Blue White Illustrated

December 2023

Penn State Sports Magazine

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6 6 D E C E M B E R 2 0 2 3 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M T he Penn State sports equinox, in which fall seasons overlap with winter seasons for a couple of months, is upon us. The Nittany Lion football team will charge through its November slate with hopes of burnishing its bowl resume. Other fall sports teams are going for postseason glory, as well. Hockey is un- derway. Basketball is, too. And, by the time you read this, head coach Cael Sanderson's wrestling team will be ready to rock, as well, starting with a trip to the Lehigh Valley for the Journeymen Classic, which is an individ- ual tournament, on Nov. 12. It then goes to the Army Black Knight Invitational on Nov. 19. Its first dual meet comes Dec. 3 when Lehigh visits Rec Hall. There's a lot that is new this season, but let's start with what isn't. Sanderson is back for his 15th season in State Col- lege. Longtime assistants Casey Cun- ningham and Cody Sanderson are back, too. Another familiar face, Jimmy Ken- nedy, rounds out the coaching staff. It's a known group. On the mat, Penn State has return- ing All-Americans at 141 pounds (senior Beau Bartlett, third at NCAAs), 149 pounds (redshirt sophomore Shane Van Nes, third), 157 pounds (sophomore Levi Haines, second), 174 pounds (senior Carter Starocci, national champ) and 285 pounds (senior Greg Kerkvliet, sec- ond). Three-time NCAA champ Aaron Brooks is back, too, for his senior season, although he will bump up to 197 pounds from 184. Penn State returns a wealth of experience and success, just as it has been doing for years. Now, let's move on to what is new. The Lions will have a new starter at 125 pounds. It is expected to be a familiar face, though, with fourth-year Nittany Lion Robbie Howard leading the list of contenders. Transfers Aaron Nagao (from Minnesota) and Bernie Truax IV (Cal Poly) bring All-America resumes in to start at 133 and 184 pounds, respec- tively. Nagao, a third-year sophomore, and Truax, a sixth-year senior, joined the team during the offseason despite over- tures from a number of other programs. Another transfer, Mitchell Mesen- brink, a redshirt freshman who started out at Cal Baptist, could win the 165-pound job over redshirt sophomore Alex Facundo. This is an Olympic year, which means some members of the team could com- pete less frequently than usual with an eye toward the U.S Team Trials at the Bryce Jordan Center in April. That means Penn State will likely use more lineup combinations than we've been accus- tomed to seeing. There are some key rule changes, as well. The most notable one is that takedowns are now worth three points instead of two. "Members of the Wrestling Rules Committee, which proposed the change, agreed that increasing the scoring for takedowns by an additional point will enhance the sport by rewarding offensive actions and risk-taking," the NCAA said in a news release announcing the change. "The committee also agreed there was a need to create a more appropriate point differential between takedowns and escapes, and incentivize offense when competitors are in the neutral position." Additionally, a wrestler who earns a takedown must work for a turn. To incentivize that, a three-point near fall (that's when the controlling wrestler exposes his opponent's shoulders to the mat) has been added in addition to the traditional two- and four-point near falls. Wrestling can now continue despite an illegal hold call, as well. Previously, an illegal hold stopped the action. All told, the changes should help Penn State as much as any school in the country, considering how aggressive it wants to be when it comes to forcing the action, controlling the pace and scor- ing points. Will it hurt some schools? There's no question, and Iowa may be most impacted by it. Still, the Hawkeyes will again be among the Lions' biggest challengers at both the Big Ten and na- tional meets. "Penn State lost valuable team points last year with the graduation of Roman Bravo-Young (133) and Max Dean (197)," Jon Kozak wrote for FloWrestling in a breakdown of this year's contenders. "However, the Nittany Lions had success in the transfer portal with the addition of Aaron Nagao and Bernie Truax. With those additions, Penn State actually returns more team points this year than they scored at the NCAA Tournament last year! "That's a remarkable stat and is just another reason why the Nittany Lions are big favorites to win another national title in 2024." In other words, the combination of change and familiarity brings us to one inescapable conclusion for longtime fol- lowers of Penn State wrestling: It will be tough for anyone to unseat the defend- ing Big Ten and NCAA champs. In fact, this year's tournaments could be bigger blowouts than last year's were. If Penn State stays healthy, it will control the dual meet and tournament competitions s from start to finish, just as it has throughout most of the sport's recent history. Despite all the change, that's not a new expectation at all. ■ O P I N I O N G R E G P I C K E L G R E G . P I C K E L @ O N 3 . C O M New Developments, But A Familiar Outlook THE LAST WORD Wrestling coach Cael Sanderson will return six starters, each a 2023 All-American, from a team that won the NCAA Tournament last year. PHOTO BY DANIEL ALTHOUSE

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