Penn State wrestling team taking its usual approach heading into an unusual postseason

PARTH UPADHYAYA
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Cael Sanderson

Penn State will host the 2021 Big Ten Wrestling Championships this weekend for the first time since 2009. But head coach Cael Sanderson looks at this conference tournament as any other he's coached in throughout his career.

"I think wherever you're competing, you've just gotta make it your own," Sanderson told reporters Tuesday on a Zoom call. "I think that you could find positives and negatives, regardless of whether you're on the road or home. I think it's just our job to just be a little better, a little stronger, a little more focused, a little more motivated, maybe, because we're at home."

The wrestlers also agree that, although having the Big Ten Championships in the Bryce Jordan Center is nice, it doesn't change their mindset going into the event.

"The biggest advantage is I don't have to spend time packing a bag," 141-pound senior Nick Lee chuckled.

Sanderson — in his 12th year at the helm — admits that there are obvious positives for the No. 2 Nittany Lions to be able to train in their own wrestling room and not have to travel. He doesn't want his wrestlers to get too caught up in that, though. After all, the road to winning a Big Ten title for his group will be no less difficult.

Defending conference champion Iowa is considered the favorite to win the team race this weekend. The Hawkeyes scored four of the top preliminary seeds, released Tuesday, to Penn State's two.

"You know, regardless of where the ballroom is, as they say, we've just gotta go dance and just do our thing," Sanderson said, "and that's what we're focused on."

A freshman-heavy lineup: Penn State also confirmed its lineup for the Big Ten Championships on Tuesday afternoon.

The Nittany Lions' lineup features only three upperclassmen in Lee, 133-pound junior Roman Bravo-Young and 157-pound junior Brady Berge. Six freshmen and a sophomore — defending 184-pound Big Ten champion Aaron Brooks — round out the group.

But for what the freshmen lack in collegiate experience, they make up for in talent and high expectations. Penn State's starting freshmen — Robert Howard (125 pounds), Beau Bartlett (149), Joe Lee (165), Michael Beard (197) and Greg Kerkvliet (285)— were all among the top recruits in their respective classes and have several national and international freestyle accolades among them.

"They have experiences with high-level, competitive competition — whether it's (high school) state tournaments or national tournaments," Sanderson said. "And they've been on the squad now for almost a year. So, it's 'ready or not, here we go.' It's time to go compete in the Big Ten tournament."

Lee, a three-time All-American, said the Nittany Lions' freshmen — who have a combined 24-6 record — are competitors who are enjoying themselves this season while bringing "a lot of energy" to the team.

"They motivate me most days," he said, "probably not even the other way around"

And while there's plenty of questions about how the freshmen will fare in their first postseason, Lee has no doubt that they'll be ready to make the most of the opportunity.

"I know there's some uncertainty about how they may compete, but I know how they're gonna compete," Lee said. "They're gonna be relaxed; they're gonna have fun. They're gonna kick some butt."

An unusual postseason: With only six meets under Penn State's belt so far — and other factors, like not having packed arenas — this will be a postseason like none other for the Nittany Lions.

"This year is certainly unique with the different challenges and with COVID and the training and the uncertainty around when we're going to compete and then having matches that were canceled or postponed," Sanderson said. "All those things kind of factor in."

With the condensed season and canceled meets, Sanderson and Co. haven't gotten as clear of a picture as they would have liked of their team's readiness for the postseason. Kerkvliet wrestled for just the first time this season on Feb. 22.

But veteran wrestlers like Lee, Bravo-Young and Berge know what to expect. And they'll lead the way for their younger teammates in any way they can as the Nittany Lions look to compete for their seventh Big Ten championship under Sanderson.

"It's an awesome tournament," Lee said. "Every single match you have is a good match, so you've gotta focus in. And I think that's part of what makes it so fun."

So, even with the most abnormal regular season in program history having just concluded, Sanderson doesn't expect anything less from his team than he would any other year as it heads into the postseason.

"Now that we're in the postseason and the Big Ten tournament is here and the kids know that they have a chance to compete for a Big Ten championship, and hopefully a national championship, that normalizes things quickly," Sanderson said. "And it's time to really just be focused and be ourselves."