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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | November 16, 2021

Can Penn State challenge Iowa for a 2022 wrestling team title? What to know from Penn State's opening duals

The top storylines to follow this college wrestling season

The Penn State Nittany Lions opened their dual season on Saturday with two dominant wins over Sacred Heart and Oregon State by scores of 47-3 and 32-7 respectively, scores that indicate bonus points and scores that help answer some questions about the kind of team head coach Cael Sanderson will put out on the mat this year. 

After finishing second in last year’s NCAA tournament, the Nittany Lions are hungry to reclaim their place at the top of the NCAA rankings, and they have a deep team with four returning national champions in Roman Bravo-Young, Nick Lee, Carter Starocci and Aaron Brooks to help them accomplish that goal. Penn State, though, will need depth, as well as their talent at the top. This weekend showed that the Nittany Lions have that consistent strength through their lineup, particularly at the upper-weights, and while the lineup is likely not set for the season, there are some dangerous athletes on this squad that want to come together and add the Blue and White wrestling legacy. 

Here are the biggest things we learned from watching Penn State this opening weekend and what these results suggest about Penn State’s potential to beat Iowa in March. 

Upper weights are dominant and dangerous

In his media availability before the opening dual, head coach Cael Sanderson emphasized that his team was going to need bonus points to beat Iowa. Winning wasn’t going to be enough, his team needed to be dominant. 

Returning champs Carter Starocci and Aaron Brooks, alongside their teammate All-American Greg Kerkvliet showed what dominance looks like in their opening matches against Sacred Heart and Oregon State, winning by tech or fall in all of their bouts. Starocci and Kerkvliet both pinned their Sacred Heart opponents in less than five minutes and teched their way to victory against Oregon State, while Brooks teched his Pioneer opponent and added a pin against Oregon State in the first period. Cornell transfer Max Dean notched bonus points in his first two matches as well with a first-period tech against Sacred Heart and a 16-3 major decision against Oregon State. 

This sequence of elite title contenders from 174-285 pounds is going to be a problem for any team, even Iowa, looking to challenge Penn State at the upper weights. The Nittany Lions are known for these kinds of “murderer’s rows,” as they had one of the most impressive lineups of consecutive champs in 2017 when head coach Cael Sanderson put five champs — Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf, Vincenzo Joseph, Mark Hall and Bo Nickal — on the top of the podium from 149-184 pounds. Could Penn State create a similar situation this year? Maybe, but if there’s one team that wants to make sure that doesn’t happen, it’s Iowa. 

BOYS IN BLUE: Here's how Aaron Brooks won the 2021 NCAA title at 184 pounds

The Hawkeyes have top talent at 174 pounds in particular with returning national finalist and Big Ten champion Michael Kemerer who is coming back for his seventh collegiate season and wants to avenge his NCAA championship loss to Starocci for top honors. He’ll be a threat, certainly, and his All-American teammates Jacob Warner and Tony Cassioppi will also be striving to out-place the Nittany Lions, as they did last year, at 197 and 285 pounds. 

Iowa's Michael Kemerer vs. Penn State's Carter Starocci (174 pounds)

Heavyweight is a particularly intriguing weight, as both Penn State’s Kerkvliet and Iowa’s Cassioppi have an uphill battle to win the national title because they’ll be facing returning Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson who beat both athletes last year by at least five points. Steveson won the Hodge Trophy last season and is expected to run through the bracket again this year, so while Kerkvliet put up two impressive, bonus-point wins this weekend, he’ll have his hands full when the Big Ten schedule picks up. 

No team has ever had more than five NCAA champs in one year, but the thing that makes this Penn State squad so dangerous is that as good as their 174-285 sequence is, they also have championship athletes at 133 and 141 pounds in Bravo-Young and Lee. These two lighter wrestlers earned pins in their first bouts of the weekend in a combined time of fewer than five minutes, and both athletes also picked up solid decisions against Oregon State. 

The biggest remaining question is at 125 pounds 

The Nittany Lions have a history of dominance in the middle and upper weights, but the Blue and White have struggled to find a consistent point-scorer to start the duals at 125 pounds since the departure of Nick Suriano in 2017. Robbie Howard, a two-time New Jersey state champion, served as a strong rep at the weight last year, but the sophomore did not take the mat this weekend against Oregon State or Sacred Heart, as he’s expected to redshirt this season and recover from injuries. Howard came to PSU as a top recruit, but his absence means that the spot is, once again, open. 

