PSU is having its fun in wrestling

STATE COLLEGE — Penn State wrestling made waves during March’s NCAA Tournament be­cause of how often its wrestlers talked about having fun. Through one of the most grinding sports and vigorous of postseasons, all the Nittany Lions could talk about was how much fun they were having.

It’s hard to blame them. Penn State won the team title for the sixth time in seven years and crowned five individual champions. What’s not fun about that?

Thursday, Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson said during the team’s media day he couldn’t understand why more teams weren’t having the fun they were.

“I don’t understand why people don’t enjoy wrestling more. I love the sport. You get what you focus on,” Sanderson said during his press conference at Rec Hall. “We want our guys to be happy and be grateful for the opportunity to compete. Wrestling is a tough sport, but that’s a great thing. It’s not something we have to be miserable about. It’s a tough sport, but it’s what makes it so great.”

Penn State enters the season as the top-ranked team in the country by Intermat in both tournament and dual-meet rankings. The Nittany Lions return national champions Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf, Vincenzo Joseph, Mark Hall and Bo Nickal.

The discussion surrounding Penn State this year isn’t about whether it can win its third consecutive NCAA title, but if the NCAA tournament record of 157 teams points score by Iowa in 1991 is in danger.

The Nittany Lions open the season next Thursday at home against Army with Bucknell coming in to Rec Hall three days later. And expectations for Sanderson’s team have never been higher.

“In the sporting world, everyone wants to be the underdog, but we don’t want to be the underdog,” Sanderson said. “It’s easy to be the underdog because it means expectations are low. But we want high expectations. If we’re the underdog, we’ll embrace that. If we’re the favorite, we’ll embrace that as well.”

The Nittany Lions’ offseason was wrought with controversy as returning NCAA qualifier Nick Suriano, who missed the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments with an ankle injury, transferred out of Penn State and to Rutgers in his native New Jersey. Suriano will suit up for the Scarlet Knights this year after being released from his scholarship by Sanderson and Penn State.

The Nittany Lions are looking to fill holes at 125, 133 and 141 pounds. Sanderson said Thursday that neither of those three spots have been decided on yet as the team has gone through just one round of intrasquad matches in the practice room.

The most interesting of the battles seems to be at 141 pounds where Jered Cortez is healthy after wrestling just eight bouts a year ago. He was ranked in the top 15 in the country before the injury. He’ll be challenged for the spot by true freshman Nick Lee, who sat out his senior season of high school wrest­ling to train in freestyle. He’s a former cadet and junior freestyle national champion.

“We’re going to let it play throughout the year. We’re not in any hurry to pull (Lee’s) redshirt,” Sanderson said. “In a situation like we have with a veteran like Cortez with his ability and potential, it really has to make sense to pull (Lee’s) redshirt.”

The Lions got a boost at 133 pounds in the offseason when Pennsylvania native Corey Keener transferred in for his final season of competition from Central Michigan. The redshirt senior is a three-time NCAA qualifier and has won 55 matches in three years of competition with the Chippewas.

“Keener has had a lot of success already,” Sander­son said. “He’s just a good, solid kid. He’s tough in the room. We’ll find out as the season plays along where he fits in.”