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'Going Byers': The Voice of Penn State Wrestling Offers Pre-Tournament Insights

by on March 07, 2019 5:00 AM

It was a bit of a coincidence to be meeting two veteran observers of the Penn State wrestling program on this particular day. Joining me for breakfast at The Corner Room were Eric Bernier, a season ticket holder since the late 1980s, and Chuck Yorks, the public address announcer for home matches throughout the last eight seasons.

It just so happened that later on the same day I would be meeting another longtime observer of Nittany Lion wrestling—Jeff Byers, now in his 30th year of radio broadcasting for the Nittany Lions. There was no intended linkage between the two meetings, but I couldn’t help asking Bernier and Yorks for their insights into the man known as “Ironhead.”

Bernier got us rolling by mentioning his term for the broadcaster’s passion: “going Byers.”  It was a label that resonated with all of us. Although Byers is unfailingly fair to Penn State’s opponents, he openly roots for Cael Sanderson’s crew and sometimes reaches levels of intensity that fittingly match a lion’s roar.  

Said Bernier, “He weaves his passion into his play-by-play with knowledge of wrestling and of the wrestler. He’s a Penn State fan, but he has the ultimate respect for the sport first, and that carries over to the opponent and the official.”

“If you’re following the match,” said Yorks, “his excitement makes sense and you’re celebrating along with him. But if you’re not closely following the match when he goes Byers, you’re thinking, ‘I hope he comes down to earth so he can tell me what the score is and what just happened.’”  

With those words in my mind, I walked into a Dunkin Donut just a few hours later, eager to learn more about Coach Cael Sanderson’s grapplers — winners of seven NCAA championships in the last eight years — and about the man who communicates their work with such gusto. The following is a condensation of our 90-minute conversation that summarized the dual meet season and looked forward to the upcoming Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Included are Byers’ choices for his annual “Ironhead Awards” and at least one bold prediction that may turn a few heads within the wrestling community.  

It seems like you’ve had an exciting year with a new partner on your morning show (Gary Sinderson joined Byers on WRSC’s “Morning Guys”) and a new afternoon show on Tuesdays and Thursdays (the “Goon and Ironhead Show” with Keith Conlin began on ESPN Radio 1450). And unless Facebook is lying, you’re engaged to be married.

Byers:  This is all true.  It’s been a very good year, a year with many blessings.

No complaints on your part?

Byers:  No complaints at all.

Who is the lucky woman?

Byers:  Marisa Vicere. She runs the Jana Marie Foundation which is a local nonprofit that works for the mental health of young girls and now boys, as well. Her sister died by suicide and Marisa started a foundation in her memory. They do a lot of work trying to get young people to connect, to understand their bond within the community. And they do a lot with artistic expression to try to let them have an outlet for emotions, thoughts and feelings. The foundation is growing at an unbelievable rate right now.   

Well, here we go on the topic of wrestling. How would you summarize Penn State’s dual meet season?  

Byers:  A lot of fun. But I think it was challenging for the team in some ways that people don’t understand. There were more injuries than they would have liked to deal with. I think this team was obviously a tremendous dual meet team, just tremendous to watch.   

What would you have said in October or November if I told you Penn State was going to have five undefeated wrestlers going into the Big Ten tournament?

Byers:  I would have probably said that was possible. But I’m not sure I would have said it was likely.  Going into the season, you were expecting Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal to be undefeated. Mark Hall… you knew he had the big matchup with Zahid Valencia. You knew Hall could win it but you couldn’t guarantee anything. (Hall avenged last year’s 8-2 loss in the NCAA finals by beating Valencia, 4-0, on Dec. 14 in Rec Hall.) Same thing with Vincenzo Joseph. It wasn’t a question of whether he’d be good enough but the 165-pound weight class, to me, is as loaded as any outside of 133. Shakur Rasheed obviously didn’t get a chance to wrestle Myles Martin (Ohio State’s 184 pounder who is ranked first in the nation).

I don’t think it’s shocking or stunning that they have five undefeated wrestlers, but it’s obviously very impressive. What’s all the more impressive to me is not only do you have the five undefeated kids, but you have two with one loss each and two others with just two losses. You’re talking about a team where at nine weight classes you have six combined losses among the starters. This is a team that has a chance to go down as one of the greatest — or arguably the greatest — in the history of the sport. Certainly in the history of Penn State wrestling.

