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Wrestling Nationals Preview

How can Penn State overperform their seeds to outpoint the favored Hawkeyes?

Can Cael Sanderson lead a young lineup of six underclassmen to another Coach of the Year award?
Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors

The math is not friendly.

Iowa’s upperclassmen-led lineup is broad and stacked. Most of their 10 qualifiers navigated their 5-dual season unscathed, and the Big Ten Tournament wasn’t much more of an impediment. The Hawks placed four Champs, two seconds, two thirds and one fourth. As such, they earned high seeds for this week’s National Tournament in St. Louis.

Penn State didn’t fare as well.

The young Lions contested six dual meets this season, but struggled to get their 125-pounder into the lineup early, and their heavyweight surprised everyone when he toed the line in the last dual of the season. At Big Tens, both their youth and a relative lack of peak fitness revealed the large gap between them and the veteran Hawkeyes. Five Lions wrestled five or more matches and battled fatigue and tough Big Ten opponents in the consolation brackets, while their top-seeds went 2-2 in the finals.

Despite outpointing Nebraska by 18.5 points for second place, Penn State found itself 35.5 points behind Iowa for first. Coach Sanderson was candid last week about the team’s disappointment and admitted that they “kind of got their butts kicked.”

But he also admitted that the experience helped some of the young guys’ confidence jump a level. “Those guys are close—everyone’s close,” he exclaimed.

How close? Before action kicks off at 11a today, let’s take a look at each session to examine the best chances Penn State has to outperform the seeds earned during a very brief and most unusual season.

First, here’s a look at the 2021 Nationals unusual schedule:

The pandemic has altered the tournament structure this year.

Next, dial up the BSD Bracket Release post; it will come in handy as we discuss projected Placement + Advancement Points in the team race. Bonus Points, as always, are the great wildcard.

Session I (A&B) Seed-Projected Team Points

Team Thu 11a & 2p
Team Thu 11a & 2p
Iowa 10
Missouri 9
Penn State 7
North Carolina State 7
Michigan 7

Roar! Lions

Robbie Howard and Joe Lee are each 23-seeds projected to lose to their 10-seed opponents, but they’ve each been very, very close against those opponents recently. Howard has dropped two 5-2 decisions to Ohio State’s Malik Heinselman this season, and last year at the Southern Scuffle, Joe Lee took Travis Wittlake down twice in the first period before giving up some counterpoints and a tough ride, to lose 8-4.

Inspirational Precedent

True freshman Nico Megaludis, a 10-seed in the 2011 National Championships, had lost twice each to Minnesota’s Zach Sanders (2-seed) and Cornell’s Frank Perrelli (6-seed) before reversing those in ... wait for it: St. Louis! Nico knocked off Sanders in the Quarterfinals, 7-4 and Perrelli in the Semifinals, 3-2 to help Penn State win their second team title of the Cael Era.

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend

It’s kinda tough to find a worthy foe for a Hawk in this early round, but 149 stands out for two reasons. One, Penn State has no warrior at this weight this year and two: Max Murin went 0-2 barbecue at the Big Ten Tourney. He’s the 12-seed and faces Indiana’s Graham Rooks, who finished 6th at Big Tens to earn the 21-seed this week. Goooo Hooos!

Session II (A&B) Seed-Projected Team Points

Place Team Thu 6p & 9p
Place Team Thu 6p & 9p
1 Iowa 18
2 Missouri 15.5
3 Nebraska 13
4 North Carolina State 12.5
5 Penn State 12
6 Arizona State 10.5
7 Virginia Tech 10.5
8 Michigan 10
9 Oklahoma State 9.5
10 Ohio State 8.5

Roar! Lions

Time to shine, Michael Beard! Dang, he was this close with Myles Amine. At B1Gs he took the Wolverine down twice and was leading late before getting reversed and losing in OT.

Here’s the thing: 197 is wide open, and Penn State’s uphill battle with the Hawks is not going to be climbed without Michael Beard. Nebraska’s Eric Schultz is a solid defender who was the only opponent to take down Bo Nickal during the 2019 season (as Nickal told the BTN audience last weekend when pressed by Shane Sparks, he avenged said takedown with a Major Decision in their next bout).

But Schultz is wrestling like that was the last takedown he’s had since! He’s got five wins this year of 2 points or less and his last four bouts he’s scored 3, 2, 2 & 4 points. Amine’s finals bout vs Schultz was far less stressful for him than his match vs Beard. Rarely are 2-seed vs 15-seed matchups actually this even.

