Wrestling Postview: Penn State Serves Up Hawkeye à l'orange at the BJC

Penn State coaches Cael Sanderson, Jimmy Kennedy & Casey Cunningham (left to right) strategize with Max Dean, in a bout Dean won 2-0. - Scott Pilutik, Black Shoe Diaries

(Editor Notes: thanks to Succss (no 'e') With Honor Always for writing this recap! Most BSD readers know him as a longtime commenter and generally good person. I did only very slight word editing + image insertion from BSD Photographer Scott Pilutik. On to SWHA! --jp)

The #2 Hawkeyes came into the Bryce Jordan Center on Friday night to face the top ranked Nittany Lions for the dual meet of the season. In what has become an all-too-rare occurrence, the historical powerhouse and the reigning dynasty met in the regular season.

For many Iowa fans, this was a litmus test to see what the team's chances were in March. For many Penn State fans, it was yet another chance to demonstrate the Sanderson way has usurped the Gable way. And for the wrestlers and coaches? Maybe they had a plan, who knows?

Before getting into the recap, a few disclaimers:

  • For Cael, there's a sole focus on getting each wrestler to be the most capable of winning a national championship come March. There's no concern about losing. There's no concern about protecting seeds. I suspect that if Cael was offered the option to lose every dual in exchange for a title, he'd take it in a heartbeat. Historically, this does not seem to be the same sentiment shared by the Iowa staff.
  • Historically, the Brands brothers care about one thing and one thing only: winning. And that seems to be the sentiment of the fan base as well. To the point where going into the match a prominent conspiracy theory was bumping Spencer Lee up to take on RBY.
On to the action!


The BJC was hyped, bringing in a record-setting crowd (15,998, tied for largest crowd in NCAA wrestling history for an indoor dual meet & equaling the 15,998 mark when Penn State beat Iowa in the BJC on Feb. 10, 2018--jp) featuring Bo Nickal, James Franklin, and Micah Parsons. The dual started off at 125 with a surprise pairing not from the Iowa bench but from Penn State, sending out Marco Vespa to take on Spencer Lee. And in a match reminiscent of Carson Kuhn taking on Nathan Tomasello, Vespa nearly caught lightening in a bottle. While in deep on a shot and looking to finish, Vespa instead opted for a cradle and took Spencer Lee to his back.


Penn State's Marco Vespa takes down 3x National Champion Spencer Lee

That was the high water mark of the match for the newly debuted Penn Stater, as Lee earned a reversal and then went to work on top where he's utterly dominant. 4 sets of swipes all coming in the 1st period earned Lee the tech fall. While Vespa clearly wasn't going for a tactical loss, Penn State fans were content with Lee earning only 5 team points instead of 6.

Penn State 0, Iowa 5


2-time returning national champion Roman Bravo-Young took the mat for Penn State looking to answer for the Nittany Lions, taking on a familiar face in the #17 ranked Brody Teske. If history is any indication, this is a match where the Iowa staff would prioritize a close loss over trying to win. And that's exactly how this match shaped up. Teske drew an early stall warning and despite giving up a takedown in the first and second period, he kept the match in the realm of a regular decision. However, after choosing neutral to start the 3rd period, RBY began pushing for the major. After getting a takedown and drawing a penalty point for stalling in the 3rd, Teske found himself a takedown away from giving up bonus. In an effort to ward off another stall call and bide some time, Teske took a shot that RBY quickly capitalized on, locking up a cradle and not only securing the major decision but getting the fall. aSsUnlM.0.jpeg
Penn State took a 6-5 lead in the team score with the dual starting about as well as could've been hoped.


Next up was #4 Beau Bartlett taking on #2 Real Woods, formerly of Stanford. With momentum fully in Penn State's favor, this was an opportunity for the young Penn Stater to show that he's in contention for the title.

Unfortunately it was not to be.

Real Woods got out to a strong start, getting a takedown and then riding out the remainder of the 1st period. Bartlett started off the 2nd period in bottom and earned the escape but was unable to muster any offense. Woods chose bottom to start the 3rd and quickly got out, carrying over a minute and a half of riding time. An active 3rd period produced no additional scoring, earning Woods a 4-1 decision over Beau and putting Iowa back out in front 8-6.

Offering my own opinion on the matter, this was a disappointing match for Beau. Not because he lost, but because he didn't really put himself out there. Woods was able to keep Beau from setting up his shots, negating Beau's offense and presenting several opportunities for the Iowa wrestler. While Beau did a good job of hanging in there with Woods, this was an opportunity for Beau to put himself out there and find things that can develop into his go-to offense in the future. Instead, it didn't seem like there was much to take away from the match other than Woods is clearly a contender at this weight and Beau is in a lesser tier, unlikely to make up the difference come March.