Jeff Byers (left) and Chuck Yorks are matside fixtures in Rec Hall. Photo by Jennie Yorks.

How about Big Tens? Sometimes it’s harder for Penn State to win the Big Ten tournament than the national tournament.

Byers:  They’ve won more national titles than Big Ten championships under Cael. This year, I think Penn State will win both, but I think it may be more challenging to win Big Tens again this year than nationals. It’s just so compacted at Big Tens. I really think when you look at Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa — obviously they are the big guns. But now Wisconsin and Nebraska both have really, really good teams. And you have some great individuals spread throughout the rest of the conference. Pretty much from the quarterfinals on, you’re facing guys that are All-America caliber.  

I hear what you’re saying about how things are more compacted at the Big Tens. But can you break it down for me in a way that I can understand mathematically? Does Penn State’s bonus point potential show up better at nationals than at the Big Tens?

Byers:  That’s part of it. At nationals, you have 33 wrestlers at each weight class. Assuming you don’t get a pigtail bout, you’re wrestling five bouts to win a national title. A lot of times those first two rounds are chances to pick up bonus points if you’re an elite wrestler. Not taking anything away from the kids that are at nationals, but a lot of them are not as tested as the Big Ten kids are. I do think those first couple of rounds at the NCAA tournament provide big opportunities for bonus points whereas it’s only the first round that clearly provides that opportunity at Big Tens.  

Well, if you’re ready, I’d like to hear your selections for the second annual “Ironhead Awards.”  So I’ll mention the category and listen for your choice and the reason behind it…

  • The Ironhead Award for Valiant Effort in One Bout:  This is tough. There’s been several great individual efforts, but if I have to pick one it would be Nick Lee in his win over Ohio State’s Joey McKenna. Lee falls behind early against McKenna, and you can kind of feel the crowd in Columbus waiting for the opportunity to explode, and McKenna’s feeling good. Lee just kind of weathered that storm in the first period and kept battling. Obviously by the end of it… my guess is that McKenna’s weight cut had a lot to do with it… McKenna just had nothing left. He had literally nothing left to give. But that’s to Nick’s credit that he kept it close in the first period and then kept battling, kept grinding and then was obviously able to put it away. That was a huge win, together with Roman Bravo-Young’s win over Luke Pletcher in his first bout back after injury.

  • The Ironhead Award for Valiant Effort Throughout the Season:  This one is also tough. At this point, I’m leaning to Anthony Cassar just because this is a kid who has overcome a number of injuries. At one point he withdrew from Penn State, was not on the team, was not wrestling and was just working on rehabbing. Then he lost his spot (in the lineup) last year. And I think it would have been easy to sulk, to feel bad for yourself and to blame other people for circumstances. In his last bout at 197 pounds, he knocks off the number one guy in the country (Ohio State’s Kollin Moore) and then later loses his starting job. I think most people would be a little resentful of that, a little angry and miffed. For Cassar, it was just the opposite. And I really do think that is unique — to ask, “What can I do to get to where I want to be?” So this year, here comes Bo Nickal moving up to 197 and here’s a two-time All American in Nick Nevills coming back at heavyweight. But Cassar decides, “Heavyweight is where I’ll be most comfortable and have the best shot.” He had a good showing at the Keystone Classic and really never relinquished the job from that point on. And I don’t think it’s just that he’s won so much (21-1 record) and overcome the injuries, but it’s the way he’s gone about his business. His passion is contagious, even on a team that is full of passionate wrestlers.

  • The Ironhead Award for Greatest Off-Mat Contributor:  There are a lot of strong candidates. For a sport that really is an individual sport, this is a remarkably unselfish team. Nick Nevills, to me, is a guy who deserves a lot of credit for the way he’s handled his situation, a two-time All American who’s been knocked out of the starting lineup. I think he loves Penn State; obviously his younger brother is going here. (Seth Nevills, a four-time California state high school champ, is currently training in State College and plans to join the Lions next year.) I’ve been impressed by the way he has handled everything, remaining an upbeat influence and taking things in stride. Obviously, it has to hurt that you’re not getting a chance in your senior year to show the improvement you’ve made. But day in and day out, he’s part of this team and ready if something unforeseen would happen to Anthony.

