The No.1 Nittany Lions started the 2019-2020 season in style, dominating Navy 45-0 with pins from Luke Gardner, Nick Lee, Mark Hall and Anthony Cassar, as well as a tech fall from Vincenzo Joseph and a major decision from Roman Bravo-Young. The win is the first time since Dec. 2, 2018, that Penn State has shut out an opponent, and these ten victories highlighted the strength and depth of head coach Cael Sanderson's lineup.
Penn State will compete in the Black Knight Invitational next weekend and then travel to Tempe, Ariz., the following weekend for a top-ten dual with the Arizona State Sun Devils. Before those two competitions though, let's take a look back at what we learned from the season debut.
To no one's surprise, Penn State is a pinning machine
The graduation of program pin leaders Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf has not stopped the Nittany Lions from looking for the pin every dual. Nick Lee made that clear when he stepped on the mat to start the dual at 141 pounds. Lee led 13-3 over Navy's Cody Trybus at the end of the second period, but the major decision wasn't enough for the two-time NCAA All-American. He put the junior Midshipmen on his back with 44 seconds left in the match to start Penn State off with a 6-0 lead. Quickly following the lead of his veteran teammate, junior Luke Gardner made his Rec Hall starter debut with a first-period pin over Jon Park of Navy to prove that he belongs in the lineup.
Gardner spent the last three years wrestling as a back-up, spending a season redshirting and then sitting to three-time NCAA champion Zain Retherford before serving as the third wrestler in the lineup at 149 behind Brady Berge and Jarod Verkleeren last year. He knew his chance would come, as long as he stayed patient and continued to push himself in the room. When asked during media day what it might feel like to wear the Blue and White in front of his home crowd in a varsity dual, Garder's answer was simple. “I’m going to do the best of my ability to put that singlet on with pride and go out there and hammer some guys," Gardner said.
Defending national champion Anthony Cassar and 2017 NCAA champion Mark Hall also started their seasons with pins, taking down John Birchmeier and Spencer Carey at 285 and 174 pounds respectively. Hall went undefeated last season and Cassar took just one regular season loss. Both advanced to the national finals in 2019, with Cassar pulling off the title win over Derek White and Hall falling for the second year in a row to Zahid Valencia at the NCAA tournament. These pins once again prove why Cassar and Hall are the guys to beat in their weight classes and will be expected to put up similarly impressive results throughout the dual and tournament schedule this year.
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The four pins gave Penn State a combined 24 team points, and by the end of the dual, that total was doubled. The Nittany Lions gave up just three takedowns across all ten weight classes and made easy work of Navy, anchored behind the bonus points from Hall, Cassar, Gardner and Lee.
Kyle Conel and Brody Teske fought for tough wins in their Penn State debuts
The highly anticipated debut of 2018 All-American and Kent State transfer Kyle Conel came on Sunday night. The tough 197-pounder looked strong and competitive in his 4-2 win over Navy's Jacob Koser. Conel did not lock up any bonus points, and for a moment in the third period, he looked like he could be in trouble. But the graduate student showed of his grit and power by picking up a late reversal to fend off Koser and earn the win. His win caused a roar of enthusiasm from the Penn State faithful who have embraced Conel as a the man at a weight class held down by Nickal in the 2019-2020 season. He'll face even tougher tests as the season continues, but for now, Conel is undefeated in the Blue and White and looks to repeat his success from two seasons ago and find himself on the podium, if not the top of the podium, in his final year.
Brody Teske, another highly touted anticipated starter, took the mat in place of last year's starter Devin Schnupp and pulled off a nail-bitter win over Navy's Logan Treaster 2-1 after a controversial stalling call in the third period. His performance wasn't as dominant as those of some of his teammates, but Teske held on, picked up the W and kept the shutout going. Teske redshirted last year and will look to be the permanent starter for the Nittany Lions at a weight class that has a been a weaker point in the lineup for the past several years.
Don't mess with Vincenzo Joseph or Roman Bravo-Young
Two-time NCAA champion Vincenzo Joseph has one last chance to make a run for the top of the podium, and if Sunday's debut was any indication of Joseph's motivation, he's fired up and ready to go. The senior Nittany Lion lit up the scoreboard against Tanner Skidgel of Navy to pick up a 20-5 technical fall in the third period and add five team points to the board for Penn State. Joseph finished the regular season last year undefeated but took a loss at the Big Ten tournament to Iowa's Alex Marinelli before finishing second at the NCAA tournament behind Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis. With Lewis out on an Olympic redshirt this season, Joseph holds the No. 1 ranking, and though he didn't have to face a Big Ten challenger in his home opener, a tech fall in the season debut suggests good things for Joseph this final season.
In speaking to the media last week, Joseph said last year's loss prompted him to make some small changes and he's fully committed to being a champ for the third time this March
“I’m doing some things a little differently, that I haven’t done the past two years, just little things different here and there, diet, sleep schedule different things like that, ," Joseph said. "I’m just fully invested in myself to do whatever it takes for me to be the best wrester I can be."
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Joseph's teammate, 133-pounder Roman Bravo-Young was the sixth Nittany Lion to record bonus points in his performance against Navy, fighting hard through the final minute for the 17-6 major decision against Navy's Casey Cobb. Bravo-Young finished eighth in last year's NCAA tournament, but the weight class has cleared out a little bit with multiple returning All-Americans taking Olympic redshirts, opening a door for the young Nittany Lion to make a run at the podium. He'll have to get through 2018 NCAA champion Seth Gross if he wants to stand on top in March, but Bravo-Young is a fighter and training in the Penn State room only makes him tougher. Bravo-Young's style makes him a fun wrestler to watch, and he put some of his funky moves on display against Navy as a preview of what's to come for this returning All-American in 2020.
The Nittany Lions are deep and will be a threat at every weight class this year
This is an obvious statement, but one worth repeating: this Penn State team is dangerous. With two of their starters out of the lineup for injuries, Penn State still had no problem cruising to a shutout win on home turf. All-American Shakur Rasheed and Brady Berge are expected to return to their respective spots at 157 and 184 pounds later in the season, but junior Bo Pipher and Creighton Edsell can get the job done when called upon, and they fight for bonus points in every match just like their teammates.
Edsell battled one of the tougher third periods of the dual to finish off Andrew Buckley 5-2 with a last-second takedown. The redshirt freshman looked relieved when he took off his headgear, but smiled wide and pumped his fists knowing he had kept the shutout alive and earned his first win as a Nittany Lion starter. Mission accomplished.
Pipher also put up a big win for the Nittany Lions with a close 7-6 win over Scout Skidgel, after stepping in for Brady Berge at 157 pounds. His match-winning point came from an escape with :02 on the clock, and the win marked the 23rd victory on his career. Pipher has wrestled in dual meets for the Nittany Lions at various times throughout his career and proved on Sunday night that he can be counted on in big moments. Though his win was narrow, the final point proved critical in keeping the shutout goal alive.
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Head coach Cael Sanderson has a long list of athletic individuals in his wrestling room at every weight, and this will be a fun squad to watch in the coming weeks and throughout the season. If the home opener proved anything, it's that Penn State matches will be can't-miss showcase events every week.