In today’s media availability via Zoom, Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson spoke about wrestling this impending Big Ten season during a raging global pandemic.
Coach Cael on Covid Protocols:
The kids wear masks, coming in & out of practice. When we wrestle, we don’t wear masks. When we’re in the weight room, the kids wear masks. We’re testing 6x a week.
The NCAA has allowed “extra matches” this season, after a dual meet is completely competed. These matches do not count for the dual meet but do count toward the 4-match minimum required to qualify for the postseason, as well as for postseason seeding.
Coach Cael on these new rules:
You have to have four matches to qualify. One positive test, you’re missing 17 days minimum. Just get to that four-match mark, and the backups...errr.. anybody that has a chance to make the postseason, will get matches. We’re going to wrestle as many extra matches as we can.
Maybe it’s something we can look at doing more of in the sport, going forward.
On this year’s squad:
It’s a close group, there’s a lot of new faces. We have the leaders, the talent needed. In addition to that: the mindset to go out and score a lot of points. Just compete & improve each week.
On last season’s ending:
Last year was tough for everybody. In a lot of different ways. But it’s just ... you have another chance. Obviously you feel bad for the Seniors last year, but everybody else gets another shot.
Hopefully they don’t need extra motivation. Everybody’s in the same boat.
On wrestling with no fans in attendance:
It’s definitely gonna be a different feel, but wrestling is wrestling wherever it is. The same things are on the line. Reach some goals, be the best team that we can possibly be. This age group, they know that people are watching. Whether they’re in the arena or not.
On the free year of eligibility:
Especially with the NCAA changing the eligibility, that changed our lineup. We had plans to redshirt ... pretty much everybody that we could. But now, why not?
In the sport of wrestling, when you have 9.9 scholarships, and injuries, you don’t always have your best team. This year, everybody’s putting out their best team.
On the odd year and college off-season:
This has been the busiest year of my career. But we love what we do, I love what I do! Whether it’s practice or competition, we’re grateful.
I thought a couple of our guys are in really good shape. They were in such good shape, that .... normally, we’re not int his good of shape in October, so we had to scale things back.
We’re looking forward to wrestling against others.
On the “best team” lineup:
We don’t have our lineup set. If you follow the program, you probably have a good idea. We have some good young kids. We’re actually fairly young as a program. I won’t go through the lineup, but this is one of the years we’ll have to fill our lineup, as we compete.
On extra matches:
I don’t really know how many we’ll have. As of now, our only limitation was that we could only hire two officials. We saw some coaches this weekend had up to ten matches.
All hands on deck. You’re wrestling your best team. If you’re the best guy, and you have the best chance to score points for the team, you’re wrestling!
On the sprint of a schedule and only nine competition dates (and a little about the lineup ;):
Yeah, I think that’s enough. Everybody’s in the same boat, so we’re not gonna overthink it. The goal is the same.
We’re Penn State. We want to win these dual meets. Freshman or Senior, the best guys are going to wrestle. We have Freshmen competing at 125, 141, 149. Carter (Starocci). Joe Lee & Mike Beard are still Freshman. Greg Kerkvliet is a Freshman. Roman’s had a lot of experience, is providing good leadership.
Berge is back and looking good, healthy. A year or so ago, we weren’t sure. So we’re gonna have a good team.
On who he’s most excited about watching.
The new faces are exciting. Guys like Beau Bartlett. Carter, we’ve seen a bit of him now. Greg Kerkvliet, anybody who we haven't really seen much yet, will be exciting, but you guys (the media, fans) will have to decide that. Oh, and obviously Robbie Howard.
I think we wanna get our team set as soon as possible. But they’re the ones who are gonna have to set it. We’ll have some wrestle-offs....149 we have a lot of competition. Obviously, we have Verk—Jarod Verkleeren, but there are other guys who are looking to compete there: Gardner, Pipher, Barraclough.
He just needed time. Time to heal his body. Heal his mind. It’s not gonna be easy for him to compete, but he’s committed to getting back there. But yeah, it was scary. But he’s looking good, feeling good. One of those guys who everybody loves on the team, big smile. He’s a peacemaker. One of those guys you need on your team.
On traveling restrictions
We do get to travel more athletes. For a single (Dual Meet), we can travel 16; it used to be 13. If it’s a Quad or Tri, we can travel 20. That was something that took a lot of time, and we’re really thankful to some of our administrators for approving that, because that is extra cost.
But our travel party outside of those wrestlers is gonna be very strict.
On the future:
I think we’ll see as we get further along. I think everyone’s just trying to survive. It’s not like anybody can feel sorry for ourselves, because people are sick.
Even just trying to create events, so people can look forward to. I think it’s great that there’s more competition, for the Wrestling Media. And for the kids.
I think we’ll see more of that going forward, maybe not in the next few weeks, but after, with the Olympics. We just have to be creative and try to figure things out. As we look at the collegiate model, we have to figure something out ... I’m not concerned about Penn State Wrestling ... if we want to be alive in the distant future.
