Penn State wrestling will hold its media availability Tuesday, where coach Cael Sanderson will have a chance to address the many questions — particularly about the Nittany Lions’ starting lineup — that have been swirling over the offseason.
But as we at the Centre Daily Times couldn’t wait any longer, we took our best guesses at the starting lineup, based upon returning starters and outside noise. Watch for us to be proved wrong Tuesday.
125 pounds: Gavin Teasdale
With two-four-time state champs in the mix, Penn State can hardly go wrong in choosing a starter at 125 pounds. The only hesitation is that both Gavin Teasdale and Brody Teske are true freshmen. If the coaches have not made a decision on the starter by Sunday’s opening dual, they could potentially start somebody else — like freshman and Wyoming Seminary graduate Joe Davis or last year’s starter for most of the season Devin Schnupp — while the other two compete in the wrestling room and in open tournaments until the coaches come to a final decision midway through the season. Doing that could allow Teske and Teasdale to both get more matches under their belts before dual competition, and help the coaches to make the best decision.
Whatever happens in the beginning of the season, it seems likely Teasdale will end up the starter by the end, while Teske works on getting bigger. Look for another wrinkle to be introduced into the lightweights next season when four-time New York state champ Adam Busiello enters the mix.
133 Pounds: Roman Bravo-Young
Last season, the Nittany Lions relied on graduate transfer Corey Keener to hold down the fort. This year, they will be looking at the rookie. Bravo-Young is far from a rookie, though, in the sport of wrestling. He had an undefeated high school career going 182-0 and winning four Arizona state titles. He has wrestled on junior world teams and is a U.S. Cadet Champion. He also showed he could compete with college-level competition this summer when he finished as runner-up in the U23 World Team Trials.
He’s going to need that experience to navigate through one of the toughest weight classes in the country this season. Bravo-Young has all the marking of Penn State’s next star, but he’ll be tested early when Penn State faces Lehigh and sixth-ranked Scott Parker on Dec. 2.
141 Pounds: Nick Lee
Of the first four weights in the lineup, true sophomore Nick Lee has the most collegiate experience. The Indiana native came off redshirt midway through last season to capture fifth place at the NCAA tournament. Lee took big strides at the end of the season and, even though he’s young, has the experience needed to help anchor the bottom portion of Penn State’s lineup and lead the younger Nittany Lions into a new era after key graduations at the end of the season.
There have been comparisons made between Lee and former Penn State standout Zain Retherford. The similarities could continue if Lee, one of two returning starters with a redshirt available, were to redshirt his sophomore season. If that were to be the case, redshirt freshman Jarod Verkleeren, listed on the roster at 149 pounds, would likely be a front-runner for that spot.
149 Pounds: Brady Berge
The battle to replace Retherford likely will be between Berge and Verkleeren. With three straight NCAA crowns, two Hodge Trophies, a 94-match win streak and so on, Retherford is going to be a tough act to follow. However, Berge has one thing that Retherford doesn’t have yet — a world medal. Berge committed to the Nittany Lions in 2016 as the top-ranked wrestler at 160 pounds and as a two-time Minnesota state champ. He was seen as the answer to Penn State’s “Who will replace Zain?” question until Cadet World champ and Hempfield high product Verkleeren flipped from Iowa State to Penn State in 2017.
Both had some freestyle success over the summer, with Berge avenging his U.S. Open loss against David Carr at 70 kilograms at the World Team Trials to make the Junior World team and eventually go on to win a bronze medal in Sweden in September, while Verkleeren came back from an early loss to finish third at 65 kg at the trials. The biggest question mark with Berge as the starter is how the weight cut to 149 will affect, if at all, his wrestling. Retherford’s departure left the 149-pound weight class wide open, and Berge could have a shot to keep that title in Happy Valley.
157 Pounds: Jason Nolf
Is it even a question who would be the starter here? To put it in Penn State coach Cael Sanderson’s words, “Nolf is Nolf.”
The senior showed last season that not even a knee brace could keep him from repeating as a NCAA champion. This year could be one of Nolf’s best seasons since donning the Nittany Lions’ singlet, as he starts out the season as FloWrestling’s No. 1 pound-for-pound wrestler in the nation.
Penn State fans will have to savor every moment they get to see the Yatesboro native raise those dual No. 1 fingers in the air this year after every win. Between Nolf and Bo Nickal, it’s quite possible the Hodge Trophy remains in State College.
