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Wrestling Postview: PSU 42, Maryland 6, plus Coach Cael Media Availability

Penn State again dominated an overmatched opponent, but the Maryland Head Coach’s decisions & behavior raised some provocative questions for the sport.

Carter Starocci shares his thoughts on the PSU-Maryland dual with Ironhead Jeff Byers.
Carter Starocci shares his thoughts on the PSU-Maryland dual with Ironhead Jeff Byers.
Jp Pearson, Black Shoe Diaries

Wrestling may be the most inclusive sport there is, but don't get that twisted. Just because "any body can wrestle" and all are welcome does not mean parity exists.

What it means is you're welcome to come get your ass kicked.

The weight classes do their best to smooth out the playing field, but at every level of competition, in any of wrestling's multiple competitive structures, there are always, always at least some extremely unbalanced battles.

In fact, using lenses to view the perspectives of either the Favored or the Underdog, we can see that wrestling’s scoring structures are designed to incentivize each of them!

In Individual Bout Scoring, wrestling’s scoring mercy rule is called the Technical Fall: if a wrestler dominates their opponent to the tune of a 15-point scoring margin, the bout ends. But its other match termination is even more extreme. If you successfully physically dominate your opponent to the most submissive position on their back, with shoulders planted to the mat, you have earned yourself a pin: the most basic and fundamental goal of the sport going back 15,000 years.

The pin is not a mercy rule: it’s the most basic goal of the sport.

In Team Scoring, those individual bout results are also incentivized—for both the Favored and the Underdog. In the teamified competitive structure called the Dual Meet, the pin is worth 6 team points and the Tech Fall is worth 5. With a goal of scoring the most allowable points for one’s team, the Favored is incentivized to pursue a pin, while the Underdog is incentivized to stay off their back to avoid it. Similarly, moving down the scoring chart, if an Underdog is losing by 8 Bout Points (a Major Decision which gives the winner 4 Team Points), they are incentivized to prevent their opponent from earning the 15 point margin. Whereas the Favored’s goal is stretch that bout point margin.

This is fundamental.

It’s literally the purpose of the actual competition of the sport: to display physical and technical dominance over the opponent. None of this is particularly unclear: wrestlers, their families, their coaches and most fans know and understand most of it without ambiguity.

It’s sportsmanship that introduces a grey area.

At the youth level, it can sometimes be considered unsportsmanlike for a Favored to dominate an inexperienced Underdog so thoroughly it embarrasses a kid. Situations in which wrestlers, coaches and parents might come to some agreement that it’s actually better to pursue something less than the most do occur there.

But is that the case at the Division 1 college level? In the Big Ten Conference?

Maryland Head Coach Alex T. Clemsen asserted as much to the Penn State coaches in the post-meet handshake line, inspiring another line of sportsmanship questions such as: what is the best time and place to share this opinion?

But we’ll take a look at that at the end. First, let’s examine the on-mat action that led up to it.

125: #4 Braeden Davis, PSU vs Tommy Capul, UMD

Braeden Davis is a show.

The combination of his baby face, blonde hair & relentless mat pursuits makes this kid must-see teevee.

Against Capulo, he pressured forward, got behind for a quick takedown, then tilted 3 separate times for 4 points each to reach the (merciful) end, 15-0.

Davis has reached #3 in Intermat’s rankings in this year’s wild 125-pound class and has some exciting opportunities coming up to show he belongs there.

Penn State 5, Maryland 0

133: Baylor Shunk, PSU vs #21 Braxton Brown, UMD

With #5 Aaron Nagao out sick, Baylor Shunk stepped in and fought quite admirably against the ranked Brown. He gave up two takedowns, but no nearfall points, and his first-period reversal and third-period escape kept the result to a decision, 3-8.

That’s exactly the kind of fight required to prevent a Bonus win against a favored opponent.

Penn State 5, Maryland 3

141: #2 Beau Bartlett, PSU vs #17 Kal Miller, UMD

This was a methodical win for Bartlett in all three positions. He worked long and hard for a first period takedown, rode long and hard on top in the second, then chose neutral in the third to get some more work in on his feet. This paid off in the form of two more takedowns, enough to stretch the victory margin beyond 8 points and to send an additional bonus point to his team via an 11-1 Major Decision.

Penn State 9, Maryland 3

149: Connor Pierce, PSU vs #14 Ethan Miller, UMD

The coaches sent Tyler Kasak and David Evans to Lock Haven, to the Mat Town Open for two reasons: increase their match count and possibly see if they meet head to head. They did, and Kasak came away with the 4-2 victory.