Another matchup of a Penn State underclassman facing a seasoned Iowa wrestler (although not at the same level as we saw in previous years verging on collecting social security), #13 Shayne Van Ness took on #7 Max Murin. And for the second straight match, experience won out. After holding Van Ness scoreless in the 1st period, Murin put on a strong ride to get riding time over a minute in the 2nd. In the 3rd, Murin was able to get a quick escape and in surprising fashion got himself a takedown to take a 3-1 lead. Murin rode out the rest of the period with the help of a stall warning, earning himself a 4-1 victory and putting Iowa further head 11-6.

This was yet another match where it felt like something was left on the mat. Not necessarily a victory, but at the very least a learning experience. Van Ness didn't seem to get to his typical level of offensiveness, allowing Murin to use his experience to defeat the freshman. Van Ness has a motor and talent, but in order to contend for a title he's going to need to allow himself to get into scramble situations where his athleticism will win out. This was an opportunity for him to expose himself to those areas of discomfort and build confidence in his scramble abilities, but unfortunately that didn't come to fruition.


Next up was more than a match, it was an announcement.

Levi Haines' redshirt has officially been burned, presumably making him the starter come March. While the writing had been on the wall, this was reminiscent of Mark Hall's shirt getting pulled in the BJC against Iowa, and we all know how that turned out at the end of the year (ed note: a Mark Hall National Championship --jp).

The true freshman took the mat against the #15 ranked upper classman Cobe Siebrecht (ed note: Siebrecht has sophomore eligibility but is in his fourth year in the Iowa program--jp). While we're used to seeing Haines overcome strong sprawls and turn them into takedowns, Siebrecht was able to hold Haines scoreless throughout the 1st period. Avoiding the freshman weakness of being unable to get out from bottom, Haines escaped quickly to start the 2nd but that was the only scoring for the period. Siebrecht earned an escape to start the 3rd, after which Haines finally finished a takedown opportunity to take the lead. Siebrecht was able to get another escape but that was about all and Haines won 3-2, closing the team score deficit to 11-9. jql1fbo.0.jpeg

This was a back and forth match where Haines found himself having to fight out of some difficult situations, which he was able to do .While we're used to seeing Levi consistently on offense (which was the case for the first 6 & 1/2 minutes), this was a challenging match that not only tested his offensive capabilities but also forced him to negate the counters and finally the offense of his opponent. Haines passed the test. It may not have been as easy as many Penn State fans would have liked, but it earned him an impressive victory nonetheless.


In what has become a theme of this dual, the young gun from Penn State (Alex Facundo) took on the more experienced Hawkeye (Patrick Kennedy) (ed note: Kennedy and Facundo each have freshman eligibility; Kennedy is in his 3rd year in the program, while Facundo is in his 2nd--jp). Despite the higher ranking of Facundo, this was a toss up, as experience was a significant factor. And that's how this match played out, with Facundo wrestling his style and Kennedy wrestling to his strengths and negating his weaknesses.

A scoreless 1st period gave Kennedy the choice, which he used to take bottom and quickly escape. With no further scoring, Facundo reciprocated with an escape of his own in the 3rd, with no further scoring in regulation.

After a scoreless neutral overtime period, Kennedy took bottom to start the first ride out period. An escape in only 4 seconds gave Kennedy the advantage going into the second ride out period. Facundo chose neutral but was unable to score a takedown, giving Kennedy the decision and increasing Iowa's lead to 14-9. RRIeR08.0.jpeg

Similar to what we saw in the Bartlett and Van Ness matches earlier, this was simply a case of Kennedy doing enough to keep Facundo off his game, negating his offensive attacks. The Nittany Lion never got comfortable enough to get off his shots and he hasn't acclimated to the collegiate referee's position. Not the worst loss, but also a missed opportunity to take the next step.


With the early momentum lost and Iowa holding their own, the 2-time (and potential 5-time) National Champion Carter Starocci took the mat to face the #16 Elton Brands. In what was an all-too-familiar sight, the Hawkeye took the mat in order to avoid giving up bonus points. Carter, a primarily counter/defensive wrestler, was in for a match.

After a 1st period that left Carter searching for offense and Brands all too happy to play defense, the wrestlers entered the 2nd period scoreless. Brands mustered his best top ride to hold Starocci down for 19 seconds but that was the best he could do. Despite Carter picking up his offense, the only thing he accomplished for the remainder of the period was drawing a stall warning.

Brands chose bottom to start the 3rd, but Carter worked hard to not only reverse the riding time but build up over a minute for himself. The match ended in a 2-1 decision for Starocci, courtesy of the riding time. Penn State closed the deficit 14-12. M4U0esp.0.jpeg

In a tight match, this was a bit of a disappointment. Starocci was clearly the better wrestler but Brands was able to keep the match close for the sake of a tactical loss. Starocci is still in his 3rd year, with ample time to continue developing, but it's anomalous that he's struggled to find an offense he can consistently rely on to score. By this point in his career we should expect him to be elevating his game to overcome whatever his opponents attempt to negate his offense. Fortunately, come March, few wrestlers will care about keeping the match close which will give Carter an opportunity for bonus. But for a potential 5-timer and someone that's around wrestlers who have consistently sought to elevate themselves, it continues to feel like there's some opportunity lost.

