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Penn State wrestling: Bucknell dual set for Friday in sold-out Sojka Pavilion

As one of the few Division I wrestling programs to regain varsity status after having been dropped, Bucknell has already accomplished a lot in its 13 years since reinstatement.

The Bison were able to hire former Michigan State standout and Bloomsburg coach Dan Wirnsberger, assemble a team from scratch, get ranked in the top-25, and field a couple All-Americans and EIWA champs.

On Friday, the Bison will accomplish another goal they had set when the program was reinstated — to sell out the 4,000-seat Sojka Pavilion, home of Bucknell’s men’s and women’s basketball teams.

“It’s a significant milestone for the program from it’s reinstatement, and I think it’s important to the alumni base, the Bucknell wrestling alumni base, central Pennsylvania, and most importantly our benefactor Bill Graham,” Wirnsberger said. “That was his vision, that was his goal and dream — one of them — to bring in the right team to sell out a wrestling event at Sojka Pavilion.”

Wirnsberger said they’ve tried to sell out Sojka before, by bringing in teams such as Oklahoma State, Iowa and Nebraska, but the Nittany Lions were the magic ingredient.

The tickets set aside for Bucknell fans sold quickly, Wirnsberger said, the Penn State fans and organizations started calling about tickets before they were even available to the general public. Approximately 4,200 tickets have been sold.

“It’s exciting to be a part of an event like this,” Nittany Lions head coach Cael Sanderson said. “Bucknell is a quality program and we always try to schedule some duals with programs that are really looking to do something special, like Bucknell has done with this one. It will be an exciting environment for our guys to compete in and we are looking forward to the opportunity.”

Wirnsberger said he recognizes that there might be quite a bit of blue and white in the stands come Friday, but he’s excited to give his wrestlers that experience of competing in a dual with national media attention and a sold-out arena.

“It’s something that’s not necessarily familiar for us; it’s more familiar for a program like Penn State, and that’s why it’s good for these guys to be under the gun in that type of atmosphere,” he said. “They’re going to do nothing but learn from it, grow from it, and gain the right type of experience from that atmosphere.”

Bucknell, however, is no stranger to scheduling tough opponents, having wrestled the nation’s top team now three years in a row, with Penn State this and last season and Oklahoma State in 2016. Wirnsberger said that by wrestling the top competition in the country, he’s able to better prepare his wrestlers for what they’ll face come conference and NCAA tournament time.

“When you’re facing the No. 1 team in the country, and they won seven out of the past eight national championships and half their starting lineup is ranked No. 1 in the country, that’s a good position to put our guys in just as far as opportunity, opportunity to build off of their performance, that’s what we plan to do, build off their performance one way or the other.”

The road back to varsity status

When he first found out in 2001 that Bucknell was dropping wrestling as a varsity program, Graham said he felt “sickened.”

Wrestling for the Bison from 1958-62, Graham was the co-captain for one of Bucknell’s two undefeated seasons. And then, four decades later, it was wrestling, Graham said, that helped him with successfully running the Philadelphia-based Graham Company — which became one of the nation’s largest insurance agencies and brokerage firms.

“Wrestling did more to help me develop and mature develop myself to point where I could handle most situations in insurance business,” he said.

For that reason, Graham was inspired to make a donation to the school to reinstate wrestling, as well as add a women’s rowing team, in accordance with Title IX requirements.

Shortly after finding out wrestling would be reinstated as a varsity sport in 2005, Graham said he was sitting at his desk in a meeting when his secretary rang in and said, “There’s some man on the phone, his name is Dan Gable. Do you want to take that call?”

Of course, Graham said, he was eager to speak with the legendary Iowa State wrestler and longtime Iowa coach, who told Graham how excited he was that Bucknell was reinstating wrestling and offered his help for whatever the program needed.

So Gable traveled seven hours from Iowa City to attend a meeting to talk about the importance of wrestling and be present for the announcement of Wirnsberger as coach.

Once instated as coach, Wirnsberger spent the next year “wandering around, looking for wrestlers,” as Graham would tell it.

Graham recalled that Wirnsberger reached out to the 20 guys on the club team to gauge their interest and got only one response: “Division I? Are you crazy?”

Since then, the Bison have had several successful years, including the 2014-15 season when they won a school-record 15 dual matches, including 10 in a row, and had six EIWA placewinners and four NCAA qualifiers. Last season was a down year for the Bison, with about half its lineup out with injuries.

“I’ve been through it all here, the highs and lows of building a program from scratch, and it’s kind of like figuring it out as you go along. … But it’s been great because for one, being able to build it the way you want to build it, you’re able to watch it grow and develop, and when you hit that plateau, which we did about year five, year six into the program, then you re-evaluate and see where we need to go and what the next steps are for the program,” Wirnsberger said.