So in another example of a Nittany Lion responding to the baked-in incentives of the scoring system, Connor Pierce took the mat against the ranked Miller, kept the bout point gap low, and prevented the favored Terrapin from earning Bonus Points.

Pierce gave up a takedown and long rideout in the first period and an escape in the second. But in the third, he felt a fitness advantage start to kick in. He chose neutral and began pursuing with shot after shot. Unfortunately, none converted and the bout ended, 0-5.

Penn State 9, Maryland 6

157: #1 Levi Haines, PSU vs #33 Michael North, UMD

North was Maryland’s best example of how to approach a battle against a heavy favorite. He danced for a few seconds in the first, but out of nowhere swooped in for a beautiful single leg shot. The first part of his finish was executed beautifully as well, as he pivoted to Levi’s side and elevated the captured leg nicely.

Against many, he would have finished, too. But it was Levi’s Biglerville farmboy strenth and superior leverage that allowed him to fight off North’s shot, on one leg, for many seconds, before a stalemate was called. Later in the first, Haines scored his own takedown by winning a scramble against the scrappy Terrapin, but was unable to turn him.

In the second period, Haines escaped and earned a fresh takedown, but again was unable to turn Michael North.

North, in another show of his interest in fighting to win, bravely chose down to start the third. Unfortunately for him, Haines’ brute strength finally won out, and he was turned two times for 4 nearfall points each, which ended the bout in a 15-0 Technical Fall.

Penn State 14, Maryland 6

165: #7 Mitchell Mesenbrink, PSU vs Ryan Money, UMD

As welcome as Braeden Davis has been to a Penn State Dynasty that has been hungry to replace 2016 National Champion Nico Megaludis with a new 125-pound power, Mitchell Mesenbrink is this season’s Newcomer of the Year. Lion fans have been watching Carter Starocci and Aaron Brooks showcase beautiful offensive wrestling for three years now and still Mesenbrink is the one who’s taken our breath away this season!

Dude’s neutral stance and motion evokes some of Boxing’s old greats. Head bobs, feints, up and down level changes. Feet perpetually in motion, left to right, side to side.

And the pace!

Before facing Mesenbrink a few weeks ago, Michigan’s Cameron Amine had gone 55-19 in his career, including finishing on the All-American podium 3 times: in 7th, 4th & 4th places. He had never been bonused in any of those 19 losses! Mesenbrink broke him, to the tune of 4 stall calls and an 11-1 Major Decision. It was unbelievably impressive.

Sunday was no exception.

Coach Clemsen may still be trying to identify a solid solution with their 165-pound situation. WrestleStat lists 4 guys at that weight, all with losing records, and shows two with redshirt icons. The PSU press release listed FR A.J. Rodriguez (4-9), who had wrestled in 3 duals prior (such that he could still preserve his RS). JR Gaven Bell (2-9) had wrestled in 3 duals, and FR Ryan Money (1-8) had wrestled in 1.

Clemsen chose Money for this battle, which ended quickly with a Mesenbrink takedown and nasty armbar + half for a stacked pin in 50 seconds.

Penn State 20, Maryland 6

174: #1 Carter Starocci, PSU vs Mason Stein, UMD

Clemsen had more roster decisions to make at this weight. How do you decide who “gets” to wrestle a 3x National Champ who hasn’t lost since 2021?

JR Dominic Solis (5-5) had wrestled in 5 duals and was listed in the pre-match press release. FR Gray Jagger (1-4) had not wrestled in any duals and may be redshirting, and RSFR Mason Stein (0-4) had wrestled in one dual, in December. Clemsen chose Stein, and the mismatch was even more clear on the mat than it was on paper.

Starocci went right to work employing an old Jason Nolf trick: use takedowns + releases to exhaust the opponent, to ease the achievement of a later pin. Poor Stein looked like he was literally grasping at air at times, as Starocci earned 6 first-period takedowns. His releases were so quick that BSDWrestle’s bman noted that while so doing, Starocci accrued a mere 14 seconds of riding time in the period.

Unlike Nolf, however, Starocci has a new challenge in the form of this season’s new 3-point takedown. After the 6th takedown, the score was 18-5, a 13-point margin, dangerously close to the 15-point margin that would terminate the match with a Technical Fall. This of course would give Penn State only 5 team points, whereas a pin would give them 6.

I was across the gym and couldn’t hear Casey Cunningham’s exact words from the back of the coaches’ seats where he was standing, but it was clear he was coaching Starocci to go for the pin. A 7th takedown would have ended the match, so Starocci was challenged by his coach to pin Stein without it. He looked like he tried a bit to turn him after the 6th, but oddly decided to release him one more time before the period ended, making the score 18-6. Pins are hard enough to achieve in D1 anyway, but to try to do so with a takedown-pinning combination that forces the ref to allow action to continue after a takedown (at which point the score would qualify for the match-terminating Tech Fall) because the opponent is in pinning danger seems extra challenging. So maybe he was thinking he’d try something new in the second period.

