Monday marked the first official day of the collegiate wrestling season.
On Friday, Penn State fans were able to meet the defending NCAA champions inside Rec Hall for the first time this year at the second annual kickoff event.
The event started with Nittany Lion wrestlers being announced. The big names were there: Zain Retherford, Bo Nickal, Jason Nolf and Matt McCutcheon. There were also new members Nick Suriano and Mark Hall. Some staples of the program like Jordan Conaway, Morgan McIntosh, David Taylor and Matt Brown were there too.
One name jumped out above them all.
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Yes, the same guy who filled in for Penn State last year at heavyweight as he redshirted for the football program.
“He came back on his own,” Nittany Lions coach Cael Sanderson said. “We stayed in touch with him and communicated with him. We’re obviously excited to see him here. Unfortunately, he’s going to be out for a while with his leg but he’s got a lot of potential.”
The sophomore made a return to the football field and even saw some action for Penn State for the first time in about two years. It came in the game against Michigan due to the Nittany Lions’ linebacking corps being depleted by injury. It was quickly taken away from him as he got injured. After the game, coach James Franklin ruled Johnson out for the year.
“It sucked that it was short lived. You can’t do anything about it; you just have to look forward,” Johnson said of the injury and returning to the wrestling squad. “I wasn’t sure. Coach Cael said that ‘we’d love to have you back and have you be a part of this team.’ That’s an opportunity you can’t turn down.”
Making it better
Last year marked the first time Penn State put on the kickoff event for the season.
Fans were able to come out for an evening to just watch the opening practice or get a meal and enjoy the show. Wrestlers took part in practice on three mats spread across the middle of the Rec Hall floor.
This year the event was more like a program instead of just a practice. As the wrestlers were announced, they came out to a fog machine pumping.
“That’s the first thing you need, right,” Sanderson said of the fog machine, “when you are having a season kickoff. People didn’t know who was who so we tried to change that. It’s less about showing everyone a hard, intense practice and have a little bit more fun and squeeze in a practice.”
Each wrestler had is name on the back of his shirt to identify himself to help fans. There was a silent auction with items ranging from lunch with Taylor or Frank Molinaro to autographed wrestling shoes, pictures or a singlet and even an transportation and hotel stay for the NCAA Championships in St. Louis.
During the practice, the voice of the Nittany Lions, Jeff Byers, interviewed the likes of Olympians Molinaro and Franklin Gomez and assistant coach Casey Cunningham.
“I think it’s just a way for Cael to give back to the community for all the times they are supporting him,” former Penn State wrestler Dave Becker said. “It’s really nice for the fans and families to get an up close look behind the program like the assistant coaches, grad assistants and guys who are training with the freestyle club. It’s a really nice touch.”
Current Nittany Lion Vincenzo Joseph had nothing but high praise for the event. He felt it sums up Penn State as a whole.
“Last year was an incredible event too, but this is just amazing,” Joseph said. “A bunch of fans in the crowd a month before our first dual meet its pretty incredible and there is nowhere else like it. It just says a lot about Penn State Athletics as a whole and how amazing our fan base is. It’s just a great environment to be in.”
Jake Varner made it to the top of the mountain for the sport of wrestling when he won a gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012.
Varner has trained with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club for six years. When Molinaro decided to focus more on the USA Wrestling team after qualifying for the 65-kilogram spot, it opened up a spot on Penn State’s coaching staff.
Sanderson asked Varner to take that spot and he didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do,” Varner said. “I want to be coach but I’m not sure I’m done competing yet. My focus is on coaching and helping these guys accomplish their goals. It’s a different side of wrestling and sports being in the coaching role.”