Wrestling on one of the best college teams in the nation has its perks — individual and team trophies, winning streaks and chances to make history — but it also has its challenges.
In Penn State’s case, it often means that a wrestler’s biggest competition is his own teammate.
When announcing the starting lineup for Sunday’s season-opening dual meet against Kent State at Penn State wrestling’s media availability on Tuesday, head coach Cael Sanderson said that wrestle-offs still need to take place at 149 and heavyweight, and that sophomore Devin Schnupp will start at 125 while highly touted true freshmen Gavin Teasdale and Brody Teske retain their redshirts.
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Of all the wrestlers on the team, senior Shakur Rasheed probably has the best idea of how it feels to have to scrap constantly just to earn a starting spot — and then to keep it.
“We have a lot of fun in here, but when it comes to getting out there and getting that shine and being able to show everybody what you got, it’s a battle,” Rasheed said. “Just to be in that lineup, you got to be grateful.”
Until his senior year, Rasheed had been in a lineup battle every season.
It started his freshman year, when Rasheed was locked in a battle with Geno Morelli at 165 pounds. The next year, they duked it out at 174. Last season, Rasheed and Anthony Cassar rotated starting roles every other match for the later part of the season, until Rasheed finally got the nod for the postseason.
Now that Rasheed is firmly at 184 pounds — and Cassar up at heavyweight — the All-American has some advice for his teammates — especially the younger ones — still fighting to establish their roles in the lineup.
“You just got to be ready to scrap it out, even with your own teammate, and don’t let that hurt your relationship with your teammate. Continue to strive and build a relationship with them,” he said.
To replace one of the program’s all-time greats in Zain Retherford at 149, wrestling fans first will see Pennsylvania state and Cadet World champ Jarod Verkleeren.
Meanwhile, 2018 Junior Worlds bronze medalist and two-time Minnesota state champ Brady Berge is working on a “decent plan” to cut weight in a healthy manner. Berge told reporters Tuesday that he’s weighing a little bit over 70 kilograms right now, which is equal to 154 pounds.
“You want to do it right, mainly because you want to feel good when you go wrestle,” he said. “I don’t want to cut weight then go out and not perform the way I want to perform. Otherwise, why am I doing it? So yeah, I want to do it right and I want to be ready to go.”
Sanderson said fans can first see Berge compete in a blue and white singlet at the Keystone Classic on Nov. 18 in Philadelphia.
Either way, the Nittany Lions have a solid pair, among others, to choose from at 149, and once 157-pound senior Jason Nolf graduates, the plan is to see them both, Berge said.
Even though he got the initial nod, Verkleeren knows that in a wrestling room like Penn State’s, nothing is a given.
“I just have to be ready constantly. At every tournament, I’m going to have to be ready,” he said. “I know there’s guys competing for the sport here, even in the practice room, so I’m going to have to be ready all year. I’ll have to bring my A-game to every match.”
Those practice room battles and wrestle-offs, according to Rasheed, are oftentimes more challenging than wrestling outside opponents in tournaments or duals.
“When you’re out there, you’re already out there, you’re already doing it. You should be so grateful that you get to be around all these loving fans and people who really admire the sport,” he said. “Whereas in here, you’re like, ‘If I lose this, I’m not going to be able to do that.’ So I think there is more pressure when you have a wrestle-off and both guys are pretty evenly matched.”
For Teske, knowing that he’d have fellow true freshmen Teasdale and Roman Bravo-Young, who Sanderson confirmed will be starting at 133 on Sunday, to compete with and against is one of the reasons he chose to come to Penn State.
“Having good partners around you is going to push you and motivate you and grow you in every area of your life,” he said.
Teasdale was not available for comment on Tuesday.
“We have a lot of guys that compete for spots because they want to wrestle, and whatever sorts itself out, the opposition is the one that’s always there for them, helping them out with whatever they need,” junior and 2017 national champ Mark Hall said.
Rasheed said that it was those years of battling through adversity for a starting spot — especially with Cassar, who he considers one of his best friends, last season — that have made him a better wrestler.
“You have to literally compete with your own guy just to compete with the real competition,” he said. “You have two different competitions you have to get through: Your own teammate, which is like, dang, that’s my friend, and then you have the actual competition. It’s hard, but that’s what you got when you come here.”
As for Rasheed’s friend Cassar, the battle is not yet over. The senior bulked up to heavyweight after two-time national champ Bo Nickal decided to bump up to 197, and now has to compete with two-time All-American Nick Nevills.
“Anthony Cassar is one of the toughest guys I know. He’s incredible. He’s going to have a good year,” junior and two-time national champ at 165 pounds Vincenzo Joseph said. “Him and Nevills are going to be battling it out, and I honestly believe they are the two best heavyweights in the country. So whatever happens, we’re going to have a really tough guy at that spot.”