At which point, with it being Maryland’s turn at position choice to start the second, Clemsen and Stein could have made a pin additionally challenging by choosing neutral. Choosing top and releasing Starocci would make the score 19-6 and wouldn’t change the mathematical fact that another 3-point TD would end it.

As it was, they chose down, which made it markedly less difficult for Starocci to work controlled turns and pinning combination attempts without endangering the score margin. On top, Starocci worked patiently and secured the fitting pinning combo with 34 seconds left in the period.

Penn State 26, Maryland 6

184: #5 Bernie Truax, PSU vs Chase Mielnik, UMD

Penn State’s 2024 rent-an-AA choice is an interesting one. It’s a curious question who it benefits more. Truax seems like a very nice guy, but the Lions would likely win the team title without him, even given Shayne Van Ness’ season-ending injury. Maybe undefeated TRFR Josh Barr would go at 184, maybe Certified Stud Donovan Ball. Maybe either of them would get a few team points at Nationals, or maybe they’d get none. A goose egg at 184 this year probably wouldn’t be enough for Missouri, Oklahoma State or Iowa to close a presumed second-place gap with this otherwise juggernaut of a lineup.

But for Truax, a college graduate from California Polytechnic State University, who has placed 4th, 4th & 4th in his career at Nationals, he gets a graduate certificate in whatever he’s studying, a cash payment of whatever amount the Ira Lubert-led NIL collective has arranged for him, a year of training in one of the world’s deepest wrestling rooms, with some of the best coaches and partners, and a lineup spot for one last chance at a D1 National Championship. It’s probably a win-win for both parties, right? And probably a loss, in the form of inabsentia, for Cal Poly and all the other D1 programs.

Anyway, Bernie’s style and personality both seem to fit this year’s PSU team. He’s solid in neutral, dominating on top, and can usually get out from bottom. He lost the takedown battle to Trey Munoz in the Oregon State dual out in Corvallis, but otherwise has posted an unblemished record.

And Maryland’s Mielnik wasn’t much of a barrier to that. Truax’s Tech Fall or Pin Challenge wasn’t as strategically taxing as Starocci’s, but he also got it done. One takedown, two separate 4-point nearfalls and the score was 11-0. The next nearfall turn would have to end with a pin if he hoped to avoid the 15-0 Tech Fall, and it did. Win By Fall at 1:43.

Penn State 32, Maryland 6

197: #1 Aaron Brooks, PSU vs #5 Jaxon Smith, UMD

My hodgepodge crew for this dual included a few friends who had never been to a D1 wrestling meet before. As circumstance would have it, we were seated directly in front of and beside Aaron Brooks’ mother. I introduced myself early, and when Brooks’ match came up, I took great joy in leaning back to tell my buddy Scott: “this is one of our two 3x National Champs, and this is his mother you’re sitting beside.”

Jaxon Smith was a big recruiting win for Alex Clemsen at Maryland. He was a 2x Georgia State Champ ranked #8 at 182 in Flowrestling’s HS rankings and #72 in their pound-for-pound rankings (via UMD Wrestle), and they appear to be developing him well. He redshirted in 2022, made it to the R12 in 2023 and has ascended to #5 in Intermat’s rankings.

We were all curious: what would be the Terp’s strat against this Penn State great?

Turns out a good bit of hands to the face, to be honest.

Actually, I’m going to borrow Penn State Pat Donghia’s bout description here, because by this point in the dual, there was a fair bit of competitive tension and I found Pat’s words fun and kinda funny:

197: Senior+ Aaron Brooks, ranked No. 1 at 197, met No. 5 Jaxon Smith. The duo battled evenly for the opening minute, trading early barbs. Brooks turned a low single into a takedown and a 3-0 lead off a reset with 2:00 on the clock. After a Smith escape, Brooks continued to shoot Smith to edge of the mat, forcing a stall warning at the 1:10 mark. Brooks pressed Smith backwards, forcing him out of bounds again with :40 on the clock. Brooks nearly scored again as the period ended but Smith was able to flee out of bounds as the clock expired. Leading 3-1, Brooks chose down to start the second stanza and quickly escaped to a 4-1 lead. Brooks worked to break through Smith’s defense and picked up a second takedown at :32, pulling a fleeing Smith back onto the mat for a 7-1 lead. Smith escaped to a 7-2 score as the second period ended. Smith chose down to start the third period and escaped to a 7-3 score. Brooks continued to take shots and Smith continued to back away as the clock moved to the 1:25 mark. Smith took a slight shot at :55, but Brooks deftly countered for a takedown and a 10-4 lead after cutting Smith loose. Brooks finished off the dominant with a final takedown, finishing on top, for the 13-4 major decision.

