UNIVERSITY PARK — Jimmy Lawson surmised he hasn’t spent much time back home in New Jersey since late August. It’s been even longer since he’s stepped on a wrestling mat for a meaningful bout in his home state.
Come Sunday, Lawson will get a chance to compete in front of a familiar crowd, one he used to send into a frenzy with his high school wrestling escapades a few years back. The Penn State sophomore, from Manchester, New Jersey who won three state titles at Manchester High, is expected to anchor the Nittany Lion lineup when No. 3 Penn State (12-1, 7-1 Big Ten) battles Rutgers (15-3) at the RAC.
When fans from his home state see him in the blue Penn State wrestling singlet, Lawson may be hard to recognize. The last time Lawson competed in a meaningful sporting event in New Jersey, he was tipping scales at nearly 295 pounds and bowling over interior offensive linemen while playing football for Monmouth University.
“I’ll be smaller but I don’t think I’ve gotten any weaker,” Lawson said. “That’s the thing that matters. I’ve become a better wrestler.”
After spending the last two years at Monmouth, Lawson had a change of heart during his sophomore football season. Mostly, he missed wrestling. Once he was approved to transfer to Penn State where coach Cael Sanderson welcomed him, Lawson had to adapt his own brand of wrestling in an athletic year unlike any other he had ever been through.
With numerous logistical issues slowing down his transfer, Lawson didn’t arrive on the University Park campus until right before fall classes started. And when he did get to State College, Lawson was coming in as the new guy who hadn’t wrestled in nearly two years.
His stocky frame would need some chiseling and his wrestling technique would need some polishing.
“You want to think, ‘I could step right back in.’ But it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to put the time in, especially if you’re jumping to a new level,” Sanderson said. “He was a man among boys in high school. He was a great athlete, obviously and he’s got to learn how to win at this level now.”
The extra weight Lawson tacked on at Monmouth made him a valuable run-stuffer for the Hawks where he racked up 40 tackles, 11.5 for losses, and 4.5 sacks in two season. But that added girth was a liability on the wrestling mat. Lawson wasn’t as quick on his feet and his stamina waned early and often when he got in his first reps inside Penn State’s Lorenzo Wrestling Complex.
Meanwhile, Lawson found himself on the losing end of an early position battle with fellow sophomore Jon Gingrich. Lawson lost two of three wrestle-off matches with Gingrich — all were decided by late takedowns. Besides a ho-hum seventh-place finish at the Southern Scuffle, Lawson didn’t see much action through the middle portion of the season. But an illness that struck Gingrich shortly after the Iowa dual prevented him from wrestling and Lawson has since seized the heavyweight spot.
Lawson is 19-4 thus far but he has yet to display the dominant style that made him an eyebrow-raiser in high school. So far only five of his wins have come with bonus points.
“When he first came in he was rough, really raw,” Penn State senior Quentin Wright said. “And he’s starting to smooth things out, starting to figure things out. Whenever you take time off from wrestling, you’re going to be a little bit sloppy, a little bit rough, a little bit raw.”
But as Wright, who works with Lawson a lot in practice, said — coaches and teammates have gotten a glimpse of a wrestler now starting to turn the corner.
Lawson is down to a lean 260 pounds and said he feels the best he has all season. He’s 3-1 in his last four bouts with one of those wins coming by injury default and he’ll have a chance to go up against a solid opponent in Rutgers’ Billy Smith who is 28-5 on the season.
Decked out in a big sweatshirt and sweatpants, Lawson took about 10 minutes before his team’s practice on Tuesday to jump rope at a speedy clip. When he was finished, sweat dripped off his forehead as he smiled when asked about his conditioning.
“You’re trying to do as much as you can while you’re young so I’m trying to be a part of something great in high school, and in college (at Monmouth) there was something lacking,” Lawson said. “Here, you have everyone with the mentality of wanting to be a champion and that kind of motivates you. You feed off of it. Which is why I enjoy wrestling here.”
While he was at Monmouth, Lawson wrestled sparingly with the Shore Thing Wrestling Club. It was a club frequented by a familiar face to the Nittany Lions — Frank Molinaro, who they’ll face on the opposite side of the mat on Sunday.
Molinaro joined Rutgers coach Scott Goodale’s staff shortly after Molinaro won the NCAA title at 149 pounds for Penn State last season. Now the former four-time All-American for Penn State will try to help Rutgers beat the Nittany Lions for the first time in program history. Penn State owns a 16-0 advantage over Rutgers.
Although Molinaro was unable to be reached for this story, he told the Asbury Park Press that “Rutgers is my family now and Penn State is just another opponent.”
Sanderson follows Molinaro on Twitter and has been encouraged by his former pupil’s prowess as a coach for the Scarlet Knights.
“He’s motivating people every day. That’s just the kind of guy he is,” Sanderson said. “He’s a great leader. He’s very passionate. He’s competitor. He wants to win. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing racquetball or wrestling, he wants to win. He’ll do whatever he can to win. When you have wrestlers that have that work ethic and that passion, they’re going to do a great job coaching.”
Penn State wants to win, too. Wright, who was roommates with Molinaro during Wright’s first NCAA tournament appearance said he can’t wait to wrestle against a Molinaro-coached team.
“It’s awesome to see him there, to see him move on and start to do different things,” Wright said. “You’ve got to have a good attitude and the good days and bad, having the right attitude is what is going to get you through both and Frank’s had the right attitude since our freshman year together at nationals.”