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Penn State wrestling program looks to hit its stride with 3 weeks to go until postseason

PARTH UPADHYAYA
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Cael Sanderson

Cael Sanderson hasn't been known to shy away from challenges in the past. So, why would this season be any different for Penn State wrestling's 12th-year head coach?

The No. 2 Nittany Lions had a late start to their already-delayed season — originally moved from a November to January start — with their first two meets postponed. They also had two more meets postponed earlier this month. And though it's been difficult for him to truly gauge where his team is at, Sanderson is confident that Penn State will peak at the right time with less than three weeks until the start of the Big Ten Championships.

"It's a unique year to figure out how to be at our best at the right moments," Sanderson told reporters on a Zoom call Tuesday. "But that's what makes it fun, as well."

Sitting at 4-0, the Nittany Lions beat unranked Indiana and Northwestern in a late-January dual meet to open their season before knocking off then-No. 17 Wisconsin on Feb. 2 and then-No. 2 Michigan on Sunday.

With the pauses in competition and general uncertainty that have come with this pandemic-stricken season, wrestlers have had to find ways to remain sharp.

Redshirt freshman Carter Starocci — the No. 5 174-pound wrestler in the nation, who was named the Big Ten Wrestler of the Week on Tuesday — said trusting Sanderson and the rest of the coaching staff has allowed him to not be distracted.

"It's staying focused," said Starocci, coming off his 7-1 victory over No. 6 Logan Massa, of Michigan. "It's working hard, and listening to the coaches — I feel like that's key. ... It's just having belief in those guys. I know they'll lead me in the right direction."

Starocci hasn't been too thrown off by the postponement of meets, because he believes Penn State's wrestling room has more than enough talent in it for him to stay prepared.

"We go out and we compete versus these other teams, but we have the best guys in our room," he said. "So, when I want to compete, I just go to practice. ... Obviously it's nice to go out there and to wrestle, but I feel like nothing really changes (with postponements)."

For Sanderson, the hurdles that have come with this season aren't dramatically different from those in previous years.

Still, he's proud of the way his group has adapted so far.

"Things generally don't always go as planned," Sanderson said. "And you've just gotta be the best you can be, wherever you are, regardless of time or circumstances. I think our guys have done a good job with that."

Sanderson admits "it's been an exhausting year" — particularly when it's come to figuring out how to ensure the Nittany Lions are ready to compete at all times.

But instead of letting the adversity that has come with this season hold him and his team back, he's chosen to find excitement in trying to overcome the obstacles of the last few months and those that lie ahead. And that, more than anything else, should help Penn State continue to build momentum as it tries to end its regular season on a high note with meets against No. 12 Ohio State and Maryland remaining.

"We can either feel sorry for ourselves," Sanderson said, "or we can rise above it and use it as an opportunity to have a great finish here."