Penn State's Cael Sanderson confident in freshmen heading into NCAA Wrestling Championships

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State's Carter Starocci controls Maryland's Phillip Spadafora in a 174 lb first-round bout of the 2021 Big Ten Wrestling Championships at the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday, March 6, 2021, in State College, Pa. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via AP)

The youth in the Penn State wrestling program didn't have an optimal outcome in the Big Ten Wrestling Championships this year.

The Nittany Lions saw their six freshmen struggle on the mat — going 16-14 in their conference tournament debut — and not live up to the usual standard set by a program that is used to winning, as the Nittany Lions finished a distant second to Iowa in the team race.

But for five of those freshmen, the season isn't over yet. And they'll have another chance for success on an even bigger stage this week. In fact, Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson believes his team can peak at the right time and show what it can do at NCAAs this weekend in St. Louis.

"I think confidence levels, regardless of the outcome, jump," Sanderson said Thursday morning. "... I feel like we had a great experience at the Big Ten. Kind of got our butts kicked a little bit, but still kind of showed that if we get a takedown here, finish this or do that then we're close."

Sanderson will need his guys to find that peak if he wants his team to successfully defend the 2019 NCAA Championship — the last title won after last year's championships were canceled. Sanderson, for one, is confident that his wrestlers will make improvements, saying: "I still believe we'll have our best tournament at the nationals."

But he'll need the team's youth — namely its five qualified freshmen — to be ready to roll after they struggled at Big Tens. Joe Lee is one of those freshmen who will have a chance to make up for his performance, finishing eighth as the No. 6 seed, and will know just how to do it thanks to the leadership he's seen from a fellow Nittany Lion — his brother, Nick.

"I think Nick's probably a great big brother," Sanderson said. "He leads by example. They definitely feed off each other. ... I think they're learning and they've been on the same teams for a long time. I think Nick is important to kind of help Joe bounce back after the Big Ten tournament and just believe in himself and know that he's capable of getting in there and doing some big things."

The potantial for improvement won't end with the 165-pound younger Lee for Penn State to fulfill its aspirations. Robert Howard, Carter Starocci, Michael Beard and Greg Kerkvliet are all in a similar position after coming up short in some form or fashion at Big Tens.

Starocci may have highest upside: Starocci arguably has the highest upside of the group this season. He's the No. 3 overall seed at 174 pounds and made his way to the finals of the conference championships before falling to No. 1 overall seed Michael Kemerer, of Iowa. Starocci won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award — the second Nittany Lion in a row to win it after 184-pounder Aaron Brooks did last year — and has set an example of how to wrestle as a freshman.

The continuation of that example is an improved performance at NCAAs and potentially a closer matchup with Kemerer, who easily dispatched the freshman, 7-2, at Big Tens.

"Carter, he's very confident and he works very hard and he's very talented in addition to that," Sanderson said. "He believes. He believes that he's supposed to win."

The Kerkvliet surprise: Kerkvliet's improvement could be more natural than the rest of his classmates. The heavyweight wasn't expected to wrestle this season after Sanderson declared him out in early February.

Then the redshirt freshman made a surprise start against Maryland — being cleared just hours before weigh-ins, per Sanderson — and wrestled in the dual's extra matches to prepare for Big Tens. He went 4-2 at the conference tournament to place fourth as the No. 7 seed.

"I think Greg did a really nice job," Sanderson said. "He won the matches he had to win. ... With the situation that he faced, him even competing this year, I don't want to say it's a miracle but it's unexpected. When I said that we weren't expecting him back, we weren't expecting him back. ... It wasn't like he was training. He wasn't cleared to train, so he just jumped in there. ... He's gonna do well at nationals. I'm excited for him. ... For him the Big Ten was definitely preparation. It was more about let's get the matches in, let's train and get ready for the NCAA tournament."

Colorado Springs experience: The heavyweight has the pedigree to put it all together and find massive future success. He's a former Cadet World Champion, former USA Junior National Champion and he trained at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs with Brooks.

According to Brooks, that experience helped shape both Penn State wrestlers and put them in position to grow on and off the mat.

"The Colorado Springs experience was amazing for me, and I know for him as well," Brooks said. "We're on our own for the first time, 17, 18 years old. So dealing with that kind of molds you into becoming a man but as well as that, when it comes to the wrestling aspect, just becoming more professional, I think, has helped us out a lot."

Howard coming off an injury: Like Kerkvliet, Howard is coming off an injury and, according to Sanderson, has yet to round into form. The freshman 125-pounder had a major injury right after his senior season in high school and had to rehab before he was able to get back on the mat and start training again.

Sanderson said he believes Howard should continue improving as he gets further and further away from that injury, and his increased confidence was noticeable as he continued competing at Big Tens.

"I think Robert Howard is just getting started," Sanderson said. "... I think Howard was just getting going here. Big Ten was great preparation for him to kind of see he can go. He can go with the best guys."

Hoping to overcome long odds: Of course, it's asking quite a bit for a group of five freshman to have that level of impact in only their second postseason tournament and first appearance at NCAAs, especially when Iowa — the national title favorite — wields a distinct advantage in experience. That doesn't mean it can't happen, even if it is a longshot.

The group will need to relax and wrestle like what they're capable of if Penn State wants any chance. Fortunately for Penn State, the team's only two-time Big Ten champ — Brooks — already sees that mindset among the freshmen.

"They love to compete," Brooks said. "They love to go out there and relax and wrestle. When you see that in young guys, it's very rare. A lot of times we put pressure on ourselves when we first get to college. So just the fact that they can put all that stuff to the side and do what they love to do stands out to me the most."