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Why Penn State’s ‘cheesin’ Nick Lee is feeling more confident this wrestling season

PSU’s Nick Lee gets win in dominant performance vs. Purdue

Penn State wrestler Nick Lee puts on a dominating performance against Purdue in his Rec Hall debut on Jan. 19.
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Penn State wrestler Nick Lee puts on a dominating performance against Purdue in his Rec Hall debut on Jan. 19.

Winning your sophomore debut with an impressive 18-2 technical fall in 3 minutes and 44 seconds is certainly something to smile about.

But according to his Penn State teammate Shakur Rasheed, wrestler Nick Lee doesn’t need a prolific offensive performance in front of a sold-out Rec Hall crowd to draw a smile across his face.

“The thing I love about him most, if I had to put a bet on who’s in a good mood today, who’s smiling ear to ear, just waking up, cheesin, it’s Nick Lee. The dude is always cheesin, I have no idea why,” Rasheed told reporters at practice on Tuesday. “I look up and am like, ‘What is funny, bro?’ and he’s just in a good mood. That’s the way he is, always happy, and I love that about him.”

With a year of college experience now under his belt, Lee said he’s feeling more comfortable — on and off the mat — and it shows, as he stood in Penn State’s wrestling room, joking with reporters.

“The first dual was a good start to the season, so just kind of keep it rolling,” he said. “Just having one year of experience I think helps a lot. I kind of knew what to expect going into the season. I didn’t start until midway through the season last year, so just kind of knowing what to expect.”

As for why he was wearing the giant, Spencer Lee-esque knee brace on Sunday: “To keep my knee warm.”

In going from a true freshman pulled out of his redshirt to an All-American coming off a fifth-place finish at the NCAA tournament in just a few short months, Lee is now the wrestler with the most Division I experience and success in the bottom half of Penn State’s lineup.

“I’m a lot more comfortable, especially with the experience I’ve had over the last year, but I guess we’ll see if it makes a difference,” Lee said. “I feel like I’m more experienced and in the room I feel a bit better, so we’ll see.”

With his increased comfort level, Lee said he’s able to be more relaxed and focused on the mat, knowing what to look for both from his opponent and from himself.

“Nick’s very consistent. He’s going to wrestle hard all the time. He’s going to use every second,” coach Cael Sanderson said. “It’s easy to coach a kid like Nick because you know he’s going to come to practice and every match with a smile on his face, and he doesn’t get discouraged in a match if something doesn’t go right.”

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Sanderson recalled last season’s NCAA tournament, when Lee got pinned by an opponent in the first round who he had beaten by major decision earlier in the year.

“It didn’t faze him; and he just battled right back and helped the team win the national title, so I think that alone speaks volumes to his character and his strength,” he said.

Sanderson also addressed Lee’s giant knee brace, saying Lee had “tweaked” his knee earlier in the season, but that the brace was precautionary and there shouldn’t be any concern.

“He thinks he looks strong and good in that, like a warrior or something, so we let him wear it,” he said.

Lee was excited Tuesday talking about the debuts of the two freshmen on either side of him in the lineup — Roman Bravo-Young and Jarod Verkleeren.

“I know my first duals were a little weird just coming into a team with a lot of guys you look up to as a younger guy on the team. It’s kind of weird sometimes wrestling in the same lineup as these guys, but Roman and Verk, they fit right in and they did awesome,” Lee said. “I was really excited for those guys, very talented. Those guys are pretty darn good.”

Although Lee said he likes to leave most of the leadership duties up to the likes of Bo Nickal, Jason Nolf and Vincenzo Joseph, he tries to lead by example both on the mat and in the practice room, and set a good standard for those younger guys on the team — whether it’s with wrestling, balancing athletics and academics, or just by his attitude.

“You just got to kind of do your own thing, what makes you feel good, and if guys can pick up anything from that, then that’s helpful to the whole team,” he said.

For Lee, doing his “own thing” often means showing off that grin — a smile Rasheed says is infectious and brightens up the mood among all the other wrestlers in the room.

“Nick Lee, you can definitely count on him. I mean, say his name and he’ll smile. That’s probably what he’s doing right now — smiling.”