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Wrestling Media Day: Cael Sanderson & PSU’s 4 Returning National Champions Preview the New Season Ahead

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Coach Sanderson has 6 returning All-Americans & a bunch of elite young prospects. Can they organize them all into a lineup capable of reclaiming the team title from the veteran Hawkeyes?

Coach Cael, pictured here zooming into the 2021 Season media day, in January.

In Monday’s Penn State Wrestling media availability via Zoom, Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson spoke about the “long, but exciting, season ahead.”

The most immediate questions attendees had for Sanderson were about the lineup, to which Coach began:

Yeah. I’m not gonna specifically say who’s starting and who’s not, but I think some of the weight classes obviously, you know, just from returning starters, and guys who were all Americans and National Champions from last year. But you know, 25 is a little bit more competitive this year. I’d say 49 is Beau Bartlett, you know 57’s a weight that’s a little bit more competitive, 65 also. And then, kind of the usual suspects at the rest of the weights but you know, some of those, those weights we’ll play with that as we kind of go along. It’s still November obviously, and we’ve got a long but exciting season ahead. So we’ll we’ll kind of work through the lineup as we go on here.

So let’s map all that out into a season starting lineup! We can follow along with the coaches and the wrestlers as they explore their options and compete their battles at the weights Cael has described as competitive.

2022 Season Starting Lineup

125: “competitive”

133: Roman Bravo-Young, National Champion & 2x AA; two NCAA tourneys still available.

141: Nick Lee, National Champion & 3x AA; one NCAA tourney available

149: Beau Bartlett; 4 NCAA tourneys available

157: “competitive”

165: “competitive”

174: Carter Starocci, National Champion & 1x AA; 4 NCAA tourneys available

184: Aaron Brooks, National Champion, 1x AA, 2x B1G Champion, 3 NCAA tourneys available

197: One of the weights “we’ll play with as we kind of go along”

285: Greg Kerkvliet, 1x AA; 4 NCAA tourneys available

Lineup Notes

  • As repayment for missed competition during the pandemic, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to 2021 athletes, but not to the 2020 athletes, as Cael talked about Monday:

Yeah, I think the COVID year is just, it’s just ... it’s an interesting thing. I mean, I think it affects everybody obviously. Some it’s gonna affect more than others, right? Because if you saw the rules, if you were, if you are a senior last year, and you are on scholarship, your scholarship is exempt this year. So, you know, in theory, you had 10 seniors last year, and they’re on full ride this year, you got 20 full ride. Right. And some schools had more seniors than others.

And so, you know, it’s just, it’s just, it’s just a weird situation, right? Because a few years ago, guys, like Hall and Kollin Moore, Vincenzo Joseph, you know, they, they had a year taken and they had three years to go to an NCAA tournament. And now the NCAA puts it in, they’re gonna give kids five opportunities. I think that’s kind of a silly thing to do. But, you know, you understand, why or what their perspectives are. And you deal with, and you work through whatever opportunities or challenges or whatever you want to look at them as, they are. So. Yeah, I think it’s ... there’s a lot of different challenges, right, you have kids that now have an extra year of eligibility. And so with that you have recruits coming in thinking: ‘well, you know, I thought I was going to be stepping in at this point; this guy’s here!” You know, that challenge. But, you know, it’s the: best wrestler’s gonna wrestle, in each weight kind of a deal so... That’s one of the beauties of wrestling.

Ahh, isn’t it? Wrestling has so many beauties.

  • These eligibility changes have really stressed the semantics of old academic class and eligibility terms. Throw in Olympic year exceptions, and terms like “Redshirt Sophomore” are now too ambiguous. So we’re experimenting with listing the remaining number of NCAA tournaments each athlete has available, regardless of whether they use it or not. Feedback therein explicitly solicited, pretty please.
  • Speaking of which, Roman Bravo-Young announced Monday that he will not use his last available NCAA tourney:

Coach Cael on his retiring lightweight star:

“But, you know, as I tell Roman, what I think is the reason he has such a huge following is because he’s fun to watch wrestle! Right? You know, I’ve heard people that bring him in for, for clinics and for camps, and they say: ‘Oh, it’s just fun to watch this guy, the way he moves, he’s so fast and smooth!’

And ... and so I feel like that.”

  • Yes, it is odd that returning All-American Michael Beard, who himself has 4 NCAA tourneys and no NCAA redshirt available, is not initially penciled in as this season’s starter, but it’s also odd to have a former NCAA Finalist, 2x AA in Max Dean, who has 2 NCAA tourneys AND an NCAA redshirt still available, transfer in to compete with him.

