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Wrestling Postview: #2 Penn State Digs Deep to Defeat #24 Illinois 22-16 in the B1G Dual Season Opener

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The Nittany Lions continue to battle through injuries and illnesses while they fill holes with their deep bench and strive to get their ideal *available lineup on the mats.

Nittany Lions celebrate the 2016 National Championship, the first in their current streak of 4 in a row.
JP Pearson

The oddness of this unique college wrestling season continued, as Penn State opened its 2020 Big Ten Dual Season with yet another different lineup, and still managed to pull out the team win. Tonight, Illness joined Injury and Olympic preparations in further disrupting coach Cael Sanderson’s attempts to field a consistent lineup capable of defending the Penn State dynasty this March.

In only 5 duals so far this year, 19 different wrestlers have donned the cummerbund blue and white singlet, and 9 have made their varsity debuts. Two of those came tonight because of illnesses to Roman Bravo-Young & Vincenzo Joseph (who are each expected back on Sunday), as Austin Clabaugh (133) and Konner Kraiszig (165) took the mat in Rec Hall for the first time. A third was the first appearance by true freshman Seth Nevills (285), whose NCAA redshirt was “removed” (and postponed for possible future use) as he is pressed into duty by the season-ending injury to National Champion Anthony Cassar.

Lastly, a fourth debut tonight saw the long-anticipated & much-needed return, in his season debut, of Shakur Rasheed, who at the season’s outset was thought to be coming back to man the 184 spot he was working from when he injured his knee last year. However, true freshman Aaron Brooks made his own debut at 184 in the December Lehigh dual, so now Rasheed comes in to replace the injured Kyle Conel at 197.

You got all that? Ok, let’s see how this lineup looked and fared.

125 Justin Cardani DEC Brandon Meredith, 6-0; Illinois, 3-0

Meredith apparently locked down his hold on this weight recently, as evidenced by Cael’s Wednesday announcement that Brody Teske had entered the transfer portal, including the quip: “Meredith may have had something to do with that.”

He’s got a strong gas tank and plenty of fight, but tonight dug himself a near fall hole that he couldn’t get out of. He’s still a little difficult to project for the postseason, but the absence of the platoon should help him gain experience these next few weeks.

Period One

  • Illinois shot ends in stalemate
  • Second Cardani shot, Meredith with an ankle pass to scramble to stalemate
  • Byers: Meredith won the Wilkes Open, finished 5th at the Army Invitational

Period Two

  • Meredith chose bottom
  • Cardani 2 on 1 tilt for 4NF; 0-4
  • Stall 1 on Meredith
  • Lots of wrist control by Cardani, full-period ride

Period Three

  • Cardani down
  • Cardani Escape at 1:40; 0-5
  • Cardani shot, Meredith stuffed
  • Cardani in on left leg again, another ankle grab by Meredith
  • Another stalemate
  • Another Cardani shot, Meredith barely held off that last TD, avoiding a Major Decision by the skin of his knees, 0-6

133 Travis Piotrowski WBF Austin Clabaugh, 6:54; Illinois, 9-0

Normal starter Roman Bravo-Young is “a little under the weather”, but is expected to wrestle on Sunday.

Clabaugh is a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar, with a perfect 4.0 in Finance.

Period One

  • Two Illinois shots stuffed, before Clabaugh walked into a big double for TD1
  • Heavy ride, but good Clabaugh fight

Period Two, 0-2

  • Clabaugh chose down
  • E1 at about 1:30
  • Illinois quickly in on right leg for TD2, close to back exposure, but more big Clabaugh fight held it off
  • Illinois cut him at restart, but no TD before time expired

Period Three, 2-6

  • Clabaugh shot, but couldn’t quite finish, Illinois countered for TD4
  • Cuts him, 3-8
  • Lots of effort!
  • Big TD5, then locked up a headlock and got the pin, with only 7 seconds left
  • Real bummer he couldn’t hold out

141 #2 Nick Lee Major Decision #16 Dylan Duncan, 13-5; Illinois 9-4

Sam Janicki, SJanickiPhoto.com

In the Questions and Answers Methodology of analyzing a 10-man wrestling team, Nick Lee constitutes an ANSWER. His career progression has been a joy to watch.

