Penn State is used to making wrestling headlines, and the Nittany Lions became the story this week when they surpassed Iowa for the No. 1 spot in the NWCA for the first time this season after dominant wins over Indiana and Maryland. The road to a national championship, however, doesn’t get any easier just because the ranking in front of their name has changed.
NITTANY LIONS NO. 1: How Penn State pulled ahead in the latest NWCA poll
Penn State has won eight of the last 10 national titles, but Iowa edged it out at last year’s national tournament — the Nittany Lions don’t want to let that happen again. Their match against Rutgers at 5 p.m. on Jan. 16 will be their first conference dual against a ranked opponent this season, and they’ll have a number of interesting contests across the 10 weight classes worth watching. These are the three biggest storylines to know.
1. Nick Lee vs. Sebastian Rivera — The ultimate semifinal rematch
The matchup of the dual on Sunday is unquestionably the potential rematch between 2020 Big Ten champion Sebastian Rivera and 2021 NCAA champion Nick Lee at 141 pounds. The last time these two athletes met, Lee took over, beating Rivera 9-3 in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament. Just two weeks prior, though, Rivera battled Lee into sudden victory in the Big Ten semifinals before ultimately dropping 8-6. While Lee has the edge in the series 2-0, Rivera is an unpredictable talent with the potential to upset the Nittany Lion champ.
Rivera’s path up to this point has been rather unconventional. The Rutgers leader started his career at Northwestern at 125 pounds where he won two All-American honors before bumping up to 133 and winning a second Big Ten title. Rivera then transferred to Rutgers as a graduate student on a quest to win a national title at 141 pounds. After finishing fourth in last year’s national tournament, Rivera is undefeated on the year with 100% bonus, recording two pins, eight tech falls, three majors and two forfeit wins in his first 16 matches. While he hasn’t faced top competition yet this season, he’s handled everyone that he’s met and dominated in all positions on the mat.
Lee, on the other hand, is 8-0 on the year with 62.50% bonus, his three decision wins coming against Connor McGonagle of Lehigh 13-6, Carmen Ferrante of Penn 6-3, and Grant Willits of Oregon State 11-4. The Penn State senior has been Mr. Consistent for his team, finishing 5th in his first two years at the NCAA tournament before earning a breakthrough victory against Jaydin Eierman in the 2021 national finals to take home his first individual title. There’s a finesse to Lee’s wrestling, as he’s becoming known for his fundamentals, though his funky style has grown in his four years in the Penn State room. Lee puts on a show for his fans, and he’ll be on home turf on Sunday. Expect fireworks.
2. Tracking the Rutgers rebound
The Scarlet Knights have had a stellar season so far, posting a 12-1 record with ranked wins over North Carolina and Illinois. The 21-13 victory of the Fighting Illini, in particular, came less than a week after Rutgers took its first loss of the season to Wisconsin 19-14, suggesting that the team has successfully rebounded and is on the upswing once again.
But Penn State is a different kind of challenge. All four of Penn State’s returning national champions are listed as probable staters in the dual, which means that the Nittany Lions will be expected to roll out their full-strength roster and rack up as many points as possible against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have been strong all season and have a dynamite lineup full of stars, but all of them will need to perform above their ranking for Rutgers to be competitive.
Leading the way for the team, as previously mentioned, is Rivera at No. 3. If he pulls off the win against Lee, he could create a major momentum swing that would put teammate No. 18 Mike Van Brill at 149 pounds in a great spot to fight for a win over Penn State’s 149-pound steady, consistent force No. 19 Beau Bartlett. Van Brill has the higher seed in this bout, but the two have never wrestled in college, and Bartlett has an impressive defense that helped him notch a win over All-American Kyle Parco earlier this year.
GARDEN STATE GRAPPLE: Relive the duals where Rutgers topped UNC and Hofstra
The Scarlet Knights have a gap of ranked wrestlers following Van Brill at 157 and 165 pounds, but these weights also happen to be two of Penn State’s weaker weights. The Nittany Lions are expected to roll out either Tony Negron, Terrell Barraclough or Joe Lee at the first of these two weights, while the Scarlet Knights have freshman Robert Kanniard holding down the spot. At 165, Penn State does have a ranked wrestler in No. 24 Creighton Edsell, a sophomore who has wrestled tough this year to a 7-3 record, and he’ll likely take on Rutgers’ Andrew Clark for a bout that leans Penn State’s way on paper.
