As a fifth-year senior, one who’s become accustomed to the standard of excellence exhibited by the Penn State wrestling program over the past two seasons, James English knows what stepping onto the mat in a packed Rec Hall is all about.
It’d just been a while since he’d done it.
Nearly two years to the day when he last wrestled a dual match in front of Penn State fans, English stepped into Penn State’s lineup for an injured Andrew Alton and found immediate success. English, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, beat No. 18 Shane Welsh at 149 pounds to help key Penn State’s 29-6 season-opening win over the No. 21 Lehigh Mountain Hawks (1-1).
“It felt really good. I was a little nervous at first, but I think that’s a good thing,” English said. “I’m just really grateful that I can be back and wrestling again and to be back this year.”
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Second-ranked 125-pounder Nico Megaludis and David Taylor, ranked second at 165, added technical falls over Alex Abreu and Eric Hess, respectively and the defending national champions won all but two bouts over their in-state rivals. No. 4-ranked Matt Brown added a major decision win over No. 18 Nathaniel Brown at 174 to cap the Lions’ bonus-point victories.
Jordan Conaway and Bryan Pearsall notched come-from-behind victories at 133 and 141, Quentin Wright won his 197-pound debut 10-4 over freshman John Bolich, and No. 1 Ed Ruth survived a late offensive push from No. 3 Robert Hamlin to win the 184-pound bout 11-9.
But it was English who brought the 6,422 fans in Rec Hall to their feet with two takedowns of Welsh in the final 11 seconds of the bout to seal a 5-2 win.
“English has a great attitude,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “From Day 1, whether he’s hurt or he gets an opportunity to go out there and wrestle, he’s smiling. He wants to be there. That attitude is contagious. His work ethic is contagious. He’s always wanting it more.”
And English will get another chance to wrestle at 149 pounds for Penn State. Sanderson said after the dual with Lehigh that English will stay in the lineup for the team’s trip to Morgantown, W. Va, on Sunday.
Conaway thrilled in his Rec Hall debut, hooking up with childhood friend Laike Gardner in the evening’s 133-pound bout. Conaway trailed 1-0 heading into the third, but quickly escaped to tie it before locking up a single-leg on the lanky Gardner to post the 3-2 win.
“It was crazy. All the fans. A sold out crowd,” Conaway said. “I was grateful to get the opportunity to step out there in a Penn State singlet and just wrestle in that environment.”
Conaway will get Sunday off, as Sanderson revealed sophomores Nate Morgan and Jimmy Lawson will join in as starters for Sunday’s dual against West Virginia at 133 pounds and heavyweight, respectively.
Lawson will step in for sophomore Jon Gingrich, who lost his Rec Hall debut to Lehigh’s Jack Delia 5-3.
“We’re not in a rush (at 133 and heavyweight),” Sanderson said. “As a staff, we don’t like to keep rotating kids back and forth, but we also want to make sure our kids have a fair chance to make the team there.”
Ruth has more than a good chance of seeing Hamlin again.
“That could very easily be the national finals match,” Sanderson said.
In a bout that pitted two of the nations’ Top 3 184-pounders, Ruth was on the offensive early. The Penn State junior quickly built a 6-3 lead with three swift takedowns in the first period.
Ruth chose down to start the second after Hamlin deferred the choice to the third period. Ruth quickly escaped and scored another takedown, but Hamlin regrouped and fired off two takedowns of his own to cut Ruth’s lead to 11-8. Hamlin worked out for an escape to start the third but couldn’t take Ruth down to tie the bout.
“(Ruth)’s so good he can get a little sloppy and you can’t be sloppy with a guy like Robert Hamlin,” Sanderson said. “He’s going to make you pay for it because he’s very tough and he’s just good in all positions and he’s in great shape.”
Notes: Dylan Alton, ranked No. 2 at 157, lost to No. 13 Joey Napoli. Penn State won the takedown battle 28-6. English won the Ridge Riley Award for most outstanding wrestler in a home dual. The team unveiled its second straight national championship banner before the Star Spangled Banner was performed. Acting athletic director Dave Joyner was booed as he helped unveil the banner.