Coach Cael, on how the transfer from Cornell came to be:

Yeah, it was a situation where I think they were just leaving where they were and and he was restricted in the transfer portal. So you know, we didn’t know there was any interest in Penn State and I got a text or I think, from Coach Gabe Dean (Max’s brother and 2x National Champ, who also left the Cornell coaching ranks this offseason). And he talked and he said, you know, Penn State is one of the programs he’d be interested in, and I’d say the rest is history. And I’d say Max is just just a really, really good dude. And he works really hard, brings a lot to the table, onto the team.

And on how the competition is shaping up:

And I’d say him and, and then Michael Beard has definitely elevated his game, which I think must be a blessing for both of those guys who, you know, have that competition and just having to, you know, compete at a higher level, in practice. Even just to make the team, having two of the best guys in the country. So we’ve got some wrestling to do there, and we’ll see how things play out throughout the year. But, you know, we’re very, very confident and comfortable with both Max and Mike at this point.

2022 Schedule & Its Effect on the Postseason Lineup

Excluding the odd 2021 season, which began in January, and saw only 6 of 9 scheduled duals be actually competed, Penn State’s two-semester wrestling schedules have typically been second-semester heavy. Seasons usually kicked off with 4 or 5 duals, one official-ish tourney, and the team would occasionally send groups of wrestlers to open tournaments to compete unattached.

Additionally, prior to the roster glut provided by the NCAA for the pandemic, eligibility concerns had often revolved around preserving a potential NCAA redshirt, until it became clear that a wrestler had earned the right to compete attached for the team in the postseason.

Nowadays, eligibility usage is all over the place. Mark Hall eschewed the NCAA redshirt (and paid for it when the NCAA left the 2020 Seniors in the cold). Nick Lee has never used an available NCAA redshirt (only the pandemic exception), RBY is passing on another year, and Greg Kerkvliet has hinted that he also may not use all the National Tourneys available to him. Meanwhile, Mason Manville’s NCAA clock could look something like this:

So it will be interesting to see if redshirt preservation, or postponement, will be a consideration used in the early part of the season.

This year’s schedule is devoid of any mid-season tourneys, which have been replaced by a tri-meet with Sacred Heart & Oregon State, and a new multi-team duals event in Niceville, FL. The “Journeymen Collegiate Duals” event hosts 12 teams at NW Florida State College on December 21st & 22nd, and it’s a fantastic field:

Competition field for the Journeymen Collegiate Duals event on December 21, 2021. Lists of no-compete matchups & possible pods can be viewed in this spreadsheet.

But the structure of the event has apparently gone through a number of iterations, as we might expect. It takes a lot of conversations between a lot of big decision-makers, to pull together a group of this size and diversity. Intermat reported back in August that: “The twelve teams will be placed in four pools of three by seed but also avoiding conference opponents. On Day 2, winners of the pools will advance to a four-team bracket for semi’s and finals to determine a National Dual Champion. The remaining schools will wrestle extra duals vs. teams of correlating pool placement.”

But after reports began trickling out that we should NOT look forward to a possible 4 matches between PSU & Iowa superstars (this event, the PSU-Iowa dual in January, B1Gs & Nationals), we asked Cael for some clarification on the team matchups in this event, and specifically, whether PSU & Iowa might face off there:

Yeah, I don’t think so. I think that the criteria was ... you know, the point isn’t to wrestle your conference meet you know, prior to your conference meet, just set up some jmarquee dual meets with non traditional opponents. And have a great event and see how it goes. So, no, I don’t think we’re wrestling anyone in our conference. I think the first criteria was they’re going to separate in the same conference and then second was if you are wrestling this team any other time of the year then they’re going to separate you there, so I think you have pods or pools, whatever you call them, and then the winners are going to wrestle but yeah, I don’t think they’re ... I think we’re looking at three matches.

Yeah, I’ve seen that you know the details of it and I mean if they haven’t released it yet it’s probably not my place ... but we’re gonna have, we have some good matches, it’s gonna be fun. I mean, I know who we’re wrestling right now, I think! I mean if we win, you know we wrestle whoever wins in the other the other pool, but you know be some really big matches; it’s gonna be a lot of fun. We’re we’re excited about it!

On the Sacred Heart / Oregon State Tri:

Yeah, I think we can take 15. And, you know, we might have ... we might throw six guys into their Invitational the next day, also, just to make sure we’re getting matches. At this point, we just want to get matches! Right? And, obviously, we always want to win - everybody wants to win, but it’s more about development. Just getting out there and seeing where we are. You know, we know that.