Period One

  • TD1, sweep single on right leg
  • E1 Illinois
  • TD2, right ankle pick
  • Byers: Lee is 25-2 in PSU duals
  • A couple knee taps, but nothing doing, until a half-shot by Duncan that Lee grits out a tough scramble for TD3

Period Two, 6-2

  • Duncan down, E1
  • Tough hand fighting

Period Three, 6-3

  • Lee chose down
  • Hits a switch, to a Reversal, 8-3
  • Riding Time over 1 minute
  • Cuts him, 8-4
  • Stall 1 on Duncan
  • Lee in on right ankle again, finishes for TD3
  • Cuts him
  • In on right leg again, scramble, ankle dive attempt by Duncan, but Lee’s persistence earns the TD4, right before the buzzer, securing the Major!

149 Jarod Verkleeren DEC Mousa Jodeh, 6-2; Illinois, 9-7

Somewhere during the ongoing battle between Verkleeren & Luke Gardner for this weight’s postseason representation, the coaches & athletes decided for Gardner to go to the Shorty Hitchcock Open tomorrow, so it’s likely we’ll see Verkleeren against Northwestern again on Sunday.

Tonight’s version of the talented and enigmatic Verkleeren showed a bit more activity level than he demonstrated in his last dual appearance, a 3-1 SV loss to Lehigh’s Jimmy Hoffman. He made a few offensive attacks of his own, with mixed success, and capitalized on his counter offense by turning a scramble into a neutral score.

Period One

  • Jodeh in on left leg, Verk defends with a crotch lock, scramble and a counter TD1 for Verk
  • Jodeh E1
  • Verk with a shot! A pretty double attempt, switches off to a single, gets stuffed briefly, but finishes TD2
  • Big fight from bottom by Illinois, but Verk refused the escape

Period Two, 4-1 (1:41 RT)

  • Jodeh chose down
  • Illinois coaches Jeremy Hunter & Jim Heffernan asking for locked hands, Casey Cunningham heard in the background, in his distinctive high-pitched shout: “It’s not illegal; you know the rule!”
  • Cuts him at restart, 4-2

Period Three, 4-2 (2:01 RT)

  • Verk chose down, then a caution
  • E1 Verk, still with 1:31 RT
  • Jodeh in on a shot, Verk counters, comes around behind, but Jodeh still has Verk’s ankle, ends in stalemate
  • Verk with an ugly, telegraphed double attempt, easily stuffed
  • Jodeh on last shot, Verk sprawled to stuff, RT added, 6-2

157 Eric Barrone DEC Bo Pipher, 5-2; Illinois, 12-7

Bo Pipher battles teammate Jason Nolf to second place in the 2019 Southern Scuffle.
Sam Janicki, SJanickiPhoto.com

Pipher is weight-certified at 149 and has indicated he wants to battle Verkleeren & Gardner at that weight, but Brady Berge’s lingering injury from the concussion he sustained at U23 World’s in October continues to obstruct that plan, as Pipher is pushed into team duty at 157.

Period One

  • Pipher rockin a thick Colorado beard
  • Decent conflict in ties, but very few shots

Period Two

  • Barrone chose down
  • Switches for a Reversal, put Pipher in danger. Pipher fought through, then scrambled out for an escape
  • Upon video review, they awarded Barrone 2NF (Byers was dubious about control for 2 seconds; I thought it could have gone either way)
  • Then they also reviewed to get the clocks reset and while so doing, backed it up to before Pipher’s escape. So instead of the original 2-1 Barrone lead, it ended up 4-0. It looked like a sequence that may have gone much more Pipher’s way at 149.
  • Then, Pipher E1

Period Three, down 4-1

  • Pipher up to a 3-point stance, but not finishing the escape
  • Stall 1 on Barrone
  • Big mat return ends out of bounds, Pipher SPRINTS back to center mat
  • Another big mat return ends out of bounds
  • Barrone deft at navigating Pipher’s hand control attempts
  • With RT assured, and less than 10 seconds left, Barrone cuts him, 4-2 plus RT, 5-2

165 #15 Danny Braunagel Major Decision Konner Kraeszig, 12-2; Illinois, 16-7

To replace the ailing Cenzo (who was not so ill that he was unable to perform his honorary captain duties in Rec Hall before the match), Cael dug deep into his bag of depth, to give redshirt freshman Kraiszig a chance to wrestle in front of the home fans. Byers alluded to Kraiszig’s funky style a few times, but none of it ended up being too funky for the position-solid Braunagel.