Rutgers could run into trouble at 174 pounds, especially now that All-American Jackson Turley has announced that he will be out for the season after electing to undergo surgery. Penn State has NCAA champion Carter Starocci set to wrestle, and he’ll likely face Rutgers’ 174 pounder Connor O'Neill, who started against Illinois and is 9-8 on the year. O’Neill will need to wrestle gritty and compete against Starocci to keep spirits up for the Scarlet Knights heading into two important weights. A pin or tech by Starocci could be a momentum crusher for the Scarlet Knights, but regardless of that outcome, Rutgers will have high-profile bouts following O’Neill at 184 and 197 pounds where No. 5 John Poznanski is expected to take on No. 1 Aaron Brooks and No. 7 Greg Bulsak is slated to wrestle No. 2 Max Dean, respectively.
Poznanski was majored by Brooks in their one and only meeting last season while Bulsak is 1-1 against Dean, though their matches date back to 2017 when both athletes wrestled unattached at 184 pounds. If Rutgers wins either of those two matches, the Scarlet Knights would create major shakeups in the individual rankings at 184 and 197 and alter Big Ten and NCAA championship brackets. Their motivation, though, will be high, as both Poznanski and Bulsak will have a chance to prove themselves against national finalist-caliber wrestlers early in the conference schedule.
PENN STATE CHAMPS: Nick Lee | Roman Bravo-Young | Carter Starocci | Aaron Brooks
At heavyweight, Penn State will, again, have the advantage, this time likely to field Greg Kerkvliet against Rutgers’ unranked Boone McDermott. This will be a tough one for the Scarlet Knights and, much like 174 pounds, they’ll look to not get majored, teched or pinned against a tough All-American in Kerkvliet.
Rutgers has ranked wrestlers on the other end of the weight spectrum with Dylan Shawver and Joey Olivieri coming into this dual ranked No. 31 and No. 20 respectively at 125 and 133, but, they’ll also have top-10 Penn State opponents in No. 9 Drew Hildebrandt and No. 1 Roman Bravo-Young. Penn State is favored in all but one match in this dual on paper.
3. Penn State’s lineup is a puzzle: When will Brady Berge return?
The biggest story of the 2021-22 Penn State team is the powerful lineup the Nittany Lions have slowly been assembling all season. The emergence of All-American transfer Drew Hildebrandt last weekend against Maryland marked a new source of points at the 125 pounds and a surge in team depth overall, but that’s not the only change Penn State is working on in order to prepare for Iowa in March. Head coach Cael Sanderson has also bought back NCAA qualifier Brady Berge into the mix, and this addition is particularly noteworthy given that Berge had previously announced his retirement from the sport and was working as a volunteer assistant coach at South Dakota State earlier this semester. Berge announced that he would be returning to coach the Jackrabbits after this season but that he was returning to the mat one last time for the Nittany Lions to chase his dreams.
A familiar face is returning to State College, as @bradyberge announced he's coming back to @pennstateWREST https://t.co/N9Iq8BhzOp— The Daily Collegian (@DailyCollegian) January 7, 2022
This creativity and innovation from Sanderson is creating a championship team is nothing new for the successful coach, but the question becomes: when will fans see this fully loaded team for the first time? Berge is not listed as a probable for the Rutgers dual, and Penn State does have a solid lineup of upcoming Big Ten duals for Berge to compete in before the conference tournament, but his return will no doubt be highly anticipated by the Blue and White faithful and fill an important place in the lineup, particularly if he cuts down to 157 pounds again.
MEMORY LANE: The 21 best moments from the 2020-2021 wrestling season
Even without Berge though, Penn State is still dangerous enough to take on Rutgers, certainly, and even challenge Michigan and Iowa in the following two weeks. But for those latter two duals, they will need their other stars to compete healthy. Both Roman Bravo-Young and Nick Lee missed matches against Indiana last week, but both are listed as probable for the Rutgers dual. Their star quartet of upperweights including Starocci, Brooks, Dean and Kerkvliet are also set to wrestle this weekend and will need to stay injury-free moving into these final few months of the season. Penn State has a good track record of keeping their athletes healthy and ready to perform in big moments, and, with the team race as close as it is, that element will be even more important this year. The dual against Rutgers is a nice chance to see some high-level bouts and watch the Scarlet Knights battle this title-contending team, and this contest will mark the beginning of a tough, exciting two weeks for the Nittany Lions as they continue their quest towards an undefeated regular season.