165 Pounds: Vincenzo Joseph
Much like 157 pounds, it’s hardly a question about who should start here. After winning his second consecutive national title, Joseph, a junior, is on track to become Penn State’s first-ever four-time champ.
Even though the guy Joseph beat in the finals for the past two years — two-time champion and four-time finalist Isaiah Martinez, of Illinois — has graduated, the road gets no less difficult for Joseph. Aside from Martinez, almost everyone in the weight class is returning, including Iowa’s Alex Marinelli, who handed a Joseph a loss during last season’s dual meet between the two teams.
Joseph is the most under-the-radar of all of Penn State’s returning champions. He isn’t the flashiest of wrestlers, but he just gets the job done. For the Nittany Lions to retain their NCAA team title, they will have to have an all-hands-on-deck approach to replace those important bonus points they lost with Retherford’s graduation. Joseph could be instrumental in helping take on part of that role.
174 Pounds: Mark Hall
Hall returns to the spot he’s held down for the past two seasons. Whether or not Hall finishes the year at this weight class remains to be determined. He was asked by an Instagram follower what weight class he was going at this year and he responded with “184.” Does that really mean it’s going to happen or was he just trolling the questioner? Time will tell what happens and if Hall stays at the weight. If he does, there shouldn’t be any reason why he doesn’t reach the NCAA finals again. Nittany Lion fans will get to see Hall-Valencia IV when Arizona State comes to town in December — a likely preview of the NCAA finals.
Another wrinkle is that Hall does have a redshirt remaining, but look for him to use it not this season, but 2019-20 — an Olympic year. If Hall were to redshirt, the frontrunner to fill in at 174 would probably be Greco-Roman stud Mason Manville.
184 Pounds: Shakur Rasheed
When Penn State updated its roster this summer, senior Rasheed moved from 197 to 184 pounds. This will be the fourth weight change in as many years for the prolific pinner. Rasheed said last season that he was the most comfortable he’d ever been at a weight, and that it was the first time he was fully able to feel himself out on the wrestling mat. That comfort showed, as he pinned his way through the Southern Scuffle, earned a spot in the starting lineup and finished the season with All-American honors.
Although Rasheed has had his most success at 197 pounds, he was a bit undersized, having to eat “a lot of rotisserie chickens” to keep up-to-weight. His fourth and final weight class may end up being his best fit, as he’ll no longer have to focus on watching his weight or have to worry about having enough muscle, either. He can just focus on wrestling. It should prove scary for other wrestlers around the country, too.
As mentioned previously, Rasheed could get kicked out of his spot if Hall decides to move up a weight class. However, if Penn State wants to win another national championship, it would be best to keep Hall and Rasheed in place as Rasheed could cross-face cradle his way to another All-American honor and possibly the NCAA finals.
197 Pounds: Bo Nickal
Following in the footsteps of his coach, Cael Sanderson, it appears Nickal is going up to 197 for his final season. And as with his coach, don’t look for the weight change to hinder his wrestling. In no matter what weight class he’s in, Nickal should be favored. Flo has Nickal as its No. 2 pound-for-pound wrestler, right behind his teammate, Nolf, and No. 1 at 197. The wrestling world will get a taste of how well Nickal is fitting into his new weight class on Sunday when the No. 1 Nickal takes on No. 2 in Kent State’s Kyle Conel.
285 Pounds: Anthony Cassar
Rumors have been swirling all offseason about who Penn State’s starter at heavyweight will be. According to Penn State’s updated roster, Cassar, now listed as a senior, has moved up to heavyweight, the spot held for the past two seasons by two-time All-American Nick Nevills. There have been rumors that Nevills is still recovering from the injury he sustained near the end of the NCAA tournament in March and may not wrestle. But whether Cassar’s move has to do more with Nickal’s move or Nevills’ injury remains to be seen.
But if Nevills is healthy, look for another back-and-forth, season-long lineup battle for Cassar. With two healthy heavyweights, Sanderson and Co. will have a tough decision to make. Do they go with their two-time All-American in Nevills or Cassar, who showed grit in topping Ohio State’s Kollin Moore in the teams’ dual last year? In the end, whoever gets the nod will be in a totally wide-open 285 pound weight class with the Buckeyes’ Kyle Snyder and Michigan’s Adam Coon gone. However, Minnesota true freshman Gable Steveson likely will prove to be a problem for whoever he faces.