174 #1 Mark Hall DQ #8 Joey Gunther (6:40), Illinois, 16-13

Jeff Byers said on the broadcast: Hall’s “not even thinking about Freestyle until after this Folkstyle season is over.”

Oh, man, this bout was funny & sad!

Remember that shootout scene in Training Day when Ethan Hawke is coming for Denzel, who from behind a corner pumps his shotgun and says “I’m surgical with this beast*, Jake; how you want it?” That’s Mark Hall on the mats, and tonight he gave it to Joey Gunther in all kinds of ways.

Period One

  • TD1
  • TD2
  • TD3
  • TD4

Period Two, 8-3 (1:23 RT)

  • Gunther chose down
  • Cuts him
  • In on left leg for TD5
  • Whoa! Ran around the side, tried a cement mixer, but didn’t lock it tight enough, nearly put himself in danger, but scrambled out to allow only the E1 for Gunther, 11-5
  • Gunther Stall 2

Period Three, 11-5 (1:43 RT)

  • Hall down, E1
  • Missed on the double attempt, but easy go behind for TD6
  • Gunther Stall 3
  • Gunther Stall 4!
  • Gunther Stall 5 for the DQ, LOL! You don’t see that every day.

184 Aaron Brooks DEC Zach Braunagel, 9-4; tied, 16-16

Speaking of not seeing something every day, Zac is the twin brother of 157’s Danny Braunagel. It’s not often you see wrestling twins with two weight classes between them.

Period One

  • Heavy right-handed head snaps, but unable to pick the right ankle with left arm
  • Switches to left ankle, beautiful finish for TD1
  • Illinois E1
  • Illinois Stall 1
  • Brooks Stall 1 for backing out at the edge
  • Another beautiful single on the left leg! (but can’t finish)

Period Two, 2-1

  • Illinois chose down
  • Ill up to a 3-point stance, but Brooks heavy ride on left side
  • Slick opposite ankle pick for a mat return
  • Same again!
  • Ill E1
  • Gorgeous double, briefly thwarted with a whizzer on the edge, but Brooks shrugs it out to finish TD2

Period Three, 4-2

  • Brooks on bottom
  • E1 at 1:39
  • Head inside single, Illinois attempted headlock
  • Braunagel TD
  • Brooks looks a little gassed
  • Big TD3 with 4 seconds left!
  • Man, he looked in trouble there, but gutted it out

197 Shakur Rasheed DEC Matt Wroblewski, 3-0; PSU, 19-16

Welcome back, Shakur Rasheed!

Man, it was good to see him come out with no knee brace or tape. It might be easy to observe some tentativeness or rust in this return, but those attributes could also easily be attributed to solid scouting from the coaches (Wroblewski wrestles extremely patiently) and, of course, the team score at the time.

Whatever the style or pace, our guy looked healthy in those long limbs—a most welcome sight.

Period One

  • Sloppy duck under attempt, no harm
  • Working a setup, but not pulling the trigger

Period Two

  • Ill chose neutral
  • More center mat positioning, but only feints, no shots
  • Ill extremely patient

Period Three, 0-0

  • Rasheed down
  • E1, 1-0
  • Rasheed with some level changes, but no shot
  • Ill with a half shot
  • Ill wanted a throw, Rasheed dropped down to a double and easy TD1, 3-0
  • The Nittany Lions take the lead!

285 Seth Nevills DEC Luke Luffman, 6-3; PSU 22-16

Oh man, the resemblance! Seth looks a lotttt like his older brother Nick. Dude looks trim, muscular, mobile and downright nasty on top.

This unfolding development could be really interesting.

Weigh-in Weights

  • Nevills 259.4
  • Luffman 252.0
  • Math: Nevills outweighed this opponent by 7.4 pounds

Period One

  • Drops to a low single from a sloppy tie
  • Damn! Great right wrist control, when he lost it, a big mat return
  • Tough on top!
  • This is awesome: totally a younger, newer, possibly more mobile version of Nick
  • Looks totally relaxed

Period Two, 2-0

  • Nevills chose down
  • Gets to his feet, then big mat return
  • Swiftly then, for the escape, 3-0
  • Then quick attack on lower right leg, but couldn’t finish
  • Luffman stuffs a Nevills shot, and counters for a double of his own

Period Three, 3-2

  • Luffman chose neutral
  • Luffman in on a single, but Nevills breaks through it, comes behind for TD2, 5-2
  • Wow, nice granby roll for the escape, but too late, only 4 seconds left, add RT, 6-2
  • Lions win!

