Although it seems like it only just started, the college wrestling season is nearly halfway over — with Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal’s final Rec Hall dual only two months away.
With the Southern Scuffle and start of the Big Ten schedule on the horizon, the best is still yet to come for this season’s Nittany Lions. But at 4-0 and with a Keystone Classic crown, there has been plenty of action so far for Penn State with Mark Hall’s thrilling upset of No. 1 Zahid Valencia, true freshman Roman Bravo-Young’s acrobatics, and more.
Here are five things we learned from the first part of the 2018-19 season.
Rec Hall is magical
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This is old news, but the power wrestling in Rec Hall has for the home team cannot be understated.
Competing on the mat with 6,400-plus fans seemingly right on top of you, screaming loud enough to leave your ears ringing, is enough to knock even national champions off their game.
Arizona State coach Zeke Jones said as much after his Arizona State team was dismantled 41-3 in the Lions’ den on Dec. 14.
“First off, that is a tremendous place to wrestle,” Jones said of the atmosphere. “I think our guys got a nice education on what it’s like to come into a really hostile environment with guys that want to fight hard. Maybe the guys let that creep in too much, I don’t know.”
We saw it that evening, when Valencia, one of the most prolific offensive wrestlers, only got one real shot off on Hall, and was ridden out for an entire period. We saw it in the battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2 last season with Ohio State, when its three national champs failed to come up with the big points the Buckeyes needed to put away the dual. We saw it in 2013, when true freshman Zain Retherford upset then-two-time champ Logan Stieber, bringing the noise level so loud that it shook the championship banners in the rafters.
“You’re wrestling in a hostile environment. You’ve got to know that it’s a fight. You are fighting a lot of factors. In reality, it’s two arms, two legs and one head,” Jones said. “You’re wrestling out there. You’re not wrestling anything else. You’ve got to withstand or block out or use them to your advantage — external factors.”
The Nittany Lions will be put to the test later this season, when they’ll face two of their toughest tests away from Rec Hall — Michigan in the Bryce Jordan Center and Ohio State on the road.
But as Hall was quick to point out after his win over Valencia, yes — the crowd helps, but it’s the wrestler’s effort that truly determines win and losses. But there is certainly something special about Rec Hall.
We’ll leave you with the words of freshman Jarod Verkleeren after his Rec Hall debut: “I thought it would be electric, and it was.”
Peer pressure is good at Penn State
With six pins so far this season, Vincenzo Joseph is just one away from tying his total falls from his past two seasons at Penn State.
Why is the junior pinning more than ever this season? His answer: Peer pressure.
“Everyone on the team, guys get pins a lot, and it just inspires you, kind of amps you up a little bit like ‘Oh, man, I want to do that,’” he said ahead of the Arizona State match.
Hall also echoed that sentiment earlier in the season, saying he uses his teammates’ results as motivation to score more points and get quicker pins.
So far, the “peer pressure” has been paying off, with five starters — Joseph, Nick Lee, Nickal, Nolf and Shakur Rasheed — having gotten bonus points in every match they’ve wrestled so far this year. Penn State’s starters, including Verkleeren, have also racked up 33 falls so far this season. Nolf and Joseph lead that group with six apiece.
In duals, Penn State’s starters are 37-3 in individual bouts.
In FloWrestling’s initial Hodge projections, released Dec. 4, Penn State had three wrestlers in the top 10 in Nickal, Nolf and Joseph.
Sanderson’s reaction to hearing that his wrestlers made up 30 percent of that list was, “I think we have a few other guys in the room who believe they should be on that list, as well.”
With his loss to Hall, Valencia will likely drop from the list, leaving room for at least one other wrestler in the next projections. And if three Penn State guys are there already, you can bet that “peer pressure” will encourage more to want to add their names, as well.
Cassar, Bravo-Young are the early-season surprises
With four past national champions and seven All-Americans returning to the squad, it was widely believed that this season’s Penn State team was going to be one of the best — but it’s been the early emergence of guys like Cassar and Bravo-Young who have taken this team to an even higher level.
Still early in the season, we want to be careful about raising the hype too high about either, but from what we’ve seen so far — even against lesser opponents — both are going to cause major problems for their opponents, and will be scoring a lot of points when it comes to NCAAs.