I know, Sacred Heart was one of the first teams to want to wrestle, and so I know they’re going to be ready to go. And obviously Oregon State has a really solid team, and you know, a young & up and coming coach (former Oklahoma State star, Chris Pendleton), that they’ll have those guys ready to go. So we just got to be ready to compete and be ourselves.

But like I said, we’re just excited to get out there on the mat and just get started. Right? That’s when we start making progress as a team, is when we’re competing, and we’re seeing our kids actually respond in those, you know, in real competition. So we’re excited just to kind of get that process rollin.

So for a very young-eligibility roster laden with elite talent like Penn State is, it will be interesting to see how the coaches and athletes approach the early competition dates during the evaluative portion of this year’s lineup exploration.

The 125 Competition

Nate Cobler of the Center Daily Times asked Cael about this weight, and also managed a follow-up question that elicited some useful information from Coach:

Well, yeah, I think, again, that, you know, that’s a weight that’ll kind of, you know, work itself out as we move along here, you know, we have more guys competing in that weight, initially, at least then we have probably any other weight. That’s, you know ... Robbie Howard filled in for us last year, like last second coming off of, you know, a surgery that I think you’re aware of, right after his high school state tournament as a Senior and didn’t really have a lot of time to prepare. And then he had to jump right back into a surgery, right after the NCAA tournament. So, you know, but he’s not back to full speed there.

But we have several kids that are working hard, and they’re competitors that are going to try to make that their weight class. But yeah, you know, it’s not it’s, it’s definitely not, at this point, like some of the other weights that we have where we have established guys, and there’s no question about who’s going and what, what the story is going to be there.

So. Yeah, so I know that doesn’t really answer your question, probably.

Cobler: “Are you able to just give us a couple of those guy’s names at 125 that you’re looking at?”

Sanderson:

Well, yeah, I mean, just look at the roster. I mean you’ve got Baylor Shunk and (Jakob) Campbell is a transfer from Bucknell. Meredith is working his way back to 125. Obviously, Robert Howard. Marco Vespa is a freshman, you know, we got some freshmen in there. Gary Steen. So that’s already, I’m not great at counting, but like five or so is right. And so that’s a that’s a good chunk of guys trying to prepare and be the person at that weight class.

In case some of our readers missed it, BSD Veteran Clay Sauertieg has a new gig at the new Penn State site at Rivals called Nittany Nation. It sounded like he, maybe, tried to ask Cael specifically about former Nittany Lion Nick Suriano, who has one NCAA tourney available, but a technical interruption caused that piece to not really land. Clay’s re-ask came out something like this: “Any chance that you guys duck back into the transfer portal this season for somebody at 125, or are you guys set with the group you currently have in the room?”

Sanderson’s answer was straight-forward in its candor:

Well, I think every program probably checks the transfer portal every day.

Right? So, you know, I would never, or anybody, I don’t think, would ever say that, you know, a transfer portal is not an option, right?

But you do what you can with who you have, right now, and, and we’ve got some kids that are working hard, and are looking forward to competing and some of them haven’t competed in a long time, even last year, some of these kids didn’t get matches in, for whatever reasons. And so we’re excited to see how they do. And we’ll, you know, we’re gonna make make the most of it. And what I do know is that we, when we wrestle we are going to give your best effort, and that’s what I’m excited to see.

Keeping up with the Suriano transfer rumors could be a full-time job, so we’ll just wait to hear officially from him as the season progresses, but with respect to 125 and the transfer portal, Intermat’s Mat Scout Willie Saylor has been prognosticating the arrival of another intriguing transfer: Central Michigan 1x AA, Drew Hildebrandt. This week he reported that Hildebrandt is now enrolled at PSU (link requires a $ Rokfin subscription).

Hildebrandt has improved a ton since he first began at CMU, the Alma Mater of Penn State Assistant Coach and the Chippewas’ only National Champion, Casey Cunningham:

The collegiate career of new Penn State transfer Drew Hildebrandt, via the excellent wrestling resource WrestleStat.

At Pittsburgh 2019, he was seeded 13 and went 1-2, to finish in the Round of 24.

In 2020, he was seeded 6th, before the pandemic canceled the Minneapolis tourney.

And in March of this year, in the 2021 St. Louis tourney, he made the Semifinals from the 4-seed, before getting majored by 3x Champ Spencer Lee, 11-0. He won his Consolation Semifinal, then dropped a 5-3 decision to Minnesota’s Patrick McKee to finish 4th.

