UNIVERSITY PARK — The busted lips, cuts on the bridges of noses and bruises that usually outline the eyes of Penn State wrestlers have healed.
Soon, their bright faces, alive with smiles before their Tuesday practice as they anticipated the upcoming postseason, will likely be marred again. For now, the Nittany Lions are feeling fresh and looking the part.
Inside Penn State’s Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, the usually clean-shaven David Taylor was the only exception. A noticeable five o’clock shadow had begun to form on his jawline providing a look more fitting of his resume — one of a grizzled veteran looking to lead his team to a third consecutive Big Ten championship.
And as in years’ past, Taylor, his teammates and Penn State coaches feel comfortable with the Nittany Lions’ approach to the final, grueling leg of the season.
“Our guys are fresh and they believe that they’re going to wrestle well,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “That’s the key. I think they’ve been here enough to know that our guys have the chance to be their best in the postseason.”
The two-time defending Big Ten and NCAA champion Nittany Lions have had an easy go at it recently. They’ll head into action in Champaign having wrestled two duals over the past three weeks. Penn State wasn’t exactly tested in 48-0 and 34-0 wins over Rider and Rutgers, respectively.
Taylor, one of three No. 1 seeds Penn State will send to the mats when the tournament starts on Saturday, isn’t exactly concerned that the last two teams to beat Penn State in dual meets — Minnesota and Iowa, which will both send two No. 1 seeds each into action at Big Tens — have wrestled tougher slates recently.
Both Iowa and Minnesota took part in the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals two weeks ago.
“It’s not really that big of a deal,” Taylor said. “People put a lot more emphasis on it than there needs to be.”
It might be different next season, as Penn State is tentatively scheduled to participate in the 2014 National Duals.
Taylor, the reigning Hodge Trophy winner, echoed Sanderson’s concerns that the National Duals need some tweaking. He hinted that having them earlier could be more beneficial to teams that use the weeks leading up to their respective conference tournaments to make slight adjustments and heal up.
“Any time you get the chance to compete against the best teams you’re thankful for that. You’re thankful for the competition,” Taylor said. “But it is difficult when you have the Big Tens and Nationals coming up and the preparation for these tournaments and the emotions that go into them, it’s hard to have the National Duals so close to it.”
Quentin Wright, who is in his last year of eligibility, won’t be around to compete should Penn State compete at the National Duals next season. But the former Bald Eagle Area standout said that he never had an issue with not wrestling top tier competition in the weeks leading up to Big Tens.
Last season, the Nittany Lions wrestled at Utah Valley and hosted Pittsburgh in the two weeks before the conference tournament.
“There are pros and cons with both, but for us, we’ve always felt great going into the Big Ten tournament,” Wright said. “So I don’t know how much different it’s going to be next year when those guys are at the national duals.”
Penn State not expected to challenge seedings
Although the Big Ten released its preseeds on Monday morning, the final brackets are not expected to be released until Friday.
By then, the seedings could change, but changes are dependent on a coach making an argument for why his wrestler’s seed should be higher than another’s.
Sanderson isn’t expected to demand any changes although he, and a majority of Big Ten coaches, would like to see a more defined criteria put in place for determining preseeds.
“We’ll definitely fight for our guys but you can’t expect anything to change at this point,” Sanderson said. “I’m not too worried about the seeds. You’ve got to go wrestle and make the most of the situation.”
Workout partners chosen
Penn State will take five workout partners along with its 10 starters to Champaign, Ill.
Along for the trip will be senior 149-pounder James English, junior 157-pounder James Vollrath, sophomore heavyweight Jon Gingrich, and freshmen Jimmy Gulibon (133) and James Frascella (174).
Sanderson said his aim, like always, is to have nearly every weight class covered with a suitable workout partner.
“Those guys that go are working. They’re in workout clothes the whole day,” Sanderson said. “They’re in the back. They’re not spectators. They’re back there helping and running errands and they’re warming up with Lawson or they’re warming up with Nico, it just depends on what the team needs.”
Nittany Lions won’t send coach to PIAAs
Sanderson said he believes the best recruiting tool is the success of his program.
Therefore, the Nittany Lions’ entire coaching staff will join the team in Champaign to help guide it toward another Big Ten title, as opposed to sending a recruiting detachment to Hershey where Pennsylvania’s top high school grapplers will take part in the PIAA tournaments.
“It’s more than a year-long process,” Sanderson said of recruiting. “There’s enough video and different means to get out and see kids.”
Three future Nittany Lions who have already signed letters of intent will be making their final PIAA appearances over the weekend, as Benton’s Zain Retherford (Class AA, 138 pounds), Chambersburg’s Garrett Hammond (Class AAA, 152 pounds) and Kiski Area’s Matt McCutcheon (Class AAA, 195 pounds) will all be in action in Hershey.