Coming from Arizona, which doesn’t have as much competition as states like Pennsylvania, and without much folkstyle experience against college competition — there were some questions nationally about how the undefeated, four-time state champ Bravo-Young would translate his skills on the college scale.
It didn’t take long for Bravo-Young, at least, to push those questions aside.
When asked before the season began about what surprised him the most about wrestling in a college room, he answered with confidence: “That my wrestling’s there.”
Even wrestling against lesser competition, Bravo-Young has shown he’s doing about everything right, and has the makings of a real contender at 133 pounds.
He’s lightning-quick and has a keen body awareness, where he seemingly knows when a takedown attempt is coming before it happens, and has shown — with his cartwheel into a single leg — that he can get out of just about anything and turn it into points.
He has also proven himself from the top position and with his ability to ride — something he had said at the beginning of the season he had been working to improve.
With his ascension to heavyweight, Cassar has proven that even an almost 20-pound weight difference between him and most opponents isn’t going to stop him from taking guys down.
In case anyone had any questions about that, he as good as erased them with a high double leg on Lehigh’s No. 6 Jordan Wood, in which he lifted Wood in the air and drove him down to the mat with a thud.
Although we haven’t seen Cassar get out from under the likes of Iowa’s Sam Stoll or Minnesota’s Gable Steveson, his quick, light-on-his feet approach will make for interesting heavyweight matchups at the very least.
Penn State avoids the injury bug (knock on wood)
The first part of the college wrestling season this year can largely be defined by one word — injuries.
Yes, wrestling is a grueling sport that can be hard on the body, and injuries are always going to be a factor. But so far this season, it just seems like injuries have been extra prevalent.
Lehigh — a team that was returning nine starters, and adding a 10th in senior transfer Connor Schram from Stanford — was hit the hardest. Against the Nittany Lions, the Mountainhawks wrestled less than half of their starting lineup, and was down to the third- and fourth-stringers at some weights.
Yet somehow, Penn State’s starters have largely avoided missing any matches. The lone exception being when Joseph sat out against Bucknell after Sanderson said the junior told him he wasn’t feeling well.
Whatever the secret might be — a little bit of luck and a lot of work from head trainer Dan Monthly and his crew — Penn State seems to be able to keep its wrestlers on the mat, and get them back quickly, even after injury.
Case in point — Nolf.
We don’t officially know the exact nature of Nolf’s injury last season, but the way Sanderson tells it, it was “nothing short of a miracle” that he came back in time for the NCAA tournament, and was able to win another national title.
Sanderson credited that “miracle” to Monthly, and Nolf’s ability to not give up and adapt a more patient style of wrestling while he wasn’t at 100 percent.
Here’s to hoping the semester break gives guys across the NCAA some time to recover and rest their bodies for the second and most rigorous part of the season.
There’s still plenty we don’t know
Although we’ve learned a lot from the first portion of the season, there are still a lot of unanswered questions as we approach the new year.
Chief among them is what the future holds for Gavin Teasdale and the Nittany Lions. The highly touted true freshman announced on Nov. 20 that he had left the program for health reasons — to return in January.
The four-time Pennsylvania state champ was seen practicing with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, as previously reported by the Centre Daily Times, and, per his coach, would be able to return as early as last Saturday — the end of the fall semester. But as of Friday evening, he has not yet been added to the online roster.
If he does come back, then the questions turn to whether we’ll see him wrestle, and how he’ll stack up with the rest at 125 pounds.
His return might not be so crucial to the course of this season, but could have an impact on the future of the program.
The spot vacated by Retherford at 149 pounds also remains a question mark, as a full-time starter between redshirt freshmen Verkleeren and Brady Berge has yet to be named.
The two looked pretty evenly matched at the Keystone Classic, when Berge came away with the close 3-2 decision, but the Southern Scuffle should shed some light on what happens there.
As previously mentioned, many of the starters still have yet to face a real challenge.
How much has Lee improved from last season? How does Rasheed stack up against some of the better guys in his new weight class? What’s the ceiling for Bravo-Young?
All these questions and more will be answered soon enough, as the Nittany Lions head back into action Jan. 1-2 at the Southern Scuffle to kick off a month with five Big Ten duals.