Beard has got to win this match.

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend

And sometimes my friend is me!

Obviously, in a tight team race, head-to-head matchups are key, and BSD’s beloved Chef Bardy has a fantastic opportunity to suck the air out of the cardboard Hawk fan cutouts inside Enterprise Center on Thursday evening in a first-time matchup with 5-seed Hawkeye, Kaleb Young.

Chef Bardy has kept his secret ingredients pretty secret this season, wrestling in cagey, one-takedown affairs in bouts against top competition. But against overmatched opponents, he’s thrown them the kitchen sink. At B1Gs last week, he went: Major win, 3-2 loss, Major win, Major win, 3-1 SV loss, before Medically Forfeiting his last bout to finish 6th. Those two L’s were against Purdue’s Kendall Coleman and Minnesota’s Brayton Lee, against whom Young has two one-point tiebreaker wins. They’re all close, as Cael says.

If Beard & Bardy come out of Thursday’s action still alive in the Championship bracket, ready to score the first serious points of the tourney in Friday’s Quarterfinals, hoo boy, it very well could be “on.”

Session III (A&B) Seed-Projected Team Points

Place Team Fri 11a & 3p
Place Team Fri 11a & 3p
1 Iowa 55
2 Penn State 42.5
3 Arizona State 40.5
4 North Carolina State 35.5
5 Oklahoma State 32.5
6 Virginia Tech 31.5
7 Nebraska 29
8 Michigan 27.5
9 Missouri 25.5
10 Central Michigan 20

First, there’s a lot happening in this session. The Quarterfinals represent the first time Placement Points are earned and it’s a lot: 6 points get sent to the team; add the 1 Advancement Point earned and a lot of guys just scored big. As seed-projections go, it’s the first bad news for 5-seeds, since they’re projected to face 4-seeds in this round. That means projected L’s for Hawks Young, Warner & Cassioppi, who drop into the consis with zero points for the round, while Spencer, DeSanto, Eierman, Marinelli & Kemerer earn points. The Nittany Lions project to advance RBY, Nick Lee, Starocci & Brooks.

Meanwhile, in the consis, there are two rounds contested in this session (split into two weight classes at both 11a & 3p). Howard and Joe Lee are projected to end their tourneys in the R24, while Beard advances once, but drops out in the R16. Berge and Kerk project to win both and advance to the Bloodround, where they would join Murin and Brands.

At the end of all those fantasy projected finishes, the gap between Penn State & Iowa is only 13.5 points.

Does that surprise you?

It surprised me, as rather small-ish. I’m used to the Friday morning session being the first big separator, so I had assumed that Iowa would at this point be separated bigger than this. Whatever, you get the point: there’s a lot of much friendlier math here for Penn State fans.

Swapping out the projected top seeds for those two big R2 wins we need from Berge & Beard, but not projecting them to win their Quarterfinal (yet), doesn’t change the post-session 3 score much, but oh, the possibilities!

Beard would get the Rocky Elam (7-seed) vs Cam Caffey (10-seed) winner. Caffey worked an exhausted Beard for 4 takedowns in Beard’s 5th match of the Big Ten weekend (Beard did score one takedown late: a very promising outcome for Coach Cael who appeared to be coaching Beard to just shoot through everything). At Big Tens, on Saturday morning, Beard beat Rutgers’ tough bro Janzen, 7-3 and took Amine to sudden victory. Later that night, he beat Purdue’s Penola 6-5 in his third match of the day. He then struggled Sunday morning against Caffey and then hung tough in another defeat against Northwestern’s Davison.

Keeping Beard fresh is one of the many reasons we need that big upset of Schultz in Round 2. If he wrestles once at 2p, then beats Schultz at 9p, his chances of scoring a Quarterfinal win and changing the landscape of this team race are way higher than if he’s sent to the consis to double his bouts on a chase for 3rd.

Same deal with Berge. Score that lone sudden victory takedown on Young, and he’s facing veteran Jesse Dellavechia from Rider in Friday morning’s Quarterfinals.

With Young in the consis, where he’s projected to win both the R24 and R16 on Friday morning/afternoon, Iowa’s other two 5-seeds are Warner & Cassioppi. I’m still a little perplexed why Shakur Rasheed didn’t beat Warner in the Big Ten Consis last year, but Warner is inconsistent and that goes both ways (also, Rasheed never did fully come back from that injury; I guess I’m not perplexed, please disregard). In a Quarterfinal matchup with Oklahoma State’s freshman phenom, AJ Ferrari? Let’s take the 4-seed and send Jacob to the consis.