One particular note: Carter's entrance was on point. It immediately brought to mind Mike Tyson's entrance to his fight against Michael Spinks. While Tyson's entrance took the spirit right out from Spinks, Starocci's entrance only reinforced Brands' efforts to minimize scoring.


Aaron Brooks took the mat to put Penn State back in the lead. Instead of Abe Assad, Drake Rhodes toed the line. In case you're not familiar with wrestling, Aaron Brooks is good. He's really good. And so this match was decidedly in his favor. After putting on a takedown clinic to take a 6-2 lead, Brooks was able to secure 4 near take a 10-2 lead into the 2nd period.

Rhodes chose bottom, which only triggered another takedown barrage from Brooks increasing his lead to 18-6 to start the 3rd.

Brooks chose neutral in order to maximize his chances for the fall, but after growing frustrated with Rhodes he settled for a 22-7 tech fall and put Penn State back in the lead 17-14. pgoqGzB.0.jpeg

There are not really not enough superlatives to describe Aaron Brooks. He's only going to keep getting better and better, and I fully suspect he'll be a force on the international circuit once his collegiate career is done. This was the typical yeoman effort that we've grown accustomed to, where his superior skill is put on display and just overwhelms his oppontnet.

Rumor is Assad missed weight, forcing Rhodes into action. We'll see how that bodes for Iowa come March.


Max Dean took the mat for Penn State facing a familiar foe in Jacob Warner from Iowa. The Hawkeye is known for his counter ability, Dean is known for being succinct and brutal. This match was another example of that.

Dean and Warner spent the 1st period feeling each other out and avoiding any costly situations. Dean fortuitously had the decision to start the 2nd and chose bottom. Warner put together a challenging ride on top but Dean was able to get out in less than a minute, which was all the scoring we'd get in the 2nd.

Warner chose bottom to start the 3rd, knowing full well what Dean was capable of from the top position. Dean punished Warner, breaking him down repeatedly while looking for a bow and arrow. Throughout the 3rd, it was apparent Warner's only concern was to not let Dean introduce him to a close up inspection of his left heel. He not only earned a stall warning because he was only concerned with trapping Max's arm, the ref pathetically awarded a stalemate instead of hitting him again for stalling. Dean won by decision 2-0 and Penn State extended their lead 20-14. PotZ4g4.0.jpeg

This was about as dominant as a 2-0 victory could be. Dean is not going to be an explosive takedown artist, his strengths lie in his fundamentals and his abilities on top. This was an opportunity for Warner to try and find a weakness, but instead it demonstrated Dean has the upper hand and has won the mental battle.


Last up was Greg Kerkvliet taking on #3 Cassioppi. Prior to the start of the season Greg defeated Tony in the All Star classic, but Cassioppi had won all the matches that mattered. With a pin, Cassioppi could win the dual for Iowa.

Kerk took the mat and owned it. He wrestled with confidence and quickly set up a snatch single to the right side of Cassioppi, finishing it for the opening takedown. Tony was eventually able to get out after Kerk racked up 27 seconds in riding time.

Cassioppi chose bottom to start the 2nd, hoping to quickly tie up the match. Instead, Kerkvliet put on a dominant ride for the entirety of the 2nd period. While Greg has an athletic build, he looks to have put on some good weight in the off season and this was an absolutely draining effort for Cassioppi. crlihwB.0.jpeg

Kerk chose bottom to start the 3rd and Cas conceded the escape. The 3rd period ended without any further scoring, resulting in a 4-1 decision for Kerk thanks to the riding time point and securing the dual for Penn State 23-14.

Cassioppi is a very good heavyweight. He's very athletic and carries his weight well. And Kerk was able to control him throughout this match. And in so doing he demonstrated that he's a serious contender come March.


This match went about as in the middle as it could've gone. Penn State didn't dominate, Iowa didn't keep it as close as they could have. And yet it was a little disappointing. I think the main thing was that it served as an opportunity for some of the younger guys to elevate themselves to the next level, but unfortunately that didn't happen.

The outcome of this dual is that Penn State is the clear favorite for the title this year. Not only do they have a lot of top talent between RBY, Starocci, Brooks, Dean and Kerk, their young guns are a capable as well. And so the rest of this year will be to see how much better they can progress. For the younger guys on the team it'll be a quest to make it to All American, for the more experienced guys it will be to try and find consistent bonus.

It's a pretty privileged place to be for a fan base. It's almost a foregone conclusion that this will be Cael's 10th championship in the past 12 seasons and the real question is how much of a threat this team can pose to the scoring record.

And I'm here for all of it!

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