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Know Your Wrestling Foe: Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State returns four individual national champs from last year’s squad that finished second at the NCAA tournament

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling Championship
Carter Starocci, seen here after defeating Iowa’s Michael Kemerer for his first national title as a true freshman, is one of four returning champs for the Nittany Lions.
Photo by Scott Rovak/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

After taking a look at Nebraska’s potential lineup in 2021-22, it’s time to preview the competition. After looking at the defending NCAA champion Iowa Hawkeyes right here, we move on to the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Despite falling short of the team title, Penn State showed that it’s stacked at the top with elite talent. The Hawkeyes won the team title despite having only one individual champion, while Penn State boasts four returning individual NCAA champs.

The Nittany Lions won eight team titles in nine years before Iowa dethroned them this year, and I anticipate that head coach Cael Sanderson and company want their top spot back.

Penn State welcomes back NCAA champ Nick Lee after he decided to come back and use his extra year of eligibility. He will be the only senior in the starting lineup, as Penn State boasts not just an elite lineup, but a very young one as well. Penn State could start as many as six freshmen this year after starting four a year ago.

Adding in the fact that they also brought in a former NCAA finalist as a transfer and signed the No. 1 overall recruiting class in 2021, I think they have enough firepower to close the gap between them and the Hawkeyes.

Weight-By-Weight Preview

125 pounds

Last season, true freshman Robert Howard took over at 125 pounds for Penn State and did a serviceable job. He went 7-6 while qualifying for the NCAA tournament.

Before going to Happy Valley, Howard was a big-time recruit who had made three Cadet World Teams. He went 133-10 in high school in New Jersey, a powerhouse wrestling state, and won two state titles while advancing to the state final all four years.

Also a possibility at 125 pounds would be Gary Steen, an incoming freshman from the class of 2021. The No. 29 overall recruit in the class, Steen could be forced into action if Howard needs to move up to 133 pounds. Or Steen could move up to 133 himself.

133 pounds

Last season, Penn State had Roman Bravo-Young at 133 pounds where he won an NCAA title. But with Nick Lee posting on Instagram about RBY moving up to 141, it’s anyone’s guess who could replace him here this season.

If RBY moves up to 141 and Lee moves up to 149, that would leave a huge hole at 133 for Penn State. The Nittany Lions could go with Brandon Meredith, their starter at 125 in 2019-20, or could bump up either Howard or Steen. I don’t really see any scenario where a combination of Howard, Meredith or Steen don’t end up as the starters at 125 and 133 if RBY does in fact make a move.

141 pounds

With the anticipated move up to 149 by 2021 NCAA Champion Nick Lee, RBY will take the reins of a new weight class. Moving up is always a tough proposition, but Bravo-Young has proven to be elite. I’m not sure he’s a full-sized 141-pounder, so he may struggle with guys like Iowa’s Jaydin Eierman and Nebraska’s Chad Red Jr.

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling Championship
Roman Bravo-Young
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Bravo-Young has a 58-9 career record for Penn State, with seven of those losses coming as a true freshman. The bump up in weight will be tough for him, but RBY has more than enough skill, quickness and experience to make a title run at a new weight.

149 pounds

After terrorizing the 141-pound weight class for the past four years, Nick Lee is taking his talents up to 149 pounds. After exacting revenge and downing Iowa’s Eierman in the 2021 NCAA Final, Lee will test himself against bigger competition.

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling Championship
Nick Lee
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The lone senior in Penn State’s starting lineup, Lee holds a 106-13 career record and is a four-time All-American. Despite winning an NCAA title, Lee still hasn’t ever won a Big Ten title and will look to get on top of the podium in the country’s toughest conference this year.

157 pounds

Penn State doesn’t have a clear starter here, as both their starters from the past two years are leaving the program. Brady Berge, last year’s starter, is retiring due to concussion issues. Bo Pipher, Penn State’s starter in place of Berge in 2019-20, is in the transfer portal.

In comes true freshman Shayne Van Ness. The No. 4 overall recruit in the class of 2021, Van Ness is ready to start. Watching him come up through the prep and junior ranks, he’s an absolute hammer. He’ll be a major problem for everyone very soon.

Here he is downing current Husker Dominick Serrano, a contender to start at 133 pounds for Nebraska, at FloWrestling’s Who’s Number One in 2019.

The only question is whether he’s big enough to be effective at 157 pounds. If RBY and Lee don’t move up in weight, Van Ness would be even better at 149 pounds. But a year at 157 before Lee graduates wouldn’t be a bad thing for his development either.

165 pounds

This weight was another weak spot for Penn State this last season. Joe Lee went 6-7 on the year and didn’t win a match at NCAAs, so I see Sanderson going with the incoming stud freshman Alex Facundo. He’s shown a willingness to do that throughout his career.

Ranked No. 2 overall in the class of 2021, Facundo will likely have to cut a lot of weight to make 165, but if he can do it he could be a fast riser. The two-time cadet world medalist, Facundo has had a ton of success against top level competition already with many wins over NCAA qualifiers.

Watch out for these Penn State young guys. Looks like the Nittany Lions may be building up to another run of dominance.

174 pounds

If my predictions come to fruition, this will be Penn State’s third-straight true freshman starter in their lineup. But Carter Starocci is only a true freshman technically speaking. In 2021, as a true freshman, Starocci shocked the wrestling world by winning an NCAA title by beating Iowa’s Michael Kemerer in the final. He went 14-2 on the year.

