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Penn State Wrestling: Byers Recalls the Season That Ended in Heartbreak

by on March 15, 2020 1:33 PM

 

He’s the Iron Man of Penn State wrestling who just happens to be known as “Ironhead.” Jeff Byers has now completed his 31st year of providing radio coverage of the Nittany Lions. And to me, he’s not just a legend for his longevity. He’s also a local treasure for the way he trumpets the greatness of the Nittany Lions while still showing respect for opposing teams. 

In what has become an annual tradition, I sat down with Byers on Wednesday to review the Big Ten tournament and look ahead to the NCAA tournament. What we did not know then was that the NCAA event would soon become another cancellation victim of the coronavirus pandemic. Thus, we resumed our conversation two days later to discuss the disappointment that was felt by so many collegiate wrestlers.

Immediately below are edited portions of our initial discussion; keep reading to see our more recent thoughts from a later conversation on Friday.

If you had to describe Penn State’s season in a nutshell, what would you say? 

Byers:  It was challenging for sure. It's just not possible to have the number of injuries they had and not see an impact. But I also think it was exciting and I think it was fun to see some different guys get an opportunity to grow and get better. So they had Seth Nevills fill in for a returning national champ, Anthony Cassar. And they were able to bring in Aaron Brooks off a redshirt and move up Shakur Rasheed to 197 pounds. All of that speaks to the depth of the program.

It was definitely a challenging season. But I don't think there’s any kind of a roadblock to Penn State's overall domination in the sport. If you look at the last four years and the year before, you can certainly see the seeds for another title run being sown in a season like this. 

You’re referring to 2014-15 as the year that was somewhat down. Penn State was fifth in the Big Ten that season and seventh at nationals. But then, as you just mentioned, Penn State won the next four NCAA team titles. Do you think there is a parallel?

Byers:  That was a different year than this one because they specifically set out to reload through redshirts. This year, the results were probably not what the coaches wanted or expected, even though they knew it was going to be a challenging year. But with the talent that's within the program and that's coming in next year, I think the possibility of Penn State going on a similar type of roll is there.

I wasn't surprised that Iowa won the Big Tens, but I really was quite surprised at Penn State finishing fourth. How did you feel?

Byers:  I certainly thought Penn State would be the one team that could challenge Iowa. I think if you had a healthy Brady Berge at 157 pounds and if you had a healthy Anthony Cassar at heavyweight, it would have been a heck of a team race shaping up between Iowa and Penn State.


Jeff Byers has been the radio voice of Penn State wrestling for 31 years. 

So what are your favorite memories from the Big Tens? I'm sure there were a couple of bouts that were special to you. In fact, I heard you roaring over the radio on a couple of occasions.

Byers:  Yeah, I think Aaron Brooks getting a pin over Taylor Venz (Nebraska’s 184 pounder) was huge for him. It was big in the team race at the time but also huge for Aaron. Avenging his only collegiate loss and getting to do so with a flair. So that one stands out. And Mark Hall getting his third Big Ten title and avenging his only loss of the regular season. (Hall defeated Iowa’s Michael Kemerer in the finals.) And I thought it was a terrific effort by Brooks in the finals to defeat Cam Caffey of Michigan State. Caffey is a really good wrestler and really unorthodox and that was a steady effort by Brooks. And then there was Brandon Meredith kicking off the tournament by knocking off the number three seed. That’s certainly a moment that Brandon will always be able to look back on.

I think you remember that I wrote a column in November to challenge Penn State fans not to get spoiled by their team’s success. How would you grade the fan base?

Byers:  I think by and large, if the fans feel the kids are out there giving seven minutes of effort, most of the fans are satisfied. Then again, there's always going to be a segment of fans that won't consider it a successful year unless we’re winning a national title. But I think this probably has been one of the best jobs that the coaching staff has done in making adjustments, improving and keeping the kids who have national championship aspirations on track.

So you’re satisfied with the Penn State fans, but was there anything that happened this year that rankled you a bit?

