The reigning NCAA champion Penn State Nittany Lion team rolled out all of its expected starters for Friday night's dual against Lock Haven, and this team just put on a clinic against its opponent. Despite losing the first match at 125 pounds, Penn State roared past the Bald Eagles, scoring bonus points, racking up pins and demonstrating the kind of dominance that has come to define this program over the last decade. Here are the three biggest takeaways from this standout opening performance.
Individual defending champs look healthy, strong and nearly unstoppable
Penn State entered the 2022-2023 season with high expectations, particularly given that four of its five NCAA champions from last season return, and this team looked as sharp as ever in this opening bout. Lock Haven doesn’t have the depth of some of the Big Ten teams that Penn State is likely to face this year, but the Nittany Lions still brought the intensity, scoring bonus points in eight of the ten matches and winning with conviction. This dual sent a message that Penn State’s stars aren’t messing around, and they are here to make some noise all season long.
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Led by senior two-time NCAA champion Roman Bravo-Young’s third-period tech fall against Gable Strickland, all of Penn State’s returning champs dominated their opponents, showing off their trademark strength and speed. At 174 pounds, No. 1 Carter Starocci majored Tyler Stoltzfus and put up 19 points along the way. Stoltzfus’s only points came by way of escapes, and while the Lock Haven sophomore did run down Starocci’s riding time in the third period and show toughness in holding down the national champ enough to avoid giving up that extra point, Starocci’s power was too much for Stoltzfus.
Following Starocci, Penn State wrestlers Aaron Brooks and Max Dean both ended their matches early, with Brooks teching his opponent in the third period and Dean notching a first-period pin by way of his stellar top wrestling. Brooks’ ability, in particular, to fire off takedown after takedown and outscore his opponent 24-9 with such ease is a dangerous reality for the rest of the 184-pound weight class. The reigning champ could face his first real challenge of the year in mid-December when Penn State meets Oregon State and Brooks potentially faces No. 6 Trey Munoz, though Brooks is looking every bit like a national champion again based on the offense and finesse he showed against Lock Haven.
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Brooks’ teammate and fellow national champion Max Dean’s dominance is also a welcome sight for Penn State fans, as the returning 197-pound champ certainly has the potential to repeat as a title winner but is again one of many athletes in a deep weight class. Last year, Dean rolled through his first dozen opponents before taking his first loss as a Nittany Lion against Cam Caffey of Michigan State in the dual on January 23. He rallied quickly after that though, winning all of his remaining duals of the year. The closeness of some of those matches, however, showed that there are wrestlers looking to make small adjustments and challenge Dean.
His pin over Brad Morrison is a nice way to start the season for Dean and a strong momentum builder heading into the next few months. He could potentially have a top-ten match coming up next month against Lehigh All-American and Penn State transfer Michael Beard, and this bout will be an even more important test for Dean. He did what he needed to do against Lock Haven to show off his skills, and he’s undoubtedly a key part of a Penn State lineup that wants to bring another national title to State College.
These freshmen are the real deal
Penn State’s returning national champs are reliable and consistent, but the scoring potential of the newcomers in the lineup was less certain heading into Friday’s bout. Both Alex Facundo and Shayne Van Ness, who wrestle at 165 and 149 pounds respectively, came into college as highly-touted recruits but hadn’t seen any varsity action prior to this point. Each of them, however, clearly showed against Lock Haven that they are ready for this level, and they are here to make an impact for the Nittany Lions.
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Van Ness, who went undefeated during his redshirt season last year in just two bouts, was a particularly untested starter for Penn State, and his health and potential remained unknown heading into the year, simply because he hadn’t wrestled much at the collegiate level in the last year. Yet, he responded to any concerns on Friday night by pinning Connor Eck of Lock Haven in the third period — his performance electrified Rec Hall. While Eck isn’t ranked, the aggressiveness and fierceness with which Van Ness wrestled suggests great things about his potential this year as a point-scorer at NCAAs. Van Ness raced out to an early lead in his bout and immediately started looking for back points. This kind of confidence and grit could make Van Ness dangerous moving forward.
6️⃣ points for Penn State, but we’re not talking football.— The Daily Collegian (@DailyCollegian) November 12, 2022
Shayne Van Ness delivers a pin for the Nittany Lions in his Penn State debut 🤼♂️
He’ll have an even tougher test than Eck next weekend against Rider when he potentially meets No. 18 national qualifier Quinn Kinner, but if he can be similarly forceful in that bout, he’ll be even more likely to be considered an All-American contender at this point in the season. Van Ness inherited a weight class previously held down by national qualifier Beau Bartlett, but with Bartlett dropping down to 141 pounds following the graduation of national champion Nick Lee, Penn State is able to utilize Van Ness and potentially earn podium finishes in March from Van Ness and Bartlett in back-to-back weight classes.
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Up at 165 pounds, teammate Alex Facundo slots into a weight that was last occupied by Creighton Edsell, and the newcomer will be expected to enhance the weight for the Nittany Lions and be a point-scorer in March. Against Lock Haven, Facundo immediately took over his debut match, scoring right away and then racking up takedowns at ease against Aiden Gaugler. By the end of the first period, he led 12-6, with Gaugler’s only points coming from escapes, nearly all of which Facundo granted. This dominance extended into the next two periods, as Facundo took Aiden Gaugler down five more times in the second period before ending the match early in the third after the scoreboard hit 27-12.
There was no complacency from Facundo in this match, no hesitation, no fear. The freshman steamrolled through this opponent with the kind of carefree, loose style that Penn State is known for, and he wrestled like someone who has worn that Blue and White singlet before. Facundo clearly has talent, and he should have a smooth run to the Collegiate Duals in December before his schedule picks up in intensity.
The future looks bright for the Nittany Lions, though big tests will come later
While Penn State’s performance was electrifying for Nittany Lion fans and kicked off the season on a true high note, the Blue and White’s dual schedule isn’t particularly challenging in these early months. Penn State will see Rider next weekend and then meet a ranked Lehigh team that just suffered a tough, lopsided loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday. After Lehigh, the Nittany Lions take on a rising Oregon State team, but all three of these next duals offer only a handful of ranked bouts.
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The true challenge for Penn State will come potentially at the Collegiate Duals and most certainly when the Big Ten schedule starts. Iowa could push Penn State on January 27, but Penn State fans can feel good about where the team is at after this Lock Haven bout. Penn State’s stars are performing, and they are scoring big points. The newcomers look tough, and the lineup has the kind of leaders that the team will need come March. Penn State started the season with an exclamation mark and is on its way to another national title quest.