So, the competitors (links to career histories courtesy of WrestleStat):

The 157 Competition

The other useful piece of Penn State-related intel the Mat Scout has been reporting is the weight class drop of Joe Lee. Coach Cael wasn’t asked and didn’t speak about Joe Lee specifically, or even name names for this weight’s competition. The closest we came was when we asked Nick Lee what it’s like ‘coaching’ his younger brothers. Said Nick Lee:

Yeah, you know, you used the word ‘coaching’. And, you know, that’s one of the refreshing things for me is, I’m still an athlete, right? I’m not really a coach yet. So I gotta, you know, always remember to take a step back, and, you know, focus on myself. I want to help out my brothers, but you know, at the end of the day, they got to figure it out, just like I did, and, you know, we have a coaching staff for that. We have the best coaching staff in the world.

I am a little bit more invested in those guys. So I offer what I can here and there and, you know, sometimes I find that, the more I step back, the more they’ll kind of come to me for stuff. And I like that! But, you know, once again, we have the best coaching staff in the world. So I think the best thing I can do some times is just kind of step back and let those guys take over.

With Joe Lee cutting down to 157, and Coach Cael explicitly naming Beau Bartlett the starter at 149, it’s almost assured that stud newcomer Shayne Van Ness will redshirt. The prevailing wisdom is that next year, when Nick Lee is gone, Bartlett will drop to 141, and Van Ness can enter the lineup at 149.

In the meantime, behind Joe Lee are a couple wrestlers who have been training at Penn State for at least two years now. Barring an unforeseen transfer that Cael might spy in his daily perusal of the transfer portal, here’s our list of ‘competitors:’

  • Joe Lee, went 6-7 last year, including 0-2 at Nationals; 4 tourneys available
  • Terrell Barraclough, went 2-2 last year at 149, including tough, one-point losses to Michigan’s Kanen Storr, and Northwestern’s 3rd-place finisher, Yahya Thomas; 4 tourneys available
  • Paul Feite, 2 tourneys available
  • Matt Lee, youngest of the Lee brothers; 4 tourneys available

The 165 Competition

We’re also a little light on commentary from Cael from this weight, but Clay managed to ask Aaron Brooks about stud newcomer and 4x Michigan HS State Champ, Alex Facundo. Said Brooks:

Alex is a ... a phenomenal young wrestler, too. I think one thing I’ve really noticed about him that he’s super good at is: if you do something to him once, it’s gonna be hard to do it again. So he catches on and evolves quick. I think that’s something that you’re kind of just naturally born with. So he definitely has that ... that in him, which is really good to see.

So that’s the main thing, though, is he’s really smart, and that’s the thing that makes the biggest difference at that level, whenever you’re going from high school to college, and you have that IQ already puts you ahead. So it’s a great advantage for him, and it’ll be exciting to see how far it takes it, you know? In my opinion, he can be a four time NCAA champion.

Ok! On the one hand, it’s easy to scoff, but on the other: multiple time National Champions are the kinds of wrestlers this staff has been recruiting for many years now.

Facundo got off to a solid start this past weekend, wrestling unattached at the Clarion Open. He went 6-1, with one MFF, 3 Majors, 2 Falls, and placed 3rd. The lone loss was in overtime and, with no team coaches in this corner, he appeared to have not quite learned the new overtime rules.

It’s actually a great Case Study, for wrestlers and fans alike. As Bubba describes in his updated season Wrestling Primer:

The first overtime period starts with the wrestlers in neutral and lasts a maximum of 2 minutes. The first wrestler to score during this period wins. Because the first score wins, it is usually referred to Sudden Victory 1 (SV1).

The second overtime period is actually a pair of 30-second periods. Unlike SV1, the entire 30-sec of each period is wrestled unless there is a fall. Each wrestler has their choice of position at the beginning of one of the periods (just like the 2nd and 3rd periods). The wrestler given the choice first may defer. These periods are commonly referred to as Tiebreak 1 (TB1).

If the score is tied at the end of TB1, if one wrestler has accumulated at least a one second riding time advantage (time in top position) in overtime is the winner. Riding time accumulated in regulation does not count. If the riding time is tied, additional rounds of sudden victory (now 1 minute each) and tiebreaks continue until someone wins (checking riding time advantage after each set of tiebreaks)

The tricky part (again, for both wrestlers & fans), is how to calculate the ‘riding time advantage’ part of that language.

