Competing against the top team, in any sport, can be daunting. But for State College grad Matt Storniolo, the match between his Northwestern wrestling team and the No. 1 Nittany Lions on Friday is full of opportunities.
The Wildcats will have just one one wrestler ranked higher than his Nittany Lion opponent — No. 1 Sebastian Rivera at 125 pounds — but that’s nine chances for upsets.
“These are the opportunities that you dream about,” Storniolo told the CDT.
That’s been the same mentality Storniolo — who won a state championship his lone year wrestling for State High in 2002 — started with three years ago when he became Northwestern’s head coach.
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So far the mind-set has paid off, as the Wildcats went from a 2-13 dual record and 50th-place finish with 3 points at NCAAs in 2015-16, to an 11-4 record and a 24th-place finish with 24 points and an All-American last March.
“It’s been great to watch this program build back into something that we knew it could be, but we’re not there yet,” Storniolo said. “We still have a lot of work to do to get to our final goal, but we’re definitely progressing toward, it and that’s encouraging.”
Knocking off returning national champs at major tournaments also certainly helps. Rivera’s dominating win over Iowa’s Spencer Lee in the finals of the Midlands Championships earned him the Wildcats’ first Big Ten Wrestler of the Week honor since 2016. Sophomore Ryan Deakin’s win over Iowa’s Kaleb Young at 157 pounds also marked the first time Northwestern had two Midlands champs since 2011.
Yet getting to the point of seeing success took time. The first year, when he served as interim coach from October 2015 to March 2016, was not easy for Storniolo.
“When I first took over the program, I was probably a little blinded by bias and thought that I was going to step right in and the team was going to go out there and kick everybody’s butt, and we weren’t going to miss a beat,” Storniolo said. “But there was a rebuilding process.“
On top of that, everything that could go wrong, as Storniolo put it, went wrong that year.
There were season-ending injuries to starters Johnny Sebastian and Bryce Brill, and the fallout from the personal tragedy suffered by past national champion Jason Tsirtsis after losing both his sister and childhood best friend suddenly.
“We were able to get through it and somehow came out of it as a closer, more cohesive unit,” he said. “We became a more family-oriented team than we were going into it, and growing closer like that just helped us.”
At the end of that season, Storniolo revamped his staff by adding fellow Sooners Andrew Howe and Cody Brewer as assistant coaches, a move Storniolo attributes most of his team’s success to. Brewer, the 133-pound national champ in 2015, took Rivera under his wing, helping him earn All-America status his redshirt freshman year in 2018.
“It’s great to have coaches in place who you can trust to that degree, when you know they’re giving a guy like Sebastian everything he needs,” Storniolo said. “I think the proof is in the pudding when you beat a guy like Lee. It’s hard to argue that anybody’s doing anything wrong.”
Being able to trust his assistant coach allowed Storniolo to be more of a cheerleader during that match, leaving the tough work for Brewer.
“They’ve got a special bond,” he said. “I try to help where I can help and not get in the way, which I feel like is most of the time.”
Last season was the most successful so far with Storniolo at the helm. Northwestern’s five Big Ten wins surpassed the total conference wins the Wildcats had their three previous seasons combined.
To continue to swing upward, Storniolo wants to keep challenging his wrestlers. He’s doing that with the grueling Big Ten schedule that will pit his team against six top-10 opponents, including Storniolo’s former team at Penn State, where he earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2004 before transferring to Oklahoma.
Although wrestling the best teams presents plenty of opportunities, it’s also not easy to have to go up against some of the best wrestlers in the country week after week. Coming off a tough loss last week to No. 2 Tyler Berger (Nebraska), No. 3 Deakin now gets the tall order of taking on the nation’s top-ranked wrestler at 157 pounds in Jason Nolf, when the Nittany Lions come to Evanston for the 8 p.m. clash.
But rather than dreading the matchup, Storniolo said he’s reminding Deakin, and all of his wrestlers, that in going up against Penn State’s top-ranked grapplers, they have nothing to lose, but everything to gain.
“These are the matches that you train for, and these are the ones you go out there and you execute. These are the one you’re going to remember,” he said.
No. 1 Penn State (4-0, 0-0 Big Ten) at Northwestern (2-4, 0-1)
When: 8 p.m., Friday
Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena Evanston, Ill.
Radio: ESPN Radio 1450 AM
|125: Devin Schnupp (5-6)||vs.||No. 1 Sebastian Rivera (14-0) OR Matt Vinci (7-7)|
|133: No. 14 Roman Bravo-Young (12-1)||vs.||Colin Valdiviez (11-7)|
|141: No. 4 Nick Lee (15-0)||vs.||Yahya Thomas (11-6) OR Alec McKenna (6-4)|
|149: No. 9 Brady Berge (12-1) OR Jarod Verkleeren (8-4)||vs.||Shayne Oster (8-5)|
|157: No. 1 Jason Nolf (13-0)||vs.||No. 3 Ryan Deakin (16-1)|
|165: No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph (13-)||vs.||Tyler Morland (0-2) OR Eric Yang (2-5)|
|174: No. 1 Mark Hall (13-0)||vs.||Johnny Sebastian (4-3)|
|184: No. 3 Shakur Rasheed (12-0)||vs.||Brendan Devine (0-10)|
|197: No. 1 Bo Nickal (12-0)||vs.||Zack Chakonis (2-10)|
|285: No. 4 Anthony Cassar (11-1) OR Nick Nevills (8-2)||vs.||No. 19 Conan Jennings (10-5)|
No. 10 Wisconsin (6-1, 1-1 Big Ten) at No. 1 Penn State (4-0, 0-0)
When: 1 p.m., Sunday
Where: Rec Hall
Radio: ESPN Radio 1450 AM
Note: Wisconsin wrestles at Rutgers on Friday night
|125: Devin Schnupp (5-6)||vs.||No. 15 Connor Brown (9-3)|
|133: No. 14 Roman Bravo-Young (12-1)||vs.||Jens Lantz (9-8)|
|141: No. 4 Nick Lee (15-0)||vs.||Tristan Moran (15-5)|
|149: No. 9 Brady Berge (12-1) OR Jarod Verkleeren (8-4)||vs.||Cole Martin (11-6) OR Garrett Model (5-6)|
|157: No. 1 Jason Nolf (13-0)||vs.||Zander Wick (6-5) OR Devin Bahr (8-7)|
|165: No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph (13-)||vs.||No. 3 Evan Wick (18-1) OR Patrick Spray (3-8)|
|174: No. 1 Mark Hall (13-0)||vs.||No. 10 Ryan Christensen (14-5)|
|184: No. 3 Shakur Rasheed (12-0)||vs.||Mason Reinhardt (15-7)|
|197: No. 1 Bo Nickal (12-0)||vs.||Andrew Salemme (1-12) OR Beau Breske (0-0)|
|285: No. 4 Anthony Cassar (11-1) OR Nick Nevills (8-2)||vs.||No. 9 Trent Hillger (15-1)|