A new year often brings new opportunities, making the Southern Scuffle a fitting way to start the year for the Penn State wrestling team.
The Nittany Lions will take 17 wrestlers to the annual two-day tournament in Chattanooga, Tenn. Another Two wrestlers — redshirt freshmen Nick Lee (141) and Jarod Verkleeren (149) — will enter the tournament unattached.
A number of those wrestlers more will be aiming to strengthen their case for a starting role, especially with an abundance of opportunity with nearly 50 ranked wrestlers set to compete Monday and Tuesday.
“The way we’ve done starting lineups generally is that the guy who competes the best gets the top competition. We’ll see that at the Scuffle,” assistant coach Cody Sanderson said Friday. “There’s always an opportunity for somebody to get in there and show us that they’re the guy who can be the man out there on the mat.”
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A couple weight classes that have the most potential for shakeups are 141 — between No. 15-ranked Jered Cortez and Lee — and 197, where Penn State entered No. 9 Anthony Cassar, along with senior Matt McCutcheon and junior Shakur Rasheed.
But most people will have their eyes on 141.
Head coach Cael Sanderson — who was away on a recruiting trip Friday — said at the beginning of the season that, to pull Lee’s redshirt, Lee would have to become the “clear-cut choice” as the best option.
Cortez is 8-1 on the season with a Keystone Classic title, a win over Indiana’s then-No. 12 Cole Weaver and with his lone loss coming against Lehigh’s No. 14 Luke Karam. Meanwhile, Lee has been building on his resume by entering tournaments this season unattached, including Lock Haven’s Mat-Town Open, which he won by going 4-0 with two pins, a tech and a major decision.
The two will compete in a Scuffle field led by No. 7 Josh Alber of Northern Iowa, Karam and CSU-Bakerfield’s Russell Rohlfing.
Other wrestlers not in Penn State’s typical starting lineup that will compete Monday include Dom Giannangeli (133), Bo Pipher (149), Francisco Bisono (174), Devon Van Cura (184) and Alex Nicholas at heavyweight.
The Nittany Lions were able to choose a maximum of 17 wrestlers to take with them to Chattanooga.
“We just go through and we look at the lineup — the guys that are competing, the guys that are doing things right in the wrestling room, the guys that are doing things right in the classroom — and we like this opportunity to give some of the guys who aren’t in the lineup in our dual meets the opportunity to compete,” Cody Sanderson said about how they chose who’d make the trip. “They take it seriously. Those guys get a chance, they prepare, they do everything they can to be the guy who gets the call.”
A guy who “got a chance last year” at last year’s Scuffle was then-freshman Mark Hall, who entered the tournament unattached.
Despite forgetting to pack a singlet, the Apple Valley, Minn., native made the most of his opportunity by going 5-0, racking up three bonus-point wins, beating three ranked wrestlers while unseeded for the 174-pound title and earning the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler title.
A few weeks later, the highly touted freshman had his redshirt pulled against Iowa at Carver Hawkeye Arena.
Hall said Friday that he thought his performance at last year’s Scuffle was more important for proving to him that he was ready for collegiate action than it did for the coaches.
“It showed me that I could compete right now,” he said. “The coaches were telling me that when they were recruiting me. So it was more-so a good confidence thing, just knowing that I could be there.”
As for this year, Hall said he’ll have a new focus — bonus points.
“I’m kind of at the top of the ladder this year,” the defending national champ said. “So it’s about having strong expectations for myself and competing like that.”
Although the Nittany Lions will have several wrestlers competing at identical weight classes, freshman Devin Schnupp was the lone entry at 125 pounds.
Schnupp will compete in a weight class likely led by defending national champ Darian Cruz of Lehigh and Oklahoma State’s unattached redshirt freshman Daton Fix.
In the face of lingering rumors about a new addition to the lineup at 125 next semester, Cody Sanderson dismissed the talk of a potential transfer — at least at this moment — by saying, “I’ll tell you that right now, we haven’t made an addition to our roster.”
Penn State wrestlers entered in the 2018 Southern Scuffle
Jan. 1-2 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
No. 17 Corey Keener
No. 15 Jered Cortez
No. Zain Retherford
No. Jason Nolf
No. 2 Mark Hall
No. 1 Bo Nickal
Devon Van Cura
No. 9 Anthony Cassar