Despite new faces, Lions have title hopes

STATE COLLEGE – As the curtain is about to go up on another Penn State wrestling season, the goals remain the same, only the actors will be slightly different.

The Nittany Lions start the season ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/NWCA Coaches Poll as the winners of the last three NCAA championships and seven of the last eight. That’s no surprise.

“Obviously, everybody wants to win. We’re more focused on being the absolute best individual, the best team we can be; that’s the important thing to us. If we can do that, we have a good chance of winning,” head coach Cael Sanderson said Tuesday at Penn State wrestling media day. “We’ve had some great teams. This team has the potential to be a great team, but that’s up to them moving forward. We’ll find out.”

The surprise for many will come in the starting lineup Penn State will send on the mat at 1:30 p.m. Sunday in Rec Hall for the season opener against Kent State.

Even though he admitted he doesn’t like to divulge starting lineups, Sanderson then proceeded to detail the 10 starters who will see action against the Golden Flashes: sophomore Devin Schnupp at 125 pounds, true freshman Roman Bravo-Young at 133, sophomore Nick Lee at 141, redshirt freshman Jarod Verkleeren at 149, senior Jason Nolf at 157, junior Vincenzo Joseph at 165, junior Mark Hall at 174, senior Shakur Rasheed at 184, senior Bo Nickal at 197, and senior Anthony Cassar at 285.

There are surprises at several weights and Sanderson had an explanation for each.

At 125, most observers thought the starter would be whoever survived a wrestleoff between touted freshmen Brody Teske and Gavin Teasdale. For now, Sanderson said, “We have five months, right, but for now we’re going to roll with Schnupp and see what he can do.”

Schnupp, who went 1-14 last year, is hungry to win.

“I just want to win this year. I’m not as excited as I was last year. I think I’m just ready to get this done,” Schnupp said. “I just want to get out there and prove to myself I can do better.”

At 149, many thought junior world bronze medalist Brady Berge, another talented true freshman, would earn the spot. And he still may. Sanderson said he is still executing a weight loss descent plan after wrestling at 70 kilograms (154 pounds) at the world championships. Berge, Sanderson said, will probably see his first action Nov. 18 in Philadelphia at the Keystone Classic.

Verkleeren said not only is he ready to go, he said he’s a lot better after a redshirt year.

“They didn’t tell me that (he would start Sunday), but if that’s so, then I’m prepared,” he said. “I’m a lot better. I guess we’ll see Sunday.”

Finally, at 285, Nick Nevills is a two-time All-American and the incumbent, but Sanderson said Cassar will get the call. Nevills hurt his right shoulder during nationals and had surgery after, but he said that shoulder has healed. Sanderson said he and Cassar haven’t settled the spot yet.

“It’s doing fine. It’s about seven months. I’m wrestling really well with it. It’s on track to where I want to be,” Nevills said. “We haven’t wrestled off. We had wrestleoffs, but I did not participate.”

Cassar, who said he weighs around 235, sounds happy and hungry to compete at his new weight.

“I plan to bring a level of speed and creativity and strength to the heavyweight division that people really haven’t seen before,” Cassar said. “I’m a lot more natural at that weight class.

“At heavyweight I feel natural, I feel a sense of confidence. I was very confident last year but there was a little bit that was taken away from me because I was always focused on making weight, making weight, making weight and that’s never something I did. Last year was the first year I’ve ever seriously cut weight. I’m excited. I want all the best guys. I feel like at this weight I can challenge anyone in the world so I’m excited for it, for whoever they put out against me.”

He’s not the only one who’s excited for a new weight. Rasheed, too, said his weight change affords him a level of comfort he didn’t have last year as he and Cassar both tried to win the spot at 197.

“It definitely wore on me a lot, being a smaller guy (at 197). I still felt stronger than everybody, but that weight really wears on you throughout the match. It was a little bit harder to finish. Now that I’m at 184, I feel a big difference. The guys might be more quick than the guys at 97, but I’m fast, too,” Rasheed said. “It’s amazing. I don’t have to compete for a spot. Now all I’m competing for is what I’ve always competed for, to get that national title. I think it will be a big year for me. Just stay healthy and stay after it. It should be fun. The biggest challenge is what I’ve always struggled with, that’s staying healthy. Other than that, I’m going to win a national title.”