Sophomore Aaron Brooks is Penn State’s returning 184-pound Big Ten Champ, who, with the new eligibility rules, can still reach his goal of becoming a 4x National Champion. He joined the zoom after Coach Cael departed.
On Cael saying you’re in better shape:
Like Coach said, we’re at the top of where we’ve ever been it. I’d have to agree with him that our cardio is at its peak. But we can still get better.
How good can this team be?
I think we can win 5 National Championships.
Our team is really young, but we can really compete.
On how he has dealt with the odd year:
My main thing is just staying consistent, in everything I do. Whether it’s schoolwork—it’s hard to stay focused on school with so much on zoom—but just staying consistent.
(Jp) Remembering a remark from Vincenzo Joseph from one of the NLWC Event broadcasts, I asked Brooks if he roomed with Carter Starocci & Greg Kerkvliet and what their lifestyle was like when they hang out (do they cook together, wrestle in the living room):
(Laughing) We’re not roommates, but we’re always at each other’s house. I live with Roman & Baylor Shunk & Paul, but it’s funny you ask that. Because this summer, we didn’t have anyplace to wrestle, Rec Hall was still shut down, so we wrestled in the yard.
And there’s a circle of grass there that’s worn down from where we went at it.
On how serious he takes Covid precautions:
You test positive for Covid this year, it’s like an injury.
After that injury, a lot of people never thought he’d be back from that. Just the resiliency, starting with only being able to something on the side, to coming back to competing, it’s motivating.
On Starocci & Beard:
Those are the guys, on your weight, so you’re practicing with them all the time. We’re talking about things after practice, bringing coaches in, asking questions.
On wrestling in front of no fans:
I imagine it’ll be like our matches in the mat room. You can hear the coaches a little better.
His outlook on everything! He’s always trying to find a way to be better, whatever it is. It’s not always through wrestling, it might be a talk, or whatever it is. Always be developing, always be grateful.
On the Olympics, and how this year has affected that dream:
Last year, I just barely missed qualifying for the trials, at Senior Nationals, so this year has been great. Having another year to get bigger and fill into the 86kg weight class.
Brooks also spoke to his hometown newspaper, the Hagerstown Herald Mail (Jp; fun fact, I used to deliver the Morning Herald in the 717!) for an article they posted on January 11.
“I’m ready to go,” Brooks said. “I honestly feel more ready than I ever have to compete. I’m feeling really good, really confident.
“I know my wrestling has jumped levels. Even though I haven’t competed in months, I’m really excited to show the growth I’ve made.”
On the free eligibility year:
“It kind of makes up for last year, getting cut out of the NCAAs. I can still reach that goal — four NCAA titles.”
On practice vs competition:
“Our coaches have done a really good job with that. We still wrestle matches every week in the room,” he said. “Obviously, the difference is the crowd and the competition feel, but really, this year there won’t be any crowds so the simulations that we get in the room are the same, just not against a different team. “I’m not too worried about the time off from competing. As long as I’m excited to compete, it won’t affect me.”
On his meniscus injury from last year:
“I didn’t get the whole thing removed. I just had pieces scoped out,” he said. “I was out about a month before I was going hard again.”
“I’ve made a lot of jumps over this past year, wrestling with those kind of guys every day and then picking Coach Cael’s brain every day,” Brooks said. “I’m not one to talk about the things I do in the room. I usually try to keep it on the DL. But that’s where I get my confidence from — my success vs. those kind of guys in the room and my growth vs. those guys and the jumps that I’ve made to be able to go out there and get the upper hand sometimes. It’s been fun.”
On the prospects of Penn State extending its streak of National Championships from four to five, after injuries and the pandemic ruined their chances last year.
“We’re going to be better than we were last year,” Brooks said. “We have a lot of young guys in the lineup who are really, really good. A lot of people don’t know the depth we have because a lot of these guys haven’t performed yet. It’s going to be fun to see.”
Expect a lot of different lineups in different duals, especially as PSU sorts through a talented by crowded scenario at 149.
Robbie Howard seems like he’s full go at 125, especially with the free year of eligibility, but I imagine we’ll know right away against Rutgers this weekend.
Penn State sounds like it wants to wrestle as many extra matches as possible, and guys like Seth Nevills, Terrell Barraclough and Beau Bartlett should get a lot of them.
Bartlett could well be the starter at 149 with Nick Lee staying at 141.
While I understand times are a bit odd, I would’ve like PSU to make a number of wrestlers available for preseason media availability.
That being said, it’s crazy how young this team is. Cael mentioned redshirting any and everybody if this were a normal year, and a lot of that is because this team has very few upperclassmen.
Aaron Brooks conducts himself as a seasoned veteran, not as a true sophomore. He’s very comfortable dealing with media and gives thoughtful, inciteful answers when he can.