Last year, Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson and his staff had to replace just one great wrestler in Zain Retherford.
This year, Sanderson and Co. have the test of replacing two greats in Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal.
“Bo and Jason were and are special,” Sanderson said Tuesday during the first media availability of the 2019-20 wrestling season. “They’re two guys that are as good as anybody that’s ever stepped on the college wrestling mat. They had just an unbelievable run, individually, and as a team for four years. We’re not trying to replace them, because you can’t really replace guys like that. It’s just find them (new wrestlers) and building up the next wave, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The Nittany Lions’ new wave, at least according to Sanderson, for this year won’t change too much.
Penn State has five of its seven 2019 All-Americans returning in Roman Bravo-Young (133 pounds), Nick Lee (141), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174) and Anthony Cassar (285). They also have a former All-American in a healthy Shakur Rasheed (184) returning, along with Kyle Conel (197), a graduate transfer from Kent State who made an improbable run — which included beating Ohio State’s No. 1 seed Kollin Moore twice — to a third-place finish in the 2018 NCAA Championships.
Brady Berge, who manned the 149-pound weight class last season, is expected to fill the void left with Nolf’s departure at 157 pounds, but he might not get to do that right away.
Berge was representing the United States in the U23 World Championships last week in Budapest, Hungary, when he suffered an injury in his first repechage match. While it was difficult to tell exactly what happened, Sanderson believes Berge’s head hit his opponent’s knee, causing him to lose consciousness.
Sanderson said Berge is recovering well, but they “probably” will not wrestle him on Sunday against Navy.
“Just looking at our lineup, you guys have a pretty good idea,” Sanderson said of the possible starters for his squad. “You know we have three potential six-year guys (Rasheed, Conel, Cassar), and outside of Bo and Jason’s (weights), things don’t change a whole lot. We have some new kids fighting for a few of those spots. (1)25 is open again and (1)49 (is) open again, but outside of that, things are kind of set. So not a lot of variation.”
So, who are some of the guys who are looking to fill those two open spots that Sanderson spoke of?
At 125 pounds, Devin Schnupp is back for his junior year and looking to keep his starting spot in tact after manning it for the past two seasons and accumulating a 7-31 record. However, redshirt freshmen Brody Teske and Brandon Meredith were two other names that Sanderson threw out there.
As a true freshman, Teske dealt with some minor injury issues throughout the season. He hit the mat during the Southern Scuffle in January and showed a glimpse of his potential, going 2-1 before ultimately having to withdraw due to the injury. Meredith just competed in the Clarion Open over the weekend, going 4-1 and placing third.
At 149 pounds, Jarod Verkleeren is back after splitting time with Berge at the weight last year, and is the presumed favorite. However, Bo Pipher and Luke Gardner have also caught the eye of Sanderson and Co. so far in practices this year.
“We’re just looking for the kid that’s going to compete on Sunday or Friday, whenever the match happens to be, with some enthusiasm,” Sanderson said. “We want to win. Obviously, everyone wants to win, that’s probably the most common thing, but it’s more about how we compete. That’s what we’re looking for, we want the guys that are going to compete with the right attitude and in the long run, that’s going to give them and us our best results.”
Penn State fans are probably wondering when they will get a chance to see the likes of Joe Lee (165 pounds), Michael Beard (197), Seth Nevills (285) and Aaron Brooks (184), all of whom took a “grayshirt” year last year before enrolling at Penn State. Well, fans might have to wait, as all of them are expected to redshirt — at least to start the season. Each of those four wrestlers are behind past national champions or All-Americans.
Mason Manville, who was a redshirt freshman for the Nittany Lions last year, won’t be wrestling this year as he decided to take an Olympic redshirt to focus on making the Greco-Roman team.
Since this is an Olympic preparation year, Sanderson mentioned that the lineup might not look the same for every dual. Some of the NCAA’s reigning champions such as Rutgers’ Nick Suriano, Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis and Virginia Tech’s Mehki Lewis are taking Olympic redshirts. Another reigning NCAA champ in Iowa’s Spencer Lee is reportedly wrestling a modified NCAA season in order to prep for the Olympics.
The same thing may happen for some of Sanderson’s wrestlers.
“We have several guys that have the opportunity to,” he said, “or a legitimate chance of qualifying for the (Olympic) trials and competing for the (Olympic) team. Those guys, we’ll look at the season a little differently for them individually, and what’s in their best interest at the same time, trying to manage our team and being ready for dual meets, and trying to give the team a chance to be successful at the same time.”