Penn State wrestling sensation Levi Haines would have preferred to win before overtime.
Oh, the 157-pounder would have loved to beat the No. 1 wrestler in the country for the Big Ten Championship as a true freshman, regardless of whether it was a first-period pin or a dogfight.
But if he had his way, the match would have been far less exciting.
“I would like to not do it in sudden-victory,” Haines told reporters not long after leaving the podium, where he claimed his first-place prize. “But that’s what it came down to.”
Indeed, it did, and Penn State fans loved it.
Although he would have preferred a less-stressful win, Haines loved it, too, and he showed it immediately afterword taking Robb down 2-1 in OT.
What was Haines feeling when he won?
”Pure emotion,” he said. I usually don’t do that. I couldn’t believe it.”
Haines wasn’t alone in not believing it.
As good as the true freshman was all season— he rose to No. 7 in the national rankings per Intermat— the idea of an 18-year-old beating a 23-year-old ranked No. 1 in the land seemed like a stretch.
To beat Robb, Haines was going to have to win one of the toughest matches of his life. He told reporters it was one of the five hardest bouts he ever had.
After three periods, each man had a point, and the next man who got one would become a conference champion.
That man was Haines, and the Haines got people talking.
One of, if not the first thing Haines did after leaving the podium was sign autographs for young fans, some of them likely hoping to be like Haines one day
Haines is still a kid in the eyes of many at 18, but he, along with his fellow Big Ten champs Roman Bravo-Young (133) Carter Starocci (174) and Aaron Brooks (184) know that recognizing those who support them is no small thing.
This win might not make Haines the favorite to win the 157-pound a national title in Tulsa less than two weeks from now.
But every person who didn’t believe Haines was capable of winning it all should believe now.
He’s been winning for a long time.
Haines came to Penn State after a decorated career at Biglerville High School. His hometown of Arendtsville, Pennsylvania, population 843.
He finished his high school career 105-5 with a state title and two state runner-up finishes. Haines didn’t wrestle for Biglerville his senior year, but not because he was done with the sport. Instead, he competed in college-level opens. He more than held his own, winning the Edinboro and Franklin & Marshall opens. Haines committed to Cael Sanderson’s wrestling empire in May 2021.
Earlier this season, fans wondered if Haines would he redshirted. That ended up not being the case.
Sanderson decided to burn Haines’s redshirt ahead of Penn State’s dual meet against No. 2 Iowa at the Bryce Jordan Center in January. That decision paid off. Haines beat Iowa’s Cobe Siebrecht and helped Penn State win the season’s biggest dual meet.
Haines finished the regular season with an 18-1 record. He entered the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 2 seed behind Robb. He received a bye for the first round and started his tournament against Indiana’s Derek Gilcher. Haines shut out Gilcher in a 6-0 decision. Haiens’s next match was much tougher. He went against third-seeded Kendall Coleman of Purdue, the No. 6 wrestler in the country. He grinded out a 3-2 decision to put himself in the championship match.
The win impressed many, including Haines’s coach.
“He has great poise,” Sanderson told reporters after day one of the Big Ten championships. “Tough match, tough competitor. He’s done a great job.”
After Saturday night’s action, Sanderson praised Haines’s ability to focus but have fun
“This is a sport, right?” he said. “It’s important. But it’s not so important you can’t just go have fun and be ourselves. He’s a good example of that. We want to win. Everyone wants to win. Our fans want to win. Our alumni want to win. But, still, it’s just a game and we’re just here to play hard.”
Haines had plenty of fun after winning the title.
After leaving the podium, amid all the craziness, Haines didn’t forget to make time for his fans.
All four Penn State wrestling Big Ten champs took time to sign autographs for kids and take pictures with fans.
At 18, many would look at Haines as a kid. But he showed an adult-level professionalism by taking time for his supporters.
“I think it’s super important for the sport of wrestling,” Haines said. “I think it’s awesome that kids come out and watch. I don’t know, at that age, that I would have been doing that. So, at that age, I think it’s pretty special.”
It would be special for Haines and Penn State wrestling if he won a national championship as a true freshman. To do that, there’s a good chance he’d have to beat Robb again.
It’s a lot to think about, but Haines doesn’t want to do anything drastically different to prepare.
“I’m just going to go be myself,” Haines said. “Just a step in the right direction.”