UNIVERSITY PARK — Since he’s been coaching, Penn State’s Cael Sanderson has learned to go with the flow and adjust accordingly when unplanned off-mat incidents or unwelcome injuries occur.
They’ve happened in bunches this year for the nation’s top -ranked wrestling team, and Sanderson has had to be more flexible with his lineup than he ever has in the past.
All-in-all, the Nittany Lions have used 11 different lineup configurations in 13 dual meets that have been made up of 18 different wrestlers this season. Those numbers are up from a year ago when Penn State used just six different lineups with 15 wrestlers.
“We’ve got some guys that are ready to wrestle even if they’re not our starter,” Sanderson said. “And then you have 149, where we’ve been back and forth just trying to do the right thing and figure out which guy should be in the spot. So we’ve got a lot of guys wrestling which makes it fun.”
And the Nittany Lions (13-0, 7-0) haven’t stumbled much at all despite regular starters Ed Ruth (184), Andrew Alton (149), Dylan Alton (157) and Jimmy Lawson (285) all missing extended time this season.
Despite using four different lineups over the last four duals — Penn State has used the same lineup just three times, against Iowa, Indiana and Northwestern this season — Nittany Lion wrestlers have won 34 of a total 40 matches in that span. One of those losses was an injury default when Lawson was hurt against Northwestern.
Sanderson attributes his team’s success to depth. So far this season, wrestlers who were not pegged by Sanderson as starters before the season have gone 18-15 in duals. Jordan Conaway has gone 4-1 between 133 and 125 pounds while Wes Phipps has been equally helpful, going a combined 2-2 at 184 and 197 pounds.
James English and Zack Beitz have spelled Andrew Alton at 149 while James Frascella and Jon Gingrich have also been involved in duals this season.
“We do have especially a couple of weights where they’re back and forth and then generally we want to make sure that we’re healthy and happy and got to have positive thoughts there,” Sanderson said.
for more at 149
Penn State is running out of time to determine a postseason starter at 149 pounds.
With Andrew Alton on the shelf for the first half of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, Beitz has emerged as a legit threat to take over the spot. Beitz is 11-7 overall this season including a 5-3 mark in duals.
“Obviously we’re very comfortable and confident in Zack Beitz,” Sanderson said. “He has some great wins and enough to get him to the national tournament at this point. ... He’s just a young whippersnapper who’s ready to go. He’s getting better every match and conditioning isn’t a factor for him in his matches, he’s in great shape. So time is running out.”
Beitz took his team’s tour through Michigan off as Sanderson wanted to re-insert Alton into the lineup for duals against the Spartans and Wolverines. Alton started both of his matches with explosive moves but quickly flamed out as those bouts wore on.
Against Michigan State’s Nick Trimble, Alton went into the third period up 7-1 and looked to be on his way to a major decision with another takedown. But Alton cut Trimble loose and gave up a takedown before time expired and Alton won 9-5.
A frenetic match with Michigan’s No. 7 Eric Grajales was filled with action and stoppages for reviews. After a dominant first period in which Alton built an 8-2 lead, Grajales came back to wear the Nittany Lion junior out. With 10 seconds left, Grajales had pulled even 12-12 and then ran a gassed Alton to his back for an uncontested fall with four seconds left.
“I thought Andrew wrestled like a national champion in the first period and the first period and half and then something just kind of shut down in his brain. He wasn’t able to finish,” Sanderson said. “You’ve got to focus on the positives and you’ve got to see the potential in kids. Obviously that potential is there with him it’s just a matter of him coming along and getting his mind aligned with his body coming off of this injury.”
Sixteen days have passed since Jimmy Lawson suffered a knee injury that forced him out of a bout with Northwestern’s No. 4 Mike McMullan.
His recovery is going as planned and Lawson is expected to be available for the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, Sanderson said.
During the portion of the team’s practice open to reporters on Tuesday, Lawson was walking without much difficulty and was not wearing the brace he had been using a week ago.
“If we didn’t have Gingrich there ready to go we’d probably be trying to push him in there quickly,” Sanderson said. “He’s fine. We were talking, all the more time we give him, the better he’s going to be in March. That’s kind of where we’re at trying to figure out how long he’ll be out. I’m not in any hurry to rush him along.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.