“Forcing him out of bounds.”
“flee out of bounds”
“pulling a fleeing Smith back onto the mat”
“Brooks continued to take shots and Smith continued to back away”
“Smith took a slight shot”

That’s all kind of how we all felt watching, right?

If you’re Alex Clemsen or Smith or his family or any Marlyand fans, what are your takeaways? Like Amine and Travis Wittlake before him this season, this was Smith’s first loss by Bonus Points in his young career. But he didn’t get teched or pinned, right? Is that a win? Clemsen seems like a guy who lands hard on the “there are no moral victories” take, so what did he actually say?:

“I’d like to see us have another opportunity or two where we get our hands locked on a leg and maybe clean up our defensive touch,” Clemsen said when asked about Smith’s performance. “But those are things we can work on because we saw Jaxon fight very hard.”

Pretty fair, right?

I mean, we all know wrestling is hard, crazy hard. The athletes at this level can probably safely assert that we fans have no real idea exactly how hard. And returning 3x Champs don’t grow on trees. Smith did hold Brooks to his lowest takedown total this year (4, tied with Hoftra’s Nikolas Miller, whom Brooks pinned in 4:22).

He’s now lost to #1 Brooks (SR), 5-2; to #3 Trent Hidlay (SR), 5-2; and to #9 Stephen Little (FR) of Little Rock, 7-3.

He has identical 8-2 wins over #6 Tanner Sloan of SDSU and #15 Mac Stout of Pitt. And he has a nice chance to further showcase his skills against Rutgers’ #12 John Pozanski in an upcoming dual. Others ahead of him in the rankings are #2 Stephen Buchanan (SR, OU), #4 Michael Beard (JR, Lehigh).

Although we didn’t get a chance to see his neutral offensive prowess or his great top wrestling (b/c: Brooks), he did earn an escape toward the end of the second period, when it would have behooved Brooks to finish the ride.

All that is to say: Jaxon Smith’s ceiling remains quite high. Don’t be surprised to see this rematch in the Big Ten finals in a few weeks.

Penn State 36, Maryland 6

285: #1 Greg Kerkvliet, PSU vs Jordan Gabriel, UMD

Another lineup decision by Coach Clemsen saw Kerkvliet facing 0-6 Senior Gabriel, instead of #25 former Nittany Lion Seth Nevills. This one’s fairly understandable, given Nevills’ experience in the PSU room, where he presumably knows exactly where he stands against Kerk.

Fairness dictates that we should also give credit to Clemsen here for eschewing a forfeit in favor of competing a backup.

The scoring result was the same: a first-period fall, in :55 seconds, resulting in 6 team points to PSU (same as a Forfeit would have), but the decision also provided Penn State’s Kerk with another countable match, and he is now eligible for ranking in the next Coaches’ Poll.

Penn State 42, Maryland 6

Handshake Line: Alex Clemsen, UMD, vs Cael Sanderson & Casey Cunningham, PSU

So this was weird:

The BSDWrestle friends were on the other side of the gym from this camera angle, and were making plans for a group selfie, but I told my buddy to hang on a second. In the interviews I’ve seen with him since taking over the Terps squad in 2019, Clemsen has exuded a grumpy demeanor, and I was curious to see if he would travel the handshake line uneventfully or not.

Haha, definitely not.

If we have any lip readers here, I’d love to read your guesses on the first words he delivered to Cael. In this clip, Cael travels out of the frame, but from across the room we could see him double-back, totally surprised, like: “what?” When Clemsen kept up his lip, then to Coach Casey, Cael turned back away and continued on.

To Casey, it’s clear Clemsen said: “no, you DON’T have to pin,” which is of course is the existential question we are unpacking here today.

Executive Summary

Box Score, PSU over UMD, 42-6
Box Score, PSU over UMD, 42-6

Wrestling with 7 of its 8 Top-5-ranked wrestlers, Penn State won 8 of 10 bouts, all via Bonus. This leaves Lehigh as the only team to win more than two bouts against Penn State this year.

Two of the Nittany Lions’ 4 pins were mat-slapped in under a minute, while the other two saw multiple bout points scored before the finally-merciful end. Add in the two 15-0 Technical Falls and the two double-digit Major Decisions, and the bout points ledger shows Penn State with 96 and Maryland with 24. The Terrapins scored one more bout point than Indiana and one less than Michigan.

