Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson talks Southern Scuffle
Penn State wrestling put on a record-breaking performance at the Southern Scuffle on Wednesday, recording 116.5 points with eight finalists at seven different weight classes.
As expected the annual midseason tournament did shed some light on how this crop of Nittany Lions stacks up. Here’s what we learned:
Nolf’s and Nickal’s legacies continue to grow
This year, the Southern Scuffle brought with it some milestones for a couple Penn State wrestlers.
With a fall in 1 minute and 21 seconds over Stanford’s Jared Hill on Monday, Jason Nolf tied, and then later broke, the all-time Penn State pin record, finishing the tournament with 54 career falls.
Bo Nickal, meanwhile, notched his 100th win — then his 101st and 102nd. Of those 102 wins, 50 have been pins. Yes, that’s right — nearly half of Nickal’s college wins have resulted in pins.
Penn State fans don’t need to be reminded of how special their pair of four-year starters are, but in their senior season, it never hurts to take a step back look at just how extraordinary both of their careers have been.
Nolf is just one victory shy of his century mark in career wins, while Nickal’s pin of Stanford’s Nathan Traxler in the Southern Scuffle final marked his 50th career win. Nolf had a 46-match win streak going last season before an injury forced him to medically default against Rutgers.
Nickal put on a show in his third and final Southern Scuffle, pinning his way through the tournament, and taking less than 11 minutes total to do so. Nolf was also impressive, with three pins, a technical fall, a major and a decision to win his third Southern Scuffle crown.
Barring injury, both seniors are assuredly locks for the NCAA finals, and in a dogfight between each other for the 2019 Dan Hodge Memorial Trophy — which only one can win.
Penn State will certainly take a hit once the pair graduates. But remember, people also said the same thing when David Taylor and Ed Ruth left ...
Bravo-Young is cool in the face of adversity
Roman Bravo-Young probably didn’t have quite the tournament he wanted.
He had three close matches against unranked wrestlers during the first day, one going into sudden victory, then gave up the pin to No. 2-seed Austin Gomez in the semifinals.
Yet the true freshman with sky-high expectations and hype brushed off the loss to do what he needed to do and win twice more, including a major decision over No. 20-ranked Sean Nickell, to finish third.
The No. 3-seeded wrestler didn’t look quite himself during the first day of the tournament Monday. He wasn’t firing off as many takedowns as usual and was having some problems in the bottom position. According to Jeff Byers, of the Penn State Sports Network, Bravo-Young wasn’t completely healthy and almost pulled out from competing the second day of the tournament.
Yet on the second day of the tournament, Bravo-Young looked like a completely different wrestler from the first day. He got an early takedown, then went to work, opening up a 8-2 lead in the first period, with another takedown and four near-fall points. After giving up a takedown in the second, Bravo-Young got caught and turned on his back for the pin.
Although that’s certainly not the way anyone would want to end the biggest match so far of their career, Bravo-Young was able to push past the disappointment and health issues to finish at his seed.
Not letting the emotions get to him, Bravo-Young continues to show a maturity level above what one would expect from a true freshman.
Berge has the edge at 149
As anticipated, the Scuffle did provide some clarity into what Penn State might do with some of its contested weight classes.
Although they didn’t get another chance to meet head to head, Brady Berge put together a more impressive tournament performance than fellow redshirt freshman Jarod Verkleeren with whom he’s been sharing the starting role at 149 pounds.
As the No. 4 seed, Berge went 6-1 with two major decisions and a win over No. 7-ranked Jarrett Degen to finish third in his first Southern Scuffle appearance. His lone loss came in the semifinals against No. 6-ranked and No. 1-seed Mitch Finesilver, of Duke. Berge notched the lone takedown in that the bout but was unable to get out from under Finesilver, and lost 3-2 on riding time.
Meanwhile, Verkleeren dropped a hard-fought 3-2 battle to eventual champ Kaden Gfeller, then gave up a takedown with seconds left to Appalachian State’s Matt Zovistoski to lose his lead, then gave up the pin in consolations.
Berge showed he can compete with the All-American-level wrestlers this week, and he has plenty of time to work on some of his issues on bottom.
The battle between the two might not be over yet, but Berge likely pulled away a little after the Scuffle.
Oklahoma State can push Penn State, but not enough
Although Penn State is heavily favored to win the NCAA team race this year, Oklahoma State is widely regarded as one of the few teams that can test the Nittany Lions.
The Southern Scuffle, even though it’s a much smaller tournament field, gave a little bit of a sneak peak into how the two teams might match up in March.
By most measures, the Cowboys had a great tournament, with four champions — including a head-to-head matchup with the Nittany Lions, and a runner-up spot in the team race. However, they still finished a distant 188.5 to Penn State’s 216.5.
Oklahoma State has a legitimate finalist contender in Daton Fix at 133 pounds, and Derek White showed he should be in that conversation at heavyweight. Finally adding Joseph Smith into into the lineup will introduce a new threat 174 pounds.
In addition, Gfeller, Kaid Brock and Nick Piccininni, among others, are poised to make some noise at their respective weight classes, as the Cowboys have a complete lineup of 10 guys who could all be wrestling very late in the tournament.
The difference is that Penn State has at least six — maybe seven — wrestlers with a good shot at the finals, and will likely have at least three champs.
Having those guys who are nearly guaranteed to be wrestling Saturday night is what will pull Penn State away from the rest of the field in the end.
There seems to be an answer at 125, but uncertainty persists
Before dropping out of the tournament at the last minute, true freshman Gavin Teasdale was reportedly slated to wrestle attached for the Nittany Lions.
FloWrestling.org reported the tournament director confirmed that Penn State had asked to enter Teasdale late into the tournament, and tweeted a photo of the weigh-in sheets with Teasdale’s name listed to prove it.
In planning to wrestle Teasdale attached and effectively removing his redshirt, Penn State signaled it had made its lineup decision at 125 pounds for the second part of the season.
However, Teasdale did not end up wrestling. Current starter, sophomore Devinn Schnupp, went 1-2 wrestling at the Scuffle, while redshirt freshman Brody Teske wrestled unattached, going 2-1 before medically defaulting out of the tournament.
If Teasdale does indeed become the Nittany Lions’ starter at 125 this season, it will certainly increase Penn State’s points potential, both in duals and in the postseason tournaments.
Should he be ready to go by the start of the Big Ten dual season on Jan. 11, Teasdale will be tested right away with a likely matchup with Northwestern’s newly No. 1-ranked Sebastian Rivera, on the road.
January will also offer plenty of opportunities for the freshman to make it on the top-20 board, with matchups slated with No. 12 Zeke Moisey, of Nebraska; No. 18 Devin Schroeder, of Purdue; and No. 19 Connor Brown, of Wisconsin. Knocking off at least one of those lower-ranked wrestlers should be enough to get the true freshman ranked by the end of the month.
Still, he has yet to wrestle. But now that he’s at least back on the roster, it seems as if that time will be soon.