Penn State Preview: Lions Eye Another Title

When the NCAA finals drew to a close in St. Louis last March, it looked like Penn State had not only won its sixth team championship in seven years, but that another one in 2018 would be little more than a formality.

After all the Nittany Lions would return five individual champs – Zain Retherford (149), Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (184) – plus get 125-pounder Nick Suriano back in the lineup after the title contender missed the postseason with an injury. Throw in the further development of All-American heavyweight Nick Nevills and 197-pounder Matt McCutcheon plus the possible addition of talented freshman Nick Lee (141), and coach Cael Sanderson’s squad looked like it was headed for rarefied air.

No less an expert than David Taylor, who was part of four of those championship teams while he was at Penn State, said in the spring that the 2017-18 Nittany Lions would “break every NCAA record that there’s ever been.

But, as the season begins there’s a little bit more uncertainty. Penn State is ranked No. 1 and is still a prohibitive favorite to finish in the top two – the only real question seems to be whether the Nittany Lions or Ohio State will win the crown – but Suriano’s transfer to Rutgers showed the first crack in what has been Mount Nittany-like foundation.

“It’s a tough thing to lose a good competitor on your team, but we wish him the best,” Nickal said at the team’s media day on Thursday. “If that’s where he wants to be, then good for him. It’s a tough situation, but we’re not new to adversity, our team isn’t. We’re excited to get this year rolling, and we’re set at our weights.”

Sanderson’s not worried about how this year’s team stacks up to last year’s.

“I think the goal every year is to be the best team we can be,” he said. “And the goal for each individual is to be the best individual that they can be. So, that’s the goal. We’re not trying to be better than we were last year; we’re just trying to be the best that we can be right now.”

The Best

PSU Projected lineupThat still should be very good, if not great. After all, there is the matter of those five returning national champions.

Retherford enters the season on a 62-match winning streak, with 57 of those coming via major decision, tech fall or fall. It would take an injury or major upset for the “Zain Train” to not win a third straight NCAA title.

He competed on the Senior World team in Paris this summer, where the U.S. won its first team title in more than two decades. Despite having loftier goals of winning World and Olympic titles in freestyle, the redshirt senior is more than ready to get back on the mat for the Nittany Lions.

“This is another opportunity to win another national title,” he said. “I think that’s what motivates me. Just being grateful to be here. Being around these guys motivates me. We push each other, and the coaches push me and my teammates push me to be the best I can be.”

Nickal and Nolf will be favored to repeat this season. Both are redshirt juniors who won titles a year ago after losing the finals in 2016. Nickal is 59-3 in his career with 44 of those victories bringing bonus points while Nolf is 60-2 with 46 bonus-point wins.

Hall and Joseph weren’t favored to win titles last season and might not be this year. As a redshirt freshman, Joseph entered the NCAA tournament as the third seed at 165 while Hall, then a true freshman, was the No. 5 seed at 174.

Sanderson said that while last year’s titles don’t bring guarantee success this year, it can provide a mental edge.

“When you believe in yourself a little bit more, you’re going to be a little bit more committed, you’re going to fight a little harder, and when do those little things, you’re going to have more success,” he said.

The Rest

On most teams, Nevills and McCutcheon would be stars. Nevills, now a redshirt junior, made the most of his first opportunity in the postseason, as he placed fifth at the national tournament. McCutcheon enters his senior season with a career record of 62-28, including a 20-6 mark last year, and is seeking his first All-American finish after three trips to the NCAAs.

McCutcheon could be in a battle for his starting spot, however. Penn State’s projected starters for the opening match with Army West Point lists McCutcheon first, but also includes sophomore Anthony Cassar and junior Shakur Rasheed at the weight.

The Penn State press release doesn’t give much clarity to the situation at 125 either, as Devin Schnupp is listed first on a list that also includes Justin Lopez and Kenny Yanovich. Schnupp, who is Warwick’s all-times wins leader, went 5-8 while redshirting last season. Lopez went 0-4 at open tournaments as a freshman last season while Yanovich is a redshirt junior who is 18-16 in open competition during his career at Penn State.

“We’ll find out as the dust settles who our guy is at that weight class,” Sanderson said.

The same might be true at 141 pounds. Redshirt junior Jered Cortez is listed as the starter after an injury wiped out most of last season. He was 6-2 and ranked No. 13 in the country by Intermat. He also went 12-0 at open tournaments in 2015-16, a year in which he sat out after transferring from Illinois.

Cortez could very well be pushed by Lee, however. The true freshman has All-American potential and could force Sanderson to make a decision late in the year, much as Hall did a year ago.

“I think he’s got to be a clear-cut choice on the best option,” Sanderson said of what it take to burn Lee’s redshirt. “Jered Cortez is tough, has a lot of great experience, he’s 100 percent healthy again. It will depend on who we feel gives us the best chance to score points there. We feel confident that both have that ability, obviously.”

Penn State’s Path

Sanderson’s team will return to the Southern Scuffle this season after dropping out of it last season due to a heavy workload around the new year. The Nittany Lions also will take part in the Keystone Classic at the University of Pennsylvania, giving fans in the eastern end of the state a chance to see them in action.

As usual, the Big Ten is loaded, but Penn State gets Minnesota (Jan. 26) and Iowa (Feb. 10) at home, with the Hawkeyes dual scheduled for the Bryce Jordan Center. Road matches at Lehigh (Dec. 3) and Michigan (Jan. 12) could provide some intrigue, as will the dual at Rutgers (Jan. 28), when Penn State could see Suriano in another singlet.

Of course, the date that everyone is looking forward to is Feb. 3, when Penn State hosts Ohio State in a clash between the two favorites in the race for NCAA team title.

As the season begins, the Nittany Lions are considered the best bet to bring a championship back from Cleveland, home to this season’s NCAA tournament. While Sanderson isn’t too worried about where the Lions are in the preseason, he embraces the challenge of being No. 1.

“We don’t want to be the underdog,” he said. “We want to have that expectation. … It’s easy to be an underdog, because it means, based on your history, your expectations are low. Based on our history, we want high expectations.”

The expectations should remain high in Happy Valley for the foreseeable future. While Retherford, McCutcheon and Keener are seniors, the rest of the lineup should return for the 2018-19 season, and Sanderson and Co. are bringing in an incredible recruiting class that includes Gavin Teasdale and Michael Beard, the top two ranked seniors in Pennsylvania.

“Our job is to do the best that we can in guessing and trying to recruit the correct kids that fit our program and our culture,” Sanderson said. “And then also get kids that can win.”

So far, so good.

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