Here’s Seth on his own performance in his debut, including a wry grin and a sheepish admisssion that he took time to admire the fans in the stands during the bout:

On the Mic: Mark Hall

  • On Grit: been working on shooting & shooting & shooting
  • On team competitiveness: The biggest thing is just knowing that everybody’s got something going on. Just let your mind be free. For me, my job is just to go out and wrestle for 7 minutes. Hopefully I set a good example.
  • On true freshman Southern Scuffle Champ and 174 heir apparent, Carter Starocci: He’s freakin tough. For me, I was in the same position he was. I have to keep proving. With someone like that, I believe we have two National CHamps at 174. I see a lot of myself in him. he Makes a mistake and he gets back up. I’m glad I was the one who gets to show him the ropes.
  • On Focus this year: I just know... if I’m tired, I can’t imagine what he‘s going through. Just keeping my mind clear. Don’t let things get foggy.

The Takery

After the Navy dual on November 11, I wrote: “This should be a pretty interesting season, with lots of these kinds of duals where fans get to see a lot more of Penn State’s wrestling room depth.”

How prescient!

What else? Let’s see how January looks compared to November:

The three returning National Champions (Vincenzo in 2017 & 2018, Mark Hall in 2017 and Anthony Cassar in 2019) are each ready to pull double duty in Folkstyle & Freestyle as they prepare for the December Freestyle Senior Nationals, the March Folkstyle NCAA Championships and the April Olympic Trials.

Welp. That double duty worked out terribly for Ant the Champ.

And we learned tonight from Byers & Hall himself that there will be no double duty, mid-season, for him. Any Olympic goals will wait until after he gets off this college train; he’s on that David Taylor path to being a 4x Finalist and 2 Champ!

Vincenzo wrestled Freestyle in the November Bill Farrell tourney (and took a nasty, 6-0 loss to longtime practice partner Jason Nolf), but skipped the December Senior Nationals tourney that felled Cassar.

Cael said at last Wednesday’s Media Day that 125 & 149 are both “open” for competition, while the rest of the weights are mostly settled. Brody Teske made his debut but struggled to demonstrate much of a scoring arsenal at 125, but at 149 Luke Gardner showed a bit of his. It should be very interesting to see how each perform next weekend at the Army Invitational, along with their competitors for those starting spots, Devin Schnupp and Jarod Verkleeren.

125 is now apparently settled, with Brandon Meredith having beaten out both Teske & Schnupp, and Teske entering the transfer portal.

Is 149 still as “open” as it was in November?

Let’s ask again on Sunday, after Gardner’s performance at the Shorty, and Verk’s against NW’s Yahya Thomas.

Today, in an abundance of caution, the coaches held out Brady Berge, who is set to take over 157 and is recovering from a concussion at the U23 World Championships, and 2018 197-pound All-American Shakur Rasheed, who is set to man 184 again this season after offseason knee surgery. Expectations are high for both when they are eventually deemed healthy enough to again compete with the first-string.

Is it a little troubling that Berge is still not competing regularly, or is that abundance of caution just reaaalllly abundant caution? He did make that one appearance, in the December 6 Lehigh dual, and looked pretty good while putting up a 5-3 W over an extremely capable Josh Humphries.

Rounding out the lineup, both of the other returning All-Americans, Roman Bravo-Young at 133 and Nick Lee at 141 looked like their dominant 2019 selves.

Yes, Nick Lee still looks incredibly dominant, at 8-0 with an 87% Bonus Rate.

RBY is 10-0 and 60%, but could have a real banger on the docket Sunday, vs #3 Sebastian Rivera, a guy who knocked off Spencer Lee twice last year. That is, if Rivera’s injury loss in the Midlands consis allows him to go.

All in all, today’s performance provided evidence that this year’s version of the Penn State Wrestling Dynasty is both capable of winning their 5th team title in a row (and 9th in 10 years) and also that there remain a few vital questions that still need to be answered as this season plays out.

Oof. We can tell I chose my words carefully then, but today it feels like there may be even more questions.

Let’s watch our lads battle on Sunday, then dig in and ask again after that.