I think the most succinct way to describe that is: ride longer when you’re on top, than you get ridden when you’re on bottom.

For Facundo’s bout against Maryland’s John Best, interpreting the tiebreaker scoring went a little something like this:

With last year’s 165 Joe Lee cutting down to 157, the tea leaves point to Facundo probably being the postseason starter, but with all the early duals on the schedule, and the coaching staff possibly postponing Facundo’s potential redshirt, along with their commitment to explore which wrestlers make the weight class their own, here’s the list of ‘competitors’:

With all those competitors filled in, let’s look at that lineup again, with the possibly-leading competitors penciled in:

125: Drew Hildebrandt, 1x AA; 1 tourney available

133: Roman Bravo-Young, National Champion & 2x AA; two NCAA tourneys still available.

141: Nick Lee, National Champion & 3x AA; one NCAA tourney available

149: Beau Bartlett; 4 NCAA tourneys available

157: Joe Lee; 4 NCAA tourneys available

165: Alex Facundo; 4 NCAA tourneys available

174: Carter Starocci, National Champion & 1x AA; 4 NCAA tourneys available

184: Aaron Brooks, National Champion, 1x AA, 2x B1G Champion, 4 NCAA tourneys available

197: Michael Beard vs Max Dean; 4 and 2 tourneys available, respectively

285: Greg Kerkvliet, 1x AA; 4 NCAA tourneys available

That’s a pretty sick squad. Good enough to take out the Hawks, in January & March?

Maybe.

But there’s one thing that was missing last year in the Lions’ 2nd place finish: their once-reliable Bonus Points.

Last year’s conditions made development of this young squad particularly difficult, and the veteran Hawkeyes out-bonused the Lion pups, 27 to 17.

The breakouts were telling.

In Thursday’s R1, each scored 9 Bonus Points. In R2 on Thursday evening, Iowa only mildly began breaking away: 6.5 to 4 for PSU.

But in Friday morning’s Quarterfinals, Iowa’s 5 wrestlers earned 5 more Bonus Points, while Penn State’s 4 wrestlers only earned 1.

Similarly, in Friday night’s Semifinals, Iowa’s 3 wrestlers earned 3 Bonus, while PSU’s 4 wrestlers earned 0.

Predictably, Coach Cael identified these Bonus Points as a point of interest heading into this season:

Well, we don’t have a lot of seniors, but just some of our more experienced wrestlers, just wrestling to score points. And, and obviously, if you’re trying to win big dual meets, or win National Championships, or Big 10 Championships, you need bonus points and that’s something that we didn’t have a lot of last year, as everyone knows. So hopefully, our team is able to improve in that area. I think a lot of that’s leadership and kind of the way, just the attitude and the energies they got on the mat, being less concerned about whether you win or lose and just how you compete. Right? And if we can do that, we’ll be we’ll be good to go.

Added National Champion, Bravo-Young:

Yeah, I think that’s one thing, as a team we really try to focus on this year, just bonus points on top, transitioning from from takedowns to back points. It makes a huge difference when, and we see that in previous teams, you know, regardless of the talent we have this year, you know, I think this is the most talented team Penn State’s ever had. But um, when you get bonus points, that makes your job a lot easier as a team. So definitely, that’s something that we want to focus on this year is going out there ... You don’t want to just focus on bonus points, but when they’re there, you want to be able to take them. So I think just making that kind of a priority from our team was like, you can get the bonus points. You know, we got to go for it because it pays off in the long run.

Is this team ready? National Champ Brooks:

I just I think our team’s really hungry. You know, I think just with everything that the pandemic, last year’s results, you know, I think our team is, it’s really been working hard. And just for me looking around the room and seeing that the work that these guys are putting in and you know, the skills that they’re trying to obtain, it’s really motivating for me as well.

So will this lineup attack this schedule and go out and reclaim that title?

Let’s give the last word to returning champ Carter Starocci:

Yeah, I feel guys on our team. I don’t know what it is, I think ... I think maybe us getting four champs last year kind of put some energy into these guys and their hearts a little bit. But um, I kind of feel as guys on this team, they kind of believe a little more. And they believe we’re the best. And they believe we’re supposed to win.

And I feel our team is really good. And obviously we’re going to get a lot better as the season carries on. We’re a very young team. We have a lot of college freshmen. And I think we’re gonna keep getting better every single day. As matches go on, we get better. You see other teams, they start to get worse, and we just keep getting better.

And that’s what it’s gonna be. It’s the same story over here. We’re gonna win the national title and we’re gonna carry on on our journey.