UNIVERSITY PARK — Zack Beitz isn’t sure how much longer he’ll have this opportunity but he’s determined to make the most of it.
Beitz, a redshirt freshman, has ascended through the ranks to seize Penn State’s starting spot at 149 pounds. He’ll likely wrestle his fourth and fifth-straight dual meet bouts when No. 1 Penn State travels north this weekend for duals against Michigan State (5-8, 0-5) and No. 11 Michigan (8-2, 4-0).
“I’ve been training for this so this is right where I want to be and I’m excited to be here and have this opportunity,” Beitz said.
After usual starter Andrew Alton began the year on the shelf following offseason shoulder surgery, Beitz has been the team’s go-to 149-pounder for most of the season. He’s wrestled all but three duals for the Nittany Lions and is willing to keep handling 149-pound duties for as long as Alton is out.
Alton, who had shoulder surgery in June, wrestled in just one dual earlier this season. While Alton was able to beat Purdue’s Brandon Nelsen, Alton tweaked his other shoulder in the process. He’s wrestled just four bouts since, all of them coming at the Floyd “Shorty” Hitchcock Open on Jan. 19.
Penn State Associate Head Coach Cody Sanderson couldn’t say for sure when Alton will return to the lineup.
“We’ve been able to test him a little bit harder in practice the last couple of weeks,” Sanderson said. “I feel like he’s made some significant progress since you saw him last time out in the dual meet. If we can get a few more days like that out of him I think there’s a much better chance you’ll see him wrestling again.”
Still, Sanderson said no final decision on Alton’s status has been made. Penn State coach Cael Sanderson has described the 149-pound weight class as one that is open for Penn State currently with Beitz, Alton and sixth-year senior James English all vying for mat time.
Penn State has not had an All-American at 149 pounds since Frank Molinaro won the NCAA title at the weight during the 2011-12 season.
Beitz is hoping he can be the wrestler to change that. He recently replaced Alton in the Intermat rankings, debuting at No. 15 this week.
“We knew he was tough coming in,” Cody Sanderson said. “He’s a scrappy guy. He works very hard but he’s really been able to convert that and turn it into scoring opportunities for him. Coming into the season I knew that he could be competitive with some of the best guys in the country right away. I just didn’t know at what point he was going to be able to convert and get those wins. But he’s done an excellent job.”
During his redshirt season last year Beitz made a habit of keeping matches close. He went 6-2 in bouts decided by two points or less and has continued that trend against much tougher competition this season.
While Beitz’s record in bouts decided by two points or less is actually worse this season at 5-6, he’s stayed in matches with much more experienced wrestlers. Five of those matches have come against highly ranked grapplers as Beitz is 2-3 against Top 25 opponents.
Meanwhile, he’s lost by narrow margins to No. 6 Chris Villalonga (Cornell), No. 4 Jason Tsirtsis (Northwestern) and No. 10 Mitch Minotti (Lehigh).
Beitz used his recent match against Tsirtsis — who smoked him 13-4 in the 2012 Dapper Dan Classic, 13-4 — as proof. Just over a week ago Tsirtsis escaped with a win when he forced a bout with Beitz into sudden victory with a long third-period ride. Tsirtsis connected for the winning takedown in the sudden victory period to post a 5-3 win.
“I think that’s a good indicator,” Beitz said. “We have the best coaches so they’re always helping me improve and keep working.”
When Beitz arrived on campus after a stellar career at Juniata that saw him run off four-straight Top 5 finishes in the PIAA tournament and cap his career with a state title as a senior, he was in for a rude awakening.
His older brother, Seth, was already on the Penn State team and the younger Beitz had a few growing pains to get through.
“I remember that whole first five months or something you get here and you just get beat up,” Beitz said. “You go back to the dorm room with your head down a little bit but the important thing is you just keep coming back and keep trying. Because I know when I first came here the college wrestlers just felt so much stronger and everything like that. Then you start getting on in the program and it takes care of itself.”
Beitz had his brother to help ease his transition, too. But as Cody Sanderson put it, Seth Beitz didn’t always take it easy on his little brother.
“Seth is a guy that comes in here and he gets after guys every single time he wrestles,” Cody Sanderson said. “He’s the kind of guy that likes to break guys in the practice room and competition and the day that Zack got here Seth attacked him the exact same way, trying to make him tougher and preparing him to get out there in that environment. At the same time though he’s there to build him up, help him out. If something’s not going well he’s the guy that Zack can go to for that support.”
English, one of the most respected wrestlers on the team, was also a big help for the younger Beitz.
“He’s a battler on the mat and he’s a tremendous mentor, helping me out and is a great guy to look up to,” Beitz said. “He’s been here, in the program for a long time so he knows what’s going on, how to prepare, how to do certain things.”
Beitz has learned to use his length as leverage and has improved his overall grip strength with a redshirt year under his belt.
So far, his teammates have seen that and are looking forward to seeing what else Beitz can do. Junior Matt Brown was in a similar situation two years ago when he filled in at a number of weight classes before taking over a full-time starting spot and the postseason berths that came with it last season.
Beitz may not have to wait as long as Brown did.
“It’s exciting to watch him,” Brown said. “I like his attitude in the room and also on competition day. He’s fun to watch and I think that’s exactly what you need as you go down the stretch.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.