Penn State wrestling will have to pursue its fifth straight NCAA Division I title this year without one of its biggest weapons.
Defending heavyweight national champ Anthony Cassar will forgo the remainder of the college season and focus on regaining strength for the Last Chance Olympic qualifier March 26-28 in Millersville, coach Cael Sanderson told reporters Tuesday.
Cassar was injured Dec. 22 trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials at Senior Nationals in Forth Worth, Texas. Qualifying for the Olympic team is in still in the cards for the sixth-year senior, according to Sanderson, as Cassar has elected not to have surgery and instead work on strengthening his shoulder. It was a shoulder injury that kept Cassar from competing his first two years at Penn State.
True freshman redshirt Seth Nevills, who “gray shirted” last season, will replace Cassar in the lineup.
Graduate senior transfer Kyle Conel will also not return to the lineup, after suffering a shoulder injury against Penn prior to winter break. According to Sanderson, it was the same shoulder he recently had repaired, and the former All-American is scheduled for surgery this week.
Conel will be replaced at 197 pounds by fellow sixth-year senior Shakur Rasheed, who sat out the first half of the season as he recovered from offseason ACL surgery. Sanderson said former All-American Rasheed has been medically cleared and will be good to go for this weekend’s duals against Illinois and Northwestern.
“Injuries are unfortunate, but it’s life, it’s sports and those things happen,” Sanderson said. “It’s just all preparation for the bigger picture here.”
No strangers to injuries: As previously mentioned, neither Cassar nor Conel are strangers to injury. Cassar earned a spot on the 2015 Junior U.S. Freestyle Team, but then suffered a shoulder injury that would derail his next two years of competition at Penn State. He wrestled his first full season for the Nittany Lions last year as a senior, winning both the Big Ten and NCAA heavyweight tiles.
Conel, who was wrestling for Kent State at the time, was the Cinderella Story of the 2018 NCAA tournament, going from unseeded to third place, taking out top-seeded Kollin Moore, of Ohio State, twice. A shoulder injury caused him to miss most of the 2018-19 season, before he was awarded another year of eligibility and transferred to Penn State. He went 3-3 as a Nittany Lion.
Cassar was awarded two additional years of eligibility as a senior in the spring, due to the time he’s missed due to injury. But, according to Sanderson, Penn State fans shouldn’t get their hopes up that the New Jersey native will be returning for a seventh — or eighth —year.
“I don’t think he’s planning on wrestling more than this year,” Sanderson said. “His heart and mind was obviously clearly set on the Olympics this year. That’s why we adjusted the schedule and he wasn’t wrestling in all the matches. I don’t know how the NCAA works, but he could probably get an another additional year, but that’s not something I think he’s interested in.”
Cassar has made his desire to be an Olympic champ clear since last season. He had planned to wrestle a modified schedule for the Nittany Lions this year, while he simultaneously trained to pursue his dream. As his injury knocked him our of the tournament early in Texas and he won’t be competing for another NCAA title, Cassar will have to qualify for the Olympic Trials, to be held April 4-5 at the Bryce Jordan Center, at the Last Chance Qualifier.
Other injury news: In other injury news, Sanderson wouldn’t commit to saying redshirt sophomore Brady Berge will be ready to return to the mat this weekend at 157 pounds. Berge suffered a “freak injury,” according to Sanderson, at the U23 World Championships when it appeared he hit his head and got knocked out. He so far has wrestled one bout this season, an 11-7 decision over Lehigh’s Josh Humphreys.
“It’s going to be hit and miss a little bit,” Sanderson said, about when Berge will return to the lineup full time. “We just want to do what’s in his best interest. Our plan is, we’re trying to get ready for March.”
Lineup battles: As for the lineup battles at 125 and 149 pounds, Sanderson said there has yet to be any resolution. The coaches were hoping 125-pound freshmen Brandon Meredith and Brody Teske and 149-pounders Jarod Verkleeren and Luke Gardner would hit at the Wilkes Open over the break, but neither happened. Only Meredith and Verkleeren competed, both winning titles.
Nevills will enter the lineup with a 6-0 record in open tournaments this season, including Wilkes Open and Mat-Town Open titles. He’s the youngest brother of former Nittany Lion, Nick Nevills, a two-time All-American.
Nevills, a four-time California state champ out of Clovis High School, took a “gray shirt” year last season, during which he spent time training with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and competing in open tournaments. Before Cassar was awarded his additional two years of eligibility, the plan was for Nevills to wrestle this year as a true freshman, according to Sanderson.
“I’m excited to watch him wrestle,” Sanderson said. “We watched his brother, he’s just a bigger version — don’t tell Nick — he’s a little bit more athletic. They just come from a family of winners, and I’m excited to see him go. He’s fun to watch wrestle.”
Added senior Mark Hall: “I think it’s an awesome opportunity for him. Anytime you get your redshirt pulled midseason, I think it says something about you and what you’re about. ... He’s going to be good, he’s going to wrestle hard and be ready to go.”