Cassioppi’s a different story. Man, that guy is good. His toughness isn’t that hurr-durr face-butt wrestling you see from Murin or Brands; he’s fundamental and efficient. And his 5-seed is probably low. Arizona State’s own freshman phenom, 4-seed Colton Schultz, will have to have quite a performance to keep Big Cass from reaching the semis.

So, to recap: with Berge & Beard already pulling their upsets on Thursday night and four Quarterfinal matchups to play with in this scenario (Berge vs Dellavechia; Beard vs Elam; Warner vs Ferrari; and Cass vs Schultz), if one Lion wins and neither Hawk does, it’s Iowa 55; PSU 50.

If Beard AND Berge win, but Warner AND Cass do not, then there’s a new team leader wearing a white cummerbund. If both Hawks win and no Lions do, then there’s a 19-point lead for Iowa that would be devastating to Penn State hopes.

That may seem like an odd group to bundle up together in a scenario, but I chose it because Beard & Berge are really, really good, and together they’re capable of changing the structure of the team race.

But without them doing big things, there’s going to be a lot of chasing dwindling hopes through the day on Friday.

Session IV Seed-Projected Team Points

Place Team Fri 8p
Place Team Fri 8p
1 Iowa 93.5
2 Penn State 63.5
3 North Carolina State 56.5
4 Arizona State 47.5
5 Nebraska 46.5
6 Virginia Tech 45.5
7 Michigan 45
8 Missouri 43
9 Oklahoma State 39.5
10 Ohio State 30.5

Ok, back to projected seeds. With the Semifinals over, more top seeds in the Championship bracket become casualties, and Iowa puts a nail in the coffin. They send four guys to the finals (four 1-seeds will do that in a seed-projection model), while Penn State’s Bravo-Young and Nick Lee hang on with 1-seed Brooks. 3-seed Starocci & 4-seed DeSanto hit the consis.

And in those consis, Young, Warner, Cass & Kerkvliet continue to score, as Murin, Berge and Brands become Bloodround casualties and end their tournaments.

Session V Seed-Projected Team Points

Place Team Sat 11a
Place Team Sat 11a
1 Iowa 126.5
2 Penn State 68
3 North Carolina State 63.5
4 Virginia Tech 61.5
5 Arizona State 60
6 Missouri 60
7 Nebraska 54.5
8 Michigan 53.5
9 Oklahoma State 50.5
10 Ohio State 36.5

For the Saturday morning round, DeSanto, Young, Warner & Cass finish out their placements, while Starocci & Kerkvliet do the same.

And in the finals, Iowa’s four finalists earn championships, while only one of Penn State’s do, and the sad trombone plays on.

2021 Nationals Seed-Projected Final Scores

Place Team Sat 11a
Place Team Sat 11a
1 Iowa 126.5
2 Penn State 72
3 North Carolina State 63.5
4 Virginia Tech 61.5
5 Arizona State 60
6 Missouri 60
7 Nebraska 54.5
8 Michigan 53.5
9 Oklahoma State 50.5
10 Ohio State 36.5

But that is all just hypothetical!

As Shane Sparks likes to remind us: results today depend on a thousand little things none of us even know about. Who got the best sleep last night? Who didn’t? Whose girlfriend dumped them, or who ate a questionable last supper?

Sure the seeding math can be unfriendly, but seeds, schmeeds!

Especially this year. With so very few head-to-head results to build off, seeds in many cases in this tournament are largely meaningless.

And besides, this is not a friendly tournament. Check out the recently-re-captioned Tony Rotundo pics from the 2014 National Championships, in which only the great Ed Ruth managed to stand atop the podium without a busted-up face.

It’s been an unfriendly season—an unfriendly year, while we’re at it.

But this tournament is happening, and in that regard it’s a thousand times superior to last year’s canceled sadness.

If Penn State fans look closely, and remember our training, we can see a path there. We can have faith in our young Lion cubs, as we have had faith in their fearless leaders—our fearless leaders—who have guided other Lions before them to championship mountaintops.

Unlike other times, we will not be there in person. But we will cheer. Oh, we shall cheer.

So that one day, when we come together in the arena again, we will know.

We will know we have done our part.

We will know, that We Are!