“Thrilled” to have sold out Sojka, Graham said he’s proud of what the program has accomplished since reinstatement, from former heavyweight Joe Stolfi apologizing and extending his hand to ask forgiveness after an accidental injury to his opponent, to Tyler Lyster pinning Iowa’s Nathan Burak at the Grapple in the Garden in 2012 — the first Bison to record a dual pin against Iowa.

“There’s a lot of exciting experiences I’ve had with Bucknell wrestling, which thanks goodness, is back in place,” he said.

Excitement boiling over to Penn State

The mood in Penn State’s wrestling room on Tuesday, ahead of the pair of in-state duals with Bucknell and then Lehigh at home on Sunday, was one of excitement.

“This is going to be a fun weekend,” Penn State assistant coach Cody Sanderson said. “We really like both these teams — Bucknell and Lehigh — in-state teams, which we try to get on our schedule. We think it’s important to get out there and see those guys. From what we understand, Bucknell is sold out. It’s going to be a full house and a fun arena. Those guys are going to be scrappy.”

After getting his first taste of wrestling in front a full arena of Penn State fans during the Nittany Lions’ season opener against Kent State on Nov. 11, true freshman Roman Bravo-Young is hungry to get back out on the mat for his second and third collegiate duals.

“I’m very excited to get back on the mat after the break,” he said. “This weekend should be great. It’s so much fun here at Penn State with all the fans, and I hear Friday is a sellout, too. I can’t wait.”

For the Penn State wrestlers, Friday’s dual has the added bonus of being only about 60 miles east from campus. The dual will mark the first time in program history that the Nittany Lions are traveling to Lewisburg.

“We’ll travel the same day, wrestle, then come back,” senior heavyweight Anthony Cassar said with a smile. “So it’s basically a home match.”

Cassar said he’s looking forward to the match, not only because of the shortened travel time, but also to help Bucknell realize its dream of selling out Sojka.

“I think Penn State and other top schools have the responsibility to build those other schools up, and build the wrestling community up, because it’s not the biggest community but we all support each other. So I think it’s a good option for both of us to compete against each other,” he said.

No. 1 Penn State (1-0) at Bucknell (2-1)

When: 7 p.m., Friday

Where: Sojka Pavilion, Lewisburg

Radio: ESPN Radio 1450 AM, Lionvision on

Online: FloWrestling (paid subscription)

Nittany Lions vs. Bison
125: Devin Schnupp (2-3) vs. Geo Barzona (3-2) OR Jakob Campbell (2-2)
133: Roman Bravo-Young (4-0) vs. David Campbell (1-2) OR Noah Levett (2-2)
141: No. 4 Nick Lee (6-0) vs. Matthew Kolonia (6-3) OR Joey Gould (0-0)
149: No. 13 Brady Berge (4-0) OR Jarod Verkleeren (5-2) vs. Joey Schiele (2-4)
157: No. 1 Jason Nolf (5-0) vs. Zach Hartman (6-1)
165: No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph (6-0) vs. D.J. Hollingshead (2-1)
174: No. 2 Mark Hall (5-0) vs. Nick Stephani (4-3) OR Frankie Guida, Jr. (8-5)
184: No. 4 Shakur Rasheed (5-0) vs. Kyle Inlander (4-3)
197: No. 1 Bo Nickal (4-0) vs. Drew Phipps (7-2)
285: No. 5 Anthony Cassar (4-0) OR Nick Nevills (3-1) vs. Brandon Stokes (2-4)

No. 8 Lehigh (0-1) at No. 1 Penn State (1-0)

When: 2 p.m., Sunday

Where: Rec Hall

Radio: ESPN Radio 1450 AM, Lionvision on

TV: BTN (55)

Note: Lehigh wrestles Princeton on Friday night

Nittany Lions vs. Mountainhawks
125: Devin Schnupp (2-3) vs. Nick Farro (3-1)
133: Roman Bravo-Young (4-0) vs. Brandon Paetzell (2-2)
141: No. 4 Nick Lee (6-0) vs. Ryan Pomrinca (0-4)
149: No. 13 Brady Berge (4-0) OR Jarod Verkleeren (5-2) vs. Jimmy Hoffman (2-2)
157: No. 1 Jason Nolf (5-0) vs. Kent Lane (1-3)
165: No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph (6-0) vs. No. 11 Cole Walter (1-2)
174: No. 2 Mark Hall (5-0) vs. No. 7 Jordan Kutler (3-1)
184: No. 4 Shakur Rasheed (5-0) vs. No. 7 Ryan Preisch (2-1) OR Andrew Price (7-3)
197: No. 1 Bo Nickal (4-0) vs. No. 15 Jake Jakobsen (4-0)
285: No. 5 Anthony Cassar (4-0) OR Nick Nevills (3-1) vs. No. 6 Jordan Wood (4-0)

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