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling Championship
Carter Starocci
Photo by Scott Rovak/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Starocci downed Nebraska’s Mikey Labriola in the semifinal round of the Big Ten Championships before losing to Kemerer in the final, only to exact revenge at nationals.

He’ll be the favorite to repeat as champion in 2021-22, but he won’t be a heavy favorite. Kemerer is right there with him after announcing his return and Labriola is slated to represent Team USA at the U23 World Championships in November after winning the U23 World Team Trials.

184 pounds

Forming Penn State’s second set of back-to-back NCAA champs is sophomore Aaron Brooks. With RBY-Lee and Starocci-Brooks, Penn State will be a dominant dual and tournament team.

Big Ten Championship
Aaron Brooks
Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Brooks is 29-1 in his career with his lone loss coming to Nebraska’s Taylor Venz. After the NCAA tournament was cancelled in 2020, Brooks won his first NCAA title as a sophomore in 2021. Again a sophomore, Brooks has the chance to still be a four-time champion if he keeps on his current trajectory. Because barring injury, I don’t see him losing to anyone any time soon.

197 pounds

Last season, Penn State started redshirt freshman Michael Beard at 197 pounds. He did well, finishing with a 10-6 record and All-American honors with a seventh-place finish at NCAAs, but the Nittany Lions went out and got one of the best transfers in the country in Max Dean of Cornell.

2019 NCAA Div I Wrestling Championships Session Six
Max Dean
Photo by Hunter Martin/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Dean will be a junior and is a two-time All-American. He also made it to the 2019 NCAA final at 184 pounds. The trick here is that Dean hasn’t wrestled collegiately since that 2019 final loss to Drew Foster of Northern Iowa. Also, with Brooks the defending NCAA champ at 184, Dean will need to move up to 197, a weight he’s never wrestled at.

Taking nothing away from Beard and his accomplishments and talent level, Dean is a major upgrade at the weight. Adding an NCAA finalist with two years of eligibility remaining to your roster never hurts.

285 pounds

At heavyweight, Penn State has one of the most talented wrestlers in the country in Greg Kerkvliet. After battling a staph infection and blood clots that were life threatening early in the season, Kerkvliet somehow came back to wrestle a couple duals before the postseason.

The Penn State big man is a former No. 1 overall recruit and has flashed his potential. Still a redshirt freshman, Kerkvliet finished seventh at NCAAs to earn All-American status. He even beat NCAA finalist Mason Parris this spring at the US Olympic Trials before falling to Team USA’s Olympic representative Gable Steveson.

Should Steveson leave Minnesota early for the WWE, Kerkvliet would be one of the favorites to win an NCAA title this coming season.

How Would Nebraska Fare in a Dual?

Penn State is absolutely stacked. But that’s nothing new. Any dual against the Nittany Lions is an uphill battle, but let’s see how Nebraska might fare if matched up this year.

Starting at 125 pounds, Nebraska would have the advantage at the first two weights, assuming RBY and Lee do move up in weight. Liam Cronin should be able to down Howard, while I think incoming Nebraska transfer Boo Dryden should be a heavy favorite over whoever Penn State starts at 133. Ditto for Dominick Serrano if he wins the job at 133 for Nebraska.

Then comes one of the best matchups of the dual in RBY vs. Chad Red. Both are explosive and love to scramble, so this match could be a toss-up. But I think with Red a four-time All-American at this weight, he can get it done against the defending champ at 133. But it would be a match full of fireworks.

At 149, Nebraska will likely have Brock Hardy, who will struggle to deal with Nick Lee who wrestles at a relentless pace. Then at 157, it’ll be Ridge Lovett against Van Ness. Both guys will be a bit undersized for the weight, so I think Lovett’s experience and constant improvement will get him the win.

Another matchup of an experienced Husker against a true freshman as Peyton Robb takes on Facundo. A U23 World Team member, Robb has been improving rapidly and should be able to handle the top-shelf recruit.

At 174, Nebraska’s Mikey Labriola would be one of Starocci’s toughest tests. They hit last year at the Big Ten Championships with Starocci downing Labriola 3-1 in overtime. This match is a toss-up as they both figure to be much-improved.

Then at 184, despite Venz’s win over Brooks, the Nittany Lion has had Venz’s number ever since. I anticipate Brooks repeating atop the podium this year. This may sound absurd, but I don’t see him losing any time soon in college.

Then at 197, Nebraska’s Eric Schultz vs. Max Dean would be an absolute pleasure to watch. With Dean moving up and Schultz being a big 197-pounder, that may be enough to put him over the edge.

Then at heavyweight, I think Kerkvleit is about to have a special season and career and Christian Lance won’t be able to keep up with the athletic big man.

I honestly see a scenario where Nebraska could pull off this dual, but the way Penn State is built right now it’s built do dominate the tournament format over the dual format. With Nebraska bringing back so much experience and Penn State being so young, there are legitimate paths to victory.

Also, the way this dual would match up, it’s a lot of strength-on-strength. You got matches like Red vs. RBY, Labriola vs. Starocci, Brooks vs. Venz, and Dean vs. Schultz. When you get guys that high level together, anything can happen.

I would expect wins from Cronin, Dryden, Lovett and Robb, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Red, Labriola, Venz or Schultz pulled off wins. But Penn State’s lineup has the ability string wins together.

This would be a very intriguing dual. I hope it happens.