Fans will likely find out a lot about this season’s Penn State wrestling team on Friday night at Michigan. That is as long as they have a full-strength lineup to use.
In between COVID, the flu, and other sicknesses, that hasn’t always been the norm this season. Many times, the Nittany Lions have had to put out patchwork lineups with backups filling in for starters that have been out.
Nearly every weight has seen a backup this season. And with guys getting healthy and a couple more coming in through the transfer portal like Drew Hildebrandt and Brady Berge, the Nittany Lions are inching closer to what may be the most powerful lineup they’ve had all season.
“Michigan is one of the very best teams in the country,” said PSU head coach Cael Sanderson. “That’s no secret. But I feel like every week is a test. The tests are just if we’re improving as we go along. Every week, different kids are having to step up, and I think guys have stepped up and competed well.”
The third-ranked Wolverines will be just the first leg of the weekend road trip to Michigan. After competing in Ann Arbor on Friday night, the Lions will then go to East Lansing to wrestle Michigan State on Sunday afternoon.
But as everyone knows, the main event will be Friday night for the top-ranked Nittany Lions.
Out of the 20 wrestlers that are projected to take the mat at Michigan between the two schools, 19 of them are ranked in their weight classes. Surprisingly, the one that isn’t ranked is PSU’s Tony Negron at 157.
The Wolverines have seven wrestlers ranked in the top 10, including former PSU 125-pounder Nick Suriano, who is ranked No. 1 at the weight.
They also have a couple Olympians in Myles Amine and Mason Parris.
“This is a very good team, a well-coached team,” said Sanderson. “They have two Olympians in their lineup. That might be a record. That’s kind of neat.”
Sanderson is about as even-keel of a coach as you’re ever going to find, and he’s trying to not make a dual meet of this caliber bigger than it is.
“I think you’re preparing for the big matches year round,” he said. “It’s not you have a big dual coming up in three days and we’re really going to shift gears now. For us it’s just trying to get our guys better. I’m sure our guys in the lineup know the top guys in their weight class. They’re preparing for them year round.”
While Michigan will be quite the test, the Nittany Lions shouldn’t have nearly as tough of a time with the unranked Spartans. There will still be a few quality matches as Michigan State has four wrestlers in their lineup ranked, but all of them fall outside the top 10.
Friday’s dual with Michigan is set for 6 p.m. on the Big Ten Network. Sunday’s meet at Michigan State will be at 1 p.m. and will only be seen on BTN Plus.
The ‘What if?’ game
Nobody likes to lose, including the Nittany Lions, who don’t do very much of it in dual meets.
But in the case of a loss on Friday night or even later in the season, there are still bigger prizes on the horizon coming up a couple months down the road.
Beau Bartlett, who lost a two-tiebreaker overtime match last weekend against Rutgers’ Michael VanBrill, was a prime example.
“Beau Bartlett was disappointed he didn’t win that match,” said Sanderson. “He had a lot of opportunities to win the match. I think that loss in particular will be a huge blessing to him as he approaches the rest of the season. We’re not afraid to lose. If you’re afraid to lose, you’re probably never going to really win. We don’t get too worked up over wins or losses.”
1 vs. 2
One of the most anticipated matches of the season, not just for Penn State, but for all of college wrestling will take place on Friday night at 184 pounds for PSU’s top-ranked Aaron Brooks against Michigan’s No. 2 Myles Amine.
It’s nothing new for Brooks, who has already faced a number of quality opponents just in the last couple weeks.
“We call this the gauntlet part of the season,” said Brooks. “It’s a lot of fun getting to wrestle these guys. I’ve had some really good opponents these last couple weeks. I’m definitely not just thinking about these guys now. I have to see these guys Big Ten duals, Big Ten Championships, and NCAAs. I just try to make it fun.”
Brooks, who said he won’t change up too much in preparation for Amine, said he doesn’t know his foe that well. The two spent time together while training for the Olympic trials last year, but didn’t spend much time around each other due to strict COVID protocols.
“I don’t really know him, but I’m sure he’s a great guy,” said Brooks.