Jeff Byers: Penn State Wrestling has Few Weaknesses as it Marches Toward Third Straight National Title
On a team loaded with superstars, the Penn State wrestlers began the season with returning All-Americans and sure-fire future All-Americans up and down the lineup. But there were three weight classes where expectations were uncertain. At the midway point of the dual season, it turns out those three weights are providing some of the season’s most special moments and building impressive resumes in the process.
Bryan Pearsall figured to be the starter at 141 pounds, but the fifth-year senior has had to work for everything he gets at Penn State. Pearsall fended off a challenge from talented freshman Zack Beitz to retain the starting position. He was on the cusp of being an NCAA qualifier last season and has dedicated himself to doing everything he can to become an All-American in his final season.
“Bryan’s just a tough kid who keeps battling,” coach Cael Sanderson said. “He just fights and keeps working and getting better and better.”
Pearsall has already tied his career-high win total of 15 from last season. He has two wins over then-ranked Nathan Pennesi, of West Virginia, and Justin LaValle, of Old Dominion. Pearsall is also 4-0 in the Big Ten with two pins and a major decision. The stretch run will determine Pearsall’s fate, though. He has some huge challenges ahead facing the likes of second-ranked Hunter Stieber, of Ohio State, third-ranked B.J. Futrell, of Illinois, ninth-ranked Mark Ballweg, of Iowa, and 19th-ranked Ridge Kiley, of Nebraska. If Pearsall goes 4-3 or better in the final seven duals, he will become a virtual lock for the NCAA tournament.
Jordan Conaway is coming off the biggest weekend of his young career. The redshirt freshman from Abbottstown is now 9-4 with a signature victory over then-third-ranked Tyler Graff, a two-time All-American, of Wisconsin. The rousing come-from-behind victory in overtime shook the rafters at Rec Hall this past Friday.
“Jordan just does everything we ask of him,” says Sanderson. “You give him a gameplan and he just follows it to a tee.”
Conaway also has three close losses to likely NCAA qualifiers this season. Not bad for a kid who is considered undersized and who was in a three-way battle for the starting job at the start of the season. Conaway is undefeated in duals, but like Pearsall, faces a challenging stretch run with matches coming up against returning champion Logan Stieber, second-ranked Tony Ramos, 11th-ranked Daryl Thomas and 17th-ranked Shelton Mack. Much like Pearsall, Conaway seems to be in position to lock up an NCAA bid with a 4-3 finish in the remaining duals.
Bald Eagle Area grad Jon Gingrich has had to win a hard-fought battle with prized transfer Jimmy Lawson and rising prospect Nick Ruggear to earn the starting nod at heavyweight. Until Conaway’s heroics this past Friday, Gingrich had provided the loudest roars at Rec Hall this season with two upsets over top 10 wrestlers.
Gingrich defeated then eighth-ranked Adam Chalfant, of Indiana, to preserve the shutout in that dual and then stunned then-fourth-ranked Michael McClure, of Michigan State, with a spectacular double-leg that resulted in four points in the third period to pull out the 5-3 victory.
“Gingrich is a really good athlete,” Sanderson says. “He is just putting some things together and I think he sees how good he can be now.”
Gingrich is off to a 3-1 start in the Big Ten, but he also has some stiff competition down the stretch with matches coming up against fifth-ranked Bobby Telford, of Iowa, 12th-ranked Peter Capone, of Ohio State, and eighth-ranked Zach Thomusseit, of Pitt. A 4-3 finish would also likely assure Gingrich of an NCAA tournament bid.
Conaway, Pearsall and Gingrich have themselves in excellent position to give Penn State a full complement of wrestlers heading to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997.
By season’s end, this year’s team could very well feature four of the top five career pin leaders at Penn State. Quentin Wright is now tied for second all time with 34. David Taylor has 31, Ed Ruth has 30 and Andrew Alton is at 28. It is certainly possible, if not likely, that all four will surpass 34 by season’s end. While Wright is finishing up his career, juniors Taylor and Ruth and sophomore Alton all figure to make runs at the career record of 53 held by Josh Moore.
Although the second half of the Big Ten schedule will be significantly more challenging, the numbers Penn State has posted to this point are truly breathtaking.
The Nittany Lions have won 37 of the 40 bouts in Big Ten duals, outscoring the four teams 164-9 with 12 pins, two forfeits, two technical falls, a match termination and six major decisions. That’s 23 of 40 bouts resulting in bonus points for Penn State. The Nittany Lions have racked up 111 takedowns and allowed 14 in those four duals.
Penn State has hit the midway point of the dual season without losing a bonus-point bout.
While the numbers are very impressive, the Nittany Lions know the coming weeks will provide much stronger competition, and the team is looking forward to testing itself. A Whiteout will highlight Sunday’s match with Nebraska, and Penn State then faces its most challenging weekend of the dual season with trips to the venerable Carver-Hawkeye Arena to take on Iowa before a dangerous second match that weekend at Illinois.
It has been a fun season so far, but the real fun is just beginning.