Two weeks into the season, it appears Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson has more questions than answers.
Yes, his Nittany Lions are the top-ranked ranked team in the country. Yes, they’re still the consensus favorite to win yet another national championship. But Sanderson and Penn State have the Tom Brands-led Hawkeyes hot on their tails and can’t afford any missteps come tournament time in March.
Entering the season, the largest question marks were at 125 pounds, where returning starter Devin Schnupp had been displaced by redshirt freshman Brody Teske, and 149 pounds, where incumbent Jarod Verkleeren was locked in a battle with Pottsville’s Luke Gardner.
Teske appears to have come out on top thus far in the battle at 125, out-placing Schnupp at last weekend’s Army West Point Invite. But Gardner and Verkleeren look stalemated at 149. Gardner looked good with an opening-dual pin over Navy’s Val Park, and topped likely NCAA qualifier PJ Ogunsanya at the West Point Invite, but Verkleeren got the best of him in the tournament final, picking up a 3-2 victory.
The biggest question mark, however, is now at 197 pounds. Kent State transfer Kyle Conel, who sent shock waves through Quicken Loans Arena at the 2018 NCAA Tournament with his pin of top-seeded Kollin Moore, entered the season at the No. 3-ranked wrestler in the country.
The early returns on Conel, who is working his way back into shape after offseason shoulder surgery, have not been great. He struggled to a 4-3 win over Navy’s Jake Koser, a Northern graduate, in the season opening dual. In the tournament, he went just 1-1 before medically forfeiting out on the back side.
Waiting in the wings, should Conel not be the answer, is true freshman Michael Beard. Beard, a Malvern Prep product, was a top-10 overall recruit in the class of 2018 and spent last year on campus while deferring a year of eligibility. During his deferred year, he went 12-0 in unattached action with victories over NCAA qualifiers Greg Bulsak of Clarion and Chris Weiler of Lehigh, whom he beat 20-8.
With Conel working his way back to full speed and Beard still in redshirt, the expectation is that no decision will be made anytime soon. One typical deciding factor for the Nittany Lions is January’s Southern Scuffle tournament, one they are forgoing this season.
Because the US Open qualifier for April’s Olympic Trials in State College is being held in late-December in Fort Worth, Texas, Penn State has adjusted its schedule to give its athletes a full month off from Dec. 8 to Jan. 10. Sanderson said in his preseason press conference that he expects four or five Nittany Lion wrestlers to attend the qualifier.
One possibility is that we see a contingent of redshirting wrestlers head down to Chattanooga and compete in the Southern Scuffle independently. In 2017, Mark Hall went as an unattached freshman and won the tournament. Three weeks later he made his debut in a Penn State singlet, replacing Geno Morelli in a similar lineup decision to the one Sanderson may be facing this year.
Whatever the Penn State coaching staff chooses to do, it’s clear the margins will be slim. And with a national championship and a record-setting dual win streak on the line, the coaching staff will have to be as diligent as ever before.