year at 157 gets to test himself against former Young Guns Club teammate and 2x National Champ Jason Nolf, while Anthony Cassar (assuming Nick Nevills has not yet returned from a March shoulder injury and beaten Anthony out) gets to try out his new weight class against former AA and message board folk hero, Tanner Hall (who while on his Mormon mission was the subject of so many rumors he became dubbed Sasquatch).
So that’s 12 of 16 spots filled. What’s left is kind of bleak.
Kent State, Nov 11, at Rec Hall. This will have one big nice bout, a first-ever meeting between 2x Champ Bo Nickal, at his new weight, against last year’s 3rd Place finisher at 197 pounds, Cleveland fan-favorite, Kyle Conel. The rest of the Golden Eagles lineup doesn’t look to provide much of a test to the Lions.
At Bucknell, Nov 30 and home vs. Buffalo, Feb 24. These are each strong shutout candidates.
Lehigh, Dec 2, at Rec Hall. Lehigh has two returning All-Americans of their own, and a 125-pound transfer former AA from Stanford, who placed 6th in 2016, Conor Schram. Scotty Parker will give Roman Bravo-Young a good tough fight, and Jordan Kutler is always dangerous, even against Mark Hall. At 184 Ryan Preisch, the 3-seed last year, who has somehow not yet ever earned AA, will provide Rasheed with a good test, as will Jordan Wood for Anthony Cassar at 285.
All in all, we should have plenty of opportunities to watch our Nittany Lions compete against decent, good and excellent competition. Schedule-making is difficult and it makes sense that the Penn State coaches don’t want to mess too much with a formula that has clearly been providing success, fantastic events, and money. The addition of Arizona State for this year and next shows that the coaches are committed to trying to book a schedule that meets all of their business requirements, including giving the fans a good show.
All that said, as Cornell has demonstrated, the NCAA has provided quite a few tools that Penn State could take better advantage of to help improve wrestling schedules in the future.