UNIVERSITY PARK — A lot can change over 11 months. Before this past week, that's how long it had been since junior Jered Cortez last put on a Penn State singlet and took the mat in front of the nearly 7,000 fans at Rec Hall.
Standing confidently with his hands on his hips at practice Tuesday, his once-trademark shaggy, unkempt hair now shorter and slicked back, the 141-pound grappler said he has his sights set on a national title.
But to do that, he says he's focusing on the short term -- shaking the rust off and working on things he can do every day to get better.
"I wasn't really happy with the way I wrestled Thursday and Sunday," he said about his 12-6 decision over Army West Point's Austin Harry and 10-4 decision over Bucknell's Matt Kolonia. "I can put up way more points than that. I'm not just trying to win, I'm trying to score on bonus."
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Cortez showed flashes of his bonus-point potential last season, coming right out of the gate in the first dual with a major decision against Harry, then pinning Stanford's Peter Russo, and picking up two pins en route to a third place-finish at the Keystone Classic before his shoulder injury at Lehigh kept him sidelined for the rest of the season.
Now up a weight class at 141 pounds, coach Cael Sanderson said Cortez is healthy and that he's confident in his ability as his starter.
"We want to see him get the most out of his career, reach his goals and make sure he feels like he's reached his potential," Sanderson said. "But ultimately, that's going to be up to him.
"He's the one who's going to have to go out there and compete and choose to be tough and score points, and be at his best in big matches. He's skilled enough and has a history of success, but it's up to him. We're watching, just like you are, to see how he chooses to step up."
With upcoming unranked matchups against Binghamton, Lehigh and Indiana, and at the Keystone Classic, Cortez will have time to build his confidence at 141 before the Southern Scuffle and the bulk of the Big Ten dual season at the turn of the year.
Now that he's wrestling at 141 instead of 133, Cortez said he's able to have a clearer focus and worry less about cutting and making weight.
"I was coming in and worrying about how much weight I needed to get off, and that's not how you get better every day," he said.
He said that missing meals and having to focus on how much weight he was losing every practice started to take a toll on other aspects of his life. But now that he's able to practice in shorts and a T-shirt again, and just worry about making sure his weight is up enough, he's seen improvement in all areas of his life, including in the classroom and his relationships with his family.
"It came to a time where I had to make a decision to go up a weight class and focus on the right things," he said. "I just have a better mindset now, and am going to get better every day."
But the size of the shoes he's filling as the starter at 141, the spot vacated by the graduation of four-year starter Jimmy Gulibon, is not lost on Cortez.
"I'm just happy and grateful for the opportunity the coaches give me, and for what I have in front of me," he said. "It's just an honor and a privilege to step on the mat for Penn State."Getting to wear the blue and white singlet has been a long time coming for Cortez, who transferred from Illinois after the 2014-15 season, then had to sit out a year due to Big Ten transfer rules.
"It's tough sitting out and watching your team compete," Sanderson said. "It takes a lot of character and it takes a lot of focus. But that's life -- you get slapped with adversity, then you got to see how bad you really want something."
Now that he's healthy and up at 141, Cortez will finally have his shot to see what he can do for the blue and white. But the junior isn't getting too far ahead of himself.
"I just want to focus on things I can do every day to get better," he said. "Accomplishing small objectives, consistently, will get me closer to that goal (of a national title) in March."