  • The Ironhead Award for Most Overlooked Contributor:  It’s funny, Vincenzo still gets overlooked. I can kind of understand that for the previous two seasons because he was not dominant during the regular season, although he was very good. But this year, it is kind of funny to me because you’re talking about a guy who is the third most dominant wrestler in the country. Only Nolf and Nickal have been better than him. I’ve had a couple different conversations with people and they say, “Oh yeah, Vincenzo’s good; he just doesn’t pin guys.” But he does, this season! I do think he’s getting overshadowed by Nolf and Nickal. It sounds a little ridiculous to say that somebody’s unappreciated as a two-time national champ who’s going for a third title as a junior. But it does feel like Vincenzo does not get his just due some times. Truthfully, I think he’s good with that — it just lets him sit back and enjoy the process. And Mark Hall is in much the same boat.  

What do you think has been the most inspiring memory that you’ll have from this season?

Byers:  I think Devin Schnupp getting his first Big Ten victory and watching the reaction of his teammates as he came off the mat was a big deal. They celebrated with him. It was just neat to see that there is that camaraderie.  Not that you didn’t know they were pulling for him, but to have that moment for him was big. And Roman Bravo-Young… really the first time he’s had to deal with injury… so him coming back to get that win over Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher was huge in a number of different ways. I think it changes his mind a little as to what he sees as possible with the post-season coming up. Roman is just a phenom. He’s as quick of a wrestler as I’ve ever seen at Penn State.

Can you recall any humorous moments from this season?

Byers: They’re a fun team that likes to keep things in perspective. I think it was Vincenzo and Bo Pipher who came up with the dodgeball power rankings for the team. And Vincenzo take a lot of pride in those rankings. Oddly enough, he and Pipher were No. 1 and No. 2 in the power rankings. Rasheed and Cassar have their own brand of humor, and they keep things loose. One of the things I like best about Cael is he really does let the kids be themselves and express their own individuality.

What do you think about the dynasty continuing?  

Byers:  I think Penn State has a chance to be historically great this season. I think there is a chance for Penn State to set the scoring record at the NCAA tournament. And obviously if you do that, you can at least make the argument that you’re the greatest team ever. And I think this year’s team has a real shot at doing that.

What is the record for scoring at nationals?

Byers:  It’s 170 points by the 1997 Iowa team. That was a team that had five champions — six in the finals — and had eight All Americans. They had a fifth place finisher and a sixth place finisher along with the six finalists. And Iowa that year had nine pins and received one medical forfeit from an opponent. When you look at this Penn State team, probably they will have nine qualifiers for the NCAAs, and they could have up to seven finalists. Nick Lee and the kids in the final six weight classes are all contenders. That’s not to say that any of them will necessarily get there, but I think they have a shot of getting seven in the finals and nine All Americans. And when you look at Nolf and Nickal, Vincenzo, Mark Hall, Rasheed and Cassar, the chances for bonus points are great. It would certainly not be surprising to see Penn State get 10 or more pins with this lineup. I think they have every bit of the firepower to make a run at it.

All right, to put you out on a limb, will they do it?

Byers:  I think they have an excellent shot. I’m not going to project it, only because I don’t want to create that kind of pressure — not that this team doesn’t thrive on pressure. OK, if you pressed me, yes, my belief is that they will set the scoring record. My guess is that they get five or six in the finals. And I think they will have seven kids in the top three, and I think they’ll have nine on the podium. And that, along with the bonus points that they’ll accumulate, will allow them to surpass the record set by Iowa.

To answer your original question about the dynasty moving forward, I think Penn State’s going to be the team to beat. Now, do I necessarily think that over the next five years they’ll win five national titles? No, but I think they’ll be in the mix. It’s going to take something special to beat Penn State next year. I think they’ll have a very balanced lineup, and I don’t think they’re going anywhere soon. I don’t think they’re going to have quite the firepower that they had this year, but if Rasheed and Cassar come back, you’re going to have Joseph, Hall, Rasheed, Cassar, Nick Lee and Roman Bravo-Young, that’s a pretty good place to start. And I think (Brady) Berge at 157 is going to be a force next year.  

I think this program is set up for an historic run this year, but I also think it’s set up for long-term sustained success. There’s a lot of really good teams out there, but I think Penn State will be very much in the hunt for the national title in the foreseeable future.


Jeff Byers, with statistics at the ready, on the radio call matside at Rec Hall. Photo by Bill Horlacher.

Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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