After a relatively slow schedule to start the year, the Penn State wrestling team will launch into its Big Ten season at 2 p.m. Sunday against Indiana at Rec Hall.
In the past 30 days, the No. 1 Nittany Lions have had just one dual meet thanks to Thanksgiving break, final exams and NCAA volleyball taking over Rec Hall.
That pace will change dramatically once January hits.
The Nittany Lions will travel to Chatanooga, Tenn., on Jan. 1-2 for the Southern Scuffle, then round out the month with six dual meets — four on the road.
“We want to compete, it just didn’t work out for us,” coach Cael Sanderson said, noting the Hoosiers’ visit had to be pushed back a week to accommodate volleyball. “But we’re ready to compete. We want to compete a couple times a week and we’re looking forward to that stretch.”
“That stretch” includes six ranked opponents in a month.
“We want to be the best we can be, and the Big Ten’s always extremely competitive — and this year’s no exception,” he said. “It’s as competitive as it’s ever been. A lot of teams plan on winning, and that’s what makes it fun.”
While the quantity of competition over the last month was low, it wasn’t lacking in quality, with the Nittany Lions edging No. 5 Lehigh on the road Dec. 3 by, according to Sanderson, “the skin of their teeth.”
Down two starters, Penn State erased a 15-point deficit to take the lead for the first time with Anthony Cassar’s decision at 197 pounds, and secured the win with Nick Nevills’ third-period ride out and win at heavyweight.
Sanderson said the Lehigh dual was a good test for his team, as a couple Nittany Lions — Mark Hall and Bo Nickal — could end up seeing their opponents again at the NCAA tournament in March.
Since that dual, Sanderson said his team has gone back to the basics to prepare for Indiana and the Big Ten.
“We’re just trying to have great practices every day, and we’re trying to improve individually and as a team,” he said. “There’s always fundamentals. That’s what we’re working on. Individuals are going to do the specific things they need to do, and overall, things don’t really change. The fundamentals of the sport are the same — and the fundamentals win.”
One individual performance to watch Sunday is the 141-pound bout between Penn State’s Jered Cortez and Indiana’s No. 12-ranked Cole Weaver, the Hoosiers’ lone ranked grappler.
Cortez dropped what was a crucial bout — for him individually and for the team — against Lehigh redshirt freshman Luke Karam on Dec. 3.
The junior will get a shot a redemption at Rec Hall against Weaver, who dropped an 8-2 decision to Ohio State’s Joey McKenna, a Stanford transfer, on Dec. 10.
Entering the second part of the year, Nittany Lions who’ve encountered some bumps along the road — like Cortez — will get a chance to show they are able to take those losses, make adjustments and translate it into late-season success.
When asked during practice Tuesday who he thought would be the most improved wrestler this year, Sanderson said he couldn’t answer yet.
“Whether or not you improved in practice doesn’t matter, what’s important is whether you’re willing to make those changes and step up when it does matter. We’ll find out as we head into this weekend and the Scuffle, and every week after that,” he said. “I’m excited to find out, just like everybody else.”
One wrestler whose improvement stands out is sophomore Cassar. After being plagued by injuries for the past two years, the Rocky Hill, N.J., native won the starting spot at 195 this year over senior and two-time NCAA qualifier Matt McCutcheon. He went on to win seven of his past eight bouts, including tilts with then No. 4-ranked McCutcheon and then-No. 12-ranked Frank Mattice, of Penn, for the Keystone Classic title.
With sweat dripping off his face at Tuesday’s practice, Cassar said although his personal expectations are high, his Big Ten debut Sunday will be just “another match.”
“I take it match by match — Indiana, then the Scuffle, then just go from there,” he said. “I just continue to do what I do in here, working hard, then get out there and show the work I put in.”
After Sunday, Penn State will take yet another break before the Southern Scuffle on New Year’s Day.
Cassar, along with the rest of the Nittany Lions’ regular starters — Devin Schnupp, Corey Keener, Cortez, Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf, Vincenzo Joseph, Hall, Nickal and Nevills — have been entered in the annual tournament, according to Flowrestling. Any Nittany Lions who might be wrestling unattached have not yet been announced.
Indiana (6-2, 0-1 Big Ten) at No. 1 Penn State (4-0, 0-0)
When: 2 p.m., Sunday
Where: Rec Hall
TV: Big Ten Network (55)
Radio: WRSC 1390
125: Devin Schnupp (1-6)
Elijah Oliver (13-6)
133: No. 18 Corey Keener (5-0)
Garrett Pepple (9-8)
141: Jered Cortez (7-1)
No. 12 Cole Weaver (14-3)
149: No. 1 Zain Retherford (8-0)
Davey Tunon (9-8)
157: No. 1 Jason Nolf (8-0)
Jake Danishek (6-1)
165: No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph (3-0)
Bryce Martin (12-5)
174: No. 2 Mark Hall (9-0)
Devin Skatzka (12-2)
184: No. 1 Bo Nickal (8-0)
Norman Conley (10-8)
197: No. 9 Anthony Cassar (7-1)
OR Matt McCutcheon (4-2)
Jake Kleimola (0-3)
OR Spencer Irick(2-5)
HWT: No. 3 Nick Nevills (9-0)
Fletcher Miller (9-3)