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Penn State wrestling lineup starting to take shape

STATE COLLEGE — In a season that undoubtedly will resemble no other in the long history of collegiate wrestling, one constant will be the resolve of Penn State.

As always, the second-ranked Nittany Lions will look to “have a team that’s going to out there and be entertaining to watch and has the ability to score a lot of points” head coach Cael Sanderson said via Zoom on Tuesday during the team’s virtual media day.

And even during an Olympic year, albeit a year delayed, when many talented Nittany Lions might redshirt or exercise an Olympic redshirt year, Penn State won’t have that deterrent to sending its absolute best team on the mat.

“It’s all hands on deck and you’re wrestling your best team,” Sanderson said. “I think everybody’s basically in the same category as far as if you’re the best guy and you have the best chance to score points on the team, you’re wrestling.”

Who those 10 best are now or will be when the truncated nine-dual meet schedule ends and the Big Ten Championships kick off on March 6 in the Bryce Jordan Center, Sanderson wouldn’t say. However, he did drop enough hints to posit a good estimation. Other clues can be found in the recently released roster.

“We don’t have our lineup set, as of yet. I think if you follow the program you have probably have a pretty good idea. Some of the weight classes that are a little more contested are similar to what we had last year,” Sanderson said.

“We’ve got some good, young kids coming up. We’re actually fairly young as a program. I won’t go through the lineup but this is one of those years where we’re gonna have to set our lineup as we compete.”

Sanderson was speaking in hyperbole when he said his team is young. Of the 34 wrestlers on the roster, only three are seniors. Sixteen are either freshmen (seven) or redshirt freshmen (nine). The team counts eight sophomores and seven juniors.

Penn State wrestling has paused all team-related activities due to positive COVID-19 results among Tier 1 personnel.

Due to the pause, the Nittany Lions’ match at Rutgers scheduled for Saturday has been postponed. The institutions will work with the Big Ten Conference to identify rescheduling options. No determination has been made on how the pause may impact scheduled matches beyond January 16.

Three wrestlers are listed at 125 pounds but the most likely to emerge from that group figure to be either returning starter Brandon Meredith or blue-chip recruit Robbie Howard.

The next two weights, 133 and 141, are expected to be occupied by All-Americans Roman Bravo-Young and Nick Lee, respectively.

At 149, the field is crowded and could take a while to sort out. Jarod Verkleeren is the returning starter, but he could be challenged by a couple veterans in Bo Pipher and Luke Gardner. Sanderson also mentioned Terrrell Barraclough and another blue-chip freshman, Beau Bartlett, as possibilities.

Brady Berge, Sanderson said, is back competing at 157.

“It’s just been tough; he just needed time to heal, heal his body, heal his mind. And I’m sure it’s not easy for him to compete; things just don’t go away, but he’s committed to get back in there and attacking his goals,” he said.

Redshirt freshman Joe Lee, Nick’s brother, is likely to earn the starting nod at 165 pounds. Newcomer Carter Starocci who, like Lee, is in his second year with the program, figures to earn the nod at 174.

Big Ten champion Aaron Brooks will start at 184. He figures to be followed by Michael Beard, who redshirted a year ago.

Returning starter Seth Nevills is back at 285, but he may be supplanted by uber talented Greg Kerkvliet.

No matter who the starters are, other contenders figure to earn mat time in another new feature for the 2021 season. Teams will be allowed to include 16 in their travel party for road duals and 20 for the two tri-meets each Big Ten will wrestle. Those extra wrestlers will compete in exhibition matches that will count toward the four-match requirement to qualify for the NCAA Championships.

“We’re gonna wrestle as many exhibition matches as we can each week. It’s a great blessing for the guys that aren’t the starters this year,” Sanderson said.

“I’m excited about that; it just keeps everybody engaged, and it’s maybe something we could look at doing as a sport moving forward. We’ll see.”

For now, Sanderson and the Nittany Lions are concentrating on a regular season that will last five weeks.

“Yeah, I think that’s enough. I think you’re gonna adjust regardless of the situation, regardless of how many matches you have. So, everyone’s in the same boat. We’re not going to overthink it,” he said.

“I feel like we’re ready to go now but obviously the goal is to be ready to go in March and just building towards that and improving as we move along here and compete.”

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