Asterisks abound here in this category, as Bout Points in matches that end in pin are hardly ever calculated by most aggregators, but I find them fun and because we have such a robust and active community here at BSDWrestle, the crowd-sourced data is usually available. Across the 7 duals so far this season, Penn State has averaged 106.3 bout points, to opponents’ average 34.3.

Braxton Brown & Ethan Miller earned the Terrapins’ three takedowns, which put them in 4th place for PSU opponents in this year’s duals, just behind Lehigh (11), Hofstra (6) and Oregon State (5), and just ahead of Michigan (2), Michigan State (2) and Indiana (0).

I don’t have any idea who or what Gaming With Power is, but they’ve got the full dual meet on their youtube channel, for the time being:

The Takery

Alex Clemsen has a self-described chip on his shoulder. When he was hired in this role in April of 2019, he talked at length about himself and his first Head Coaching gig. Some samples:

“From the personal standpoint, I do have a chip on my shoulder. It has nothing to do with I wasn’t Maryland’s first choice, but the fact that it took me 12 years to become a head coach—that definitely fuels me.”

“I think the thing that changed was that I was accepting being over-ruled less & less”

“Now, it’s my vision that gets to be expressed”

“It’s an opportunity to really show people that I’ve got an ability to compete at the highest level.”

“One of my first days on the job was actually at the Big Ten Head Coaches meeting. It’s an intimidating room, alright, but at the same time, it’s a room I feel I belong in.”

I’ve never met the guy, but you can get a sense of his personality quite quickly by watching him in almost any interview. This is the first one I’d watched of his, back last semester when Braxton Brown first moved from 125 to 133. It’s Intermat $ Premium on Rokfin, but this is the exchange—with the Maryland beat writers who are tasked with covering him on the regular:

Reporter: what happened with Braxton Brown weigh-in this morning, did you mean to—

Clemsen, interrupting & pointing over his shoulder at the mat: “he wrestled 133.”

Same Reporter: “and did you mean to start him—

Clemsen, interrupting, eyes still pointed to the floor: “he weighed in at a hundred and thirty three pounds.”

New Reporter: “so the big question for that: is that going forward or just for today”

Clemsen, grinning and making eye contact for the first time: “he weighed in at a hundred and thirty three pounds.”

New Reporter: “ok, I guess that’s the answer.”

Clemsen: “he wouldn’t have weighed in at a hundred and thirty three pounds if I didn’t intend to wrestle him there.”

Later in the interview, 3 minutes or so after the initial question, Clemsen added, unprompted and unrelated to his immediately preceding comments: “I do believe in Braxton Brown; he’s just not a 125-pounder anymore,” while shaking his head and communicating kindly. Why he couldn’t have shared that at the beginning is unknown, but it was a definitive communication choice.

Here’s a link you can use with a Rokfin login to see other interviews with Clemsen; a bunch of them are free, and in all of them you can get a sense of his personal communication style.

So, given what (if anything) we’ve learned about the Maryland coach’s background and general modus operandi, where do you all land on his handshake line assertion to Coach Casey—that, “no you DON’T have to go for the pin?”

Before we get to your answers in the commentary community, let’s check in with Penn State’s head coach, who BSD’s Nathaniel Rasmussen captured answering questions outside the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex.

When asked: “can you fill us in on what happened at the end of the Maryland match there?”, Cael answered:

Not much.

I mean, that’s just I think things kind of got a little blown out of proportion. But yeah, just, you know, heat of the moment, kind of whatever. Not really that big of a deal.

When a mumbly, but smartly-crafted follow-up question was offered, Cael added:

Yeah, I think you just want to focus more on performance, more so than winning and losing, right? So if you have the ability to get a fall and you know, you want to get the fall and winning by two points is your best effort, then that’s great. Losing by six and your best effort, that’s fine. So, you know, I think focus on performance is a higher standard. And that’s kind of what we kind of think about more so than than the winning and losing, because that’s, I think, a key, obviously, and trending in the right direction. And continuing to seek to improve. So I think our guys are doing that.

And about the matter at hand, in our cozy little blog today?

I think if if you have a chance to get a pin, you go get the pin.

You know, it’s a team sport. And and every point matters, you know, maybe not in a specific dual, but when you get to the Nationals or, you know, the Big Ten tournament, you know, every point matters.

Thanks, Coach!

Beau Bartlett also met with the media, bringing his patented charm to important topics like Super Smash Bros, and mid-season mindset.

Next Up: Ohio State 6:30pm EST Friday, 2/2, Rec Hall, Big Ten Network, LionVision Audio

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