THE STAROCCI STATS: The main takeaways from Penn State's 174-pound national championship win

Filling the weight class, as of now, is Baylor Shunk, a Pennsylvania native who scored bonus points in his Rec Hall debut to earn the spot for the second dual against Oregon State. Shunk redshirted in 2020 and amassed a 14-9 record before sitting out in 2021, but his performance against Sacred Heart was a good sign of his potential to pick up some wins this year. He showed the kind of grit and effort that is expected from the championship-caliber team in both of his matches this weekend, even his decision loss to Oregon State’s No. 29 Brandon Kaylor.

Whether Shunk’s results in these early bouts solidify him as the starter remains to be seen, as Penn State does have options at this weight, including freshman Gary Steen and 2019-2020 starter Brandon Meredith. The Nittany Lions currently have six athletes listed at 125 on their roster, including Howard, Shunk, Steen and Meredith, as well as transfer Jack Campbell and Marco Vespa. The story of 125 pounds is going to be one to follow as the Nittany Lions proceed through their schedule, and head coach Sanderson is going to want someone at this weight who can qualify for the NCAA tournament and earn team points in the process. 

Future NCAA qualifiers at 149 and 165? 

Penn State qualified nine wrestlers for the NCAA tournament last year, with the only gap in the lineup coming at 149 pounds where Beau Bartlett came just short of punching his ticket to St. Louis after shifting from 141 pounds to 149 pounds midway through the shortened season. Bartlett is now solidly holding down the 149-pound spot again, and the true sophomore picked up two hard-fought decisions against Sacred Heart and Oregon State with scores of 12-3 and 1-0 respectively over the weekend. There’s no doubt that Bartlett wants to wrestle in the postseason this year, and he has a shot to make a podium run.

LIGHTWEIGHT POWER: How Nick Lee took home gold at 141 pounds

Penn State has shown in the past that it’s possible to win a title without all ten wrestlers at nationals, but qualifying 149 pounds would be a huge benefit for the Nittany Lions, as Bartlett can score national team points. He took just three losses in last year’s season, with two of those coming in the Big Ten tournament to Michael Blockhus and All-American Yayha Thomas, and he pushed both of those wrestlers, fighting for every point. Bartlett didn’t put up the kind of bonus points that his upper-weight teammates did this weekend, but expected him to continue to improve throughout the season and be a threat this year in a bigger way. This is a guy that has competed on the national and international level before, winning a bronze medal at the 2021 Junior World Championships, and he has a much longer season this year to make his mark. 

One guy that did particularly impress in these two early duals but will have to battle for his starting spot is Creighton Edsell, a junior from Wyalusing, Pennsylvania who is 19-5 in his career for the Nittany Lions but has yet to wrestle in a postseason. Edsell’s best career win was a 2020 win over Lehigh NCAA qualifier Jake Logan, but he made a statement this weekend with a bonus point 11-3 win over Sacred Heart’s Scotty Jarosz. He followed that up with a decision victory against Matthew Olgula of Oregon State and could have booked himself the starting spot for next week’s dual against Army, though that remains to be seen. Waiting in the wings at 165 pounds is freshman Alex Facundo, a top recruit from Michigan who could slot in any time if Edsell isn’t looking like he could qualify for the tournament. 

Much of these weight battles — including the one at 157 pounds currently occupied by Joey Blumer — will be settled as the season progresses, but the Nittany Lions are good in shape. They have their returning champs, an NCAA finalist at 197 pounds and a truly dangerous heavyweight who seems to be a bigger title threat every time he steps on the mat. Iowa, of course, has a returning champ as well, two NCAA finalists and six additional All-Americans on the roster. Lineup decisions will impact how this team really stacks up against Iowa, but if bonus points continue and that upper-weight momentum train builds, this is a squad that should never be counted out. 

FAST AND FURIOUS: Roman Bravo-Young's journey to the top at 133 pounds

The Nittany Lions will take on Army next in the rare Thursday dual on November 16, while Iowa will wrestle in a fun dual against Princeton on Saturday, November 18, but these two teams will meet each other on January 28 for a battle that will offer fans a better sense of how these lineups stack up. For now, though, Penn State’s opening duals suggest this team has serious firepower and potential, as usual. 

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