UNIVERSITY PARK — Another season of Penn State wrestling begins tonight. Another national championship banner will be raised in front of another sold out Rec Hall crowd.
And although the No. 2 Nittany Lions will embark on their third-consecutive quest toward NCAA superiority by welcoming No. 21 Lehigh to the Rec Hall mat, float the word dynasty around coach Cael Sanderson and the head of the Penn State program simply brushes it off.
“We’ll take it one year at a time,” Sanderson said. “We’re very blessed with the team that we have this year and we just want to get the most out of this team and these guys and help them get the most out of their careers.”
So far, the Nittany Lions have been pretty efficient at that.
The Mountain Hawks will likely face five returning All-Americans in sophomore Nico Megaludis at 125 pounds, sophomore Dylan Alton at 157, junior David Taylor at 165, junior Ed Ruth at 184 and senior Quentin Wright at 197.
Taylor, Ruth and Wright all have individual national title wins on their resumes. Megaludis and Alton finished second and third at their weights last season, respectively.
Throw in senior Brian Pearsall at 141, sophomore Andrew Alton at 149 and sophomore Matt Brown at 174 — the trio combined to go 72-24 in their last seasons of action — and the Penn State lineup boasts more firepower that just about any other team in the country.
“Dynasty? That’s a powerful word,” Ruth said. “Dynasty. Yeah, I kind of feel like we’re really building something here. We’re still at the foundation of it and I don’t want to say that this dynasty ends with the guys that are here right now. I feel like even the guys that we still have coming in, I feel like it’s going to continue on with these guys.”
Those new faces Ruth spoke of will make their dual-meet debuts in Rec Hall tonight.
Sophomore 133-pounder Jordan Conaway, a former PIAA champion, will take over the spot held by Frank Martellotti and Derek Reber last season, and either sophomores Jon Gingrich or Jimmy Lawson will wrestle at heavyweight.
“Those are guys that have been in the room for a couple of years, they’re doing the right things and they’re progressing,” Taylor said of the team’s newcomers. “You step on the mat in a Penn State singlet, there are expectations. You’ve got to go out and wrestle hard. That’s pretty self-explanatory.”
Penn State fans could see the return of fifth-year senior James English, who hasn’t wrestled in a dual inside Rec Hall since Nov. 21, 2010. English will likely sub in for Andrew Alton, who has been slowed by a lower body ailment. Sanderson said Tuesday he will wait until right before the dual to rule Alton out.
Sanderson, meanwhile, isn’t counting out the Mountain Hawks.
Lehigh is the highest ranked team by the USA Today/NWCA/AWN Division I Coaches Poll that Penn State will face at home until No. 9 Nebraska on Jan. 27. While the Lions hold a two-dual win streak over their in-state rivals, Lehigh posted the second most points against Penn State last season after Minnesota, and the third most after Iowa and the Golden Gophers two seasons ago.
Penn State beat Lehigh 24-12 last season and 21-17 in 2010.
Four ranked Mountain Hawks — No. 18 Shane Welsh (149), No. 13 Joey Napoli (157), No. 18 Nathaniel Brown (174) and No. 3 Robert Hamlin (184) — are expected to wrestle tonight. Joining them on the mat will be Alex Abreu at 125, Laike Gardner at 133, Anthony Salupo at 141, Eric Hess at 165, John Bolich at 197 and Jack Delia at 285.
“To start with Lehigh, that’s kind of a big deal. They’re a great team,” Sanderson said. “That’s one of our (program’s) biggest rivals and that’s why it’s sold out, standing room only is sold out.”