Penn State wrestling put up a record-breaking 216.5 points at the Southern Scuffle last week and came away with six out of the tournament’s 10 champions. But head coach Cael Sanderson still wasn’t satisfied.
“I don’t think we wrestled fantastic, but if we’re wrestling our best the week after Christmas in early January, we wouldn’t want that,” Sanderson said Tuesday, adding he was still pleased with how his team finished. “We want to be our bests in March.”
It’s hard to imagine that some wrestlers — such as the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler in Bo Nickal, who pinned his way through the tournament in less than 10 minutes total — can get any better. But for some of the wrestlers, the younger ones especially, competing at an NCAA-style tournament nearly midway through the season can help provide valuable lessons.
In assessing his third-place Scuffle finish, redshirt freshman Brady Berge had one main takeaway: “I believe my best wrestling is yet to come.”
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“Obviously if you don’t win a tournament, it’s not the outcome you want,” he added. “But there’s a lot of good things, and there’s a lot of things I need to work on, which I was exposed to. It is good for me; I’m young and I’m always willing to learn and get better.”
As the fourth seed, Berge posted three takedowns against the No. 3-seeded Jarrett Degen, of Iowa State, in the consolation semifinals and beat the now-No. 15-ranked Requir Van der Merwe 5-2 in the third-place bout. But he lost a tough 3-2 bout to No. 7 Mitch Finesilver in the semifinals on a riding time point. Berge chose down in the second period and was never able to get out. With the only takedown in the match, getting that escape and not giving up riding time could’ve been enough to tilt the match in Berge’s favor.
It was a hard lesson learned — one Berge’s head coach now knows to focus on.
“I think he’s right there and I think he knows that. He’s tough,” Sanderson said. “When he wanted to really go score, I think he scored. The loss he had was based on a ride-out, which is something we need to work on. We had a couple guys getting ridden at the Scuffle, and that’s an area of concern we’re going to spend some time in.”
Another younger wrestler who struggled a bit in the bottom position on the first day of competition was true freshman Roman Bravo-Young.
Although he won all three of his matches during the first day of the tournament, the Penn State rookie didn’t quite seem like his usual, high-scoring self. He scored just 16 points in his first three matches and Sanderson felt he “was definitely standing around a little bit that first day.”
Although there were reports that Bravo-Young was dealing with an illness, he came back strong the second day. He got out to a quick 8-2 lead against No. 9 Austin Gomez in the semifinals before giving up the pin, and posted major decisions in his last two bouts against solid opponents.
According to Sanderson, that loss to Gomez — and getting thrown on his head — should give Bravo-Young something to think about.
“I think Gomez is just really good in that position and once he had both of Roman’s arms up over his head, he was kind of in trouble there,” Sanderson said. “I think the takeaway is — don’t let somebody get your arms up over your head.”
The learning opportunities from a tournament such as the Scuffle extend beyond just the younger wrestlers. Heavyweight Anthony Cassar, a fifth-year senior, tested himself and learned where he stacked up with the nation’s best.
Although Oklahoma State’s Derek White was able to prevent Cassar from getting any solid shots off, there were some positives that Sanderson gleaned from the performance.
“Cassar’s got to step it up a notch. He’s got to wrestle a little bit harder throughout the match and finish his shots. But you’re talking about one of the guys (in White) who is one of the title contenders, and he’s right there,” Sanderson said of Cassar. “I think what he comes away with is that doesn’t really have anything to lose. It can all be positive, but of course it’s the choices he makes and how he sees things that’s most important.”
After having watched his matches and identified where he needs to improve, Berge said it’s time to move on and get back to work in the practice room to reach that next level. Sanderson said that although the coaches might still rotate between Berge and fellow redshirt freshman Jarod Verkleeren at 149 pounds, that Berge did “kind of establish himself as the starter,” based on his tournament results.
“A lot of it is just every day in the wrestling room, giving my best effort. And when I do that every day in the wrestling room, it’s going to carry over to the mat,” Berge said. “And being able to be coachable, listen to my coaches and what they tell me, and then go do it. It’s one thing to listen and take it in, but if you don’t go do it, it’s not going to help much.”
How well Penn State wrestlers are able to take the lessons learned from the Scuffle and translate them into success on the mat will soon be realized. The Nittany Lions have five Big Ten duals in January, and another four in February plus Buffalo, before heading into the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
Sanderson and Co. have shown before they’re quick studies — and that especially holds true at this point in the season.
“We’re just getting in that routine of wrestling every weekend,” Sanderson said, “and I think we’ll start to wrestle better as we do that.”