Byers: I've gotten away from reading the message boards, but every now and then somebody will say, “Hey, did you see this?” And I will read it, and some of it is unfair to the kids. A kid might look like he's not putting out effort, but you don't know what all is going into it. Maybe he’s just having an off day or he’s been sick during the week or he’s battling through an injury. And I do the same thing when I'm watching the Steelers or the Penguins and I say, “What’s wrong with that bum?” Well, that “bum” is probably having an off day. Some of that could just be that he’s facing a really good opponent. 

Cael Sanderson is as competitive as anybody and wants to win. But he also has everything in perspective. Obviously, Penn State didn’t want to finish fourth at Big Tens. They went in with the idea that they were going to win it. But after it was all over, the coaches just said something like, “Let’s get back to work; let’s work our tails off tomorrow.”

What was the bus ride like, coming home from Big Tens?

Byers:  Well, I'm not gonna say it was raucous and enjoyable. But even when we've come back home after winning nationals, everybody's in a good mood but it's not as though we're blaring music and everybody's dancing in the aisles. They’re talking and a lot of times they're talking about non-wrestling stuff. So this was not a huge difference in terms of the attitude or the chatter on the bus ride. 

I saw a quote from Mark Hall a few days ago where he said that Aaron Brooks is better than he was during his freshman year. Of course, Mark Hall won an NCAA title as a freshman, so I couldn't decide if that quote says more about the greatness of Aaron Brooks or the humility of Mark Hall…

Byers: Mark Hall is definitely a humble young man. But I do think Aaron Brooks is something special. His work ethic is similar to the great ones that we've seen come through the program under Cael. And It’s not just that he has a tremendous talent and has a great work ethic. He doesn't just work hard. He works smart. I mean, he is a student of the game and he understands what you're trying to accomplish. He’s like what you saw with all of the great ones we’ve had — the David Taylors and the Ed Ruths and the Zane Retherfords and the Jason Nolfs and the Bo Nickals. I think Aaron is a guy who is very savvy and has tremendous skills. It's going to be fun to watch him at nationals regardless of how it turns out. 

You won’t be surprised if Brooks wins an individual title?  

Byers: I won't be surprised at all. I'm expecting it. I think with the way he's wrestling right now and the spirited fight that he's bringing with him every time he takes the mat, I think that sets him up for success. Of course, there’s a number of kids that are going to be huge challenges. It’s not like I’m expecting him to waltz to the title.

Aaron Brooks won the 184-pound Big Ten championship as a freshman. Photo by Tim Weight | For the Centre County Gazette

Let’s talk about your selections for the third annual “Ironhead Awards.”  I’ll mention the category and let you talk about one or two deserving wrestlers. 

  • The Ironhead Award for Valiant Effort in One Bout:  I would say Seth Nevills in the Illinois match is the one that stands out because the dual meet did come down to the heavyweight bout and that’s a big deal for a freshman. I think that was a special win for him. I also think Nick Lee’s win during the dual meet with Nebraska — he beat Chad Red by major decision, and he was the kid who beat Nick in their final high school bout — was pretty significant. Chad’s a pretty special wrestler in his own right, and the win helped Penn State beat a highly-ranked opponent in a road match that came down to the last bout.     

  • The Ironhead Award for Valiant Effort Throughout the Season:  I struggle with this one because there’s probably 12 kids deserving of the recognition. Like Shakur Rasheed, just being able to wrestle and get through the season the way he has is valiant when you look at all the injuries he's had through his career. But I guess my choice is Roman Bravo-Young because he just seemed to catch another gear the week before the Iowa dual meet and even though he was undefeated, he moved into a different level. I think he willed himself into becoming an elite wrestler this year.  

  • The Ironhead Award for Greatest Off-Mat Contributor:  That's another tough one because this program has so many kids that are doing the right things off of the mat, helping out in any way they can. I like Baylor Shunk, the redshirt from Penns Valley. It’s the passion he brings to the room; a guy who just wants to be great, wants to do everything he can to get to the next level and is willing to help his teammates in any way he can.

  • The Ironhead Award for Most Overlooked Contributor:  Creighton Edsell is my pick because he’s a great workout partner, and he’s a guy who in another program would probably be a starter and could probably work up to All-American honors. But he’s in the same weight class as Hall and Carter Starocci. (Starocci is a two-time PIAA champ from Erie who red-shirted this year.) I’m not sure how you work your way in there against those guys.

Now let’s focus on the NCAA Championships. First of all, what about the coronavirus situation? What do you think is going to happen at Minneapolis? 

Byers: I don't know. I keep thinking that everything's going to go on as normal, and every day I'm surprised by the things that aren't going on as normal. I’m certainly preparing and expecting that we're going to have 40,000 fans on hand and it's going to be a great, great atmosphere. But I guess it's possible we could end up being told that fans can't go and the wrestlers will be competing in a huge, cavernous stadium.

Give me your best shot at predicting the team race, maybe the top five teams.

Byers:  I do think Iowa will win the championship. I think it's pretty hard to bet against the Hawkeyes right now. They're kind of where Penn State has been the last couple of years when you talk about the combination of overall depth and top end firepower. So as much as I’d love to say Penn state will do it — and I certainly don't rule that out — Iowa is where my money would be for winning the national title. But I still think Penn state's top end firepower is going to be awfully good at the national tournament. So I'll say Penn State will be second in the team race. Ohio State will be third, North Carolina State is gonna sneak in there to finish fourth, and I'll go with Nebraska in fifth.
How many individual titles will Penn State win?

Byers:  I'm always the optimist, so I'm going to say four. And I don’t know which of the top five is not going to be there. I really think all five have an excellent shot. Vincenzo Joseph, Mark, Aaron and Nick are all wrestling really, really well. And I think Roman is wrestling exceptionally well, but he is in such a tough weight class. That class is loaded. 

* * *

Jeff Byers didn’t know what he didn’t know when offering his predictions for the NCAA Wrestling Championships on the morning of Wednesday, March 11. But he soon found out. In just a matter of a day or so, a wide variety of collegiate and professional events were wiped out. Of course, the big wrestling tournament, scheduled for Minneapolis, was among them. Here is the second interview with Byers which took place on Friday to capture his perspective on the canceled tournament. 

What was your feeling when you first heard that the NCAA wrestling tournament was not going to be held?

Byers:  I kind of saw it coming once the conference basketball tournaments were canceled. But it felt devastating when I got confirmation that this was happening. My heart goes out to all of the kids obviously, but in particular the seniors who won't have that opportunity again and it's just crushing. These are opportunities and experiences that those kids will never get back.

When you heard it was canceled, did one or two individuals come to your mind with a special sense of sadness?

Byers:  Yeah, Mark Hall is from Minnesota, from Apple Valley, Minnesota, and it was a big deal for somebody who has wrestled away from his home state to go back there in pursuit of the ultimate objective. To see him denied that opportunity was the thing that leaps off the page for me. And Shakur Rasheed, with everything he’s been through, to not have the chance to compete — that’s very difficult.  Vincenzo Joseph will not have the opportunity to become a three-time champion. So for me, the seniors are at the top of the list, unless perhaps the NCAA extends their eligibility for another year. Similarly, there’s Aaron Brooks, a freshman. He’s a guy who might have become a four-time national champion, but we’ll never know unless he’s given an extra year of eligibility and chooses to take it.

Mark Hall won his third Big Ten title at the 2020 conference championships, but won't have a chance at a second national title and becoming a four-time All-American. Photo by Matt Sniegowski | Onward State

Maybe this circumstance offers a chance to experience compassion for the opposition. How do you feel for the Iowa program, including their coaches, after working 10 years to get back to the top of the mountain?

Byers:  Well, I know Penn State fans may joke by saying, “At least we don’t want to see Iowa win a national title.” But truthfully, my heart really does break for those kids. Like you said, it’s been a long road for them to get back to where they’re at. And they don’t have the opportunity to go out and close this thing out the way they thought they could.

It’s devastating for all these wrestlers. I wouldn’t say “tragic,” because what has happened in families where lives have been lost, that’s tragic. But it’s heart-breaking for these wrestlers, some of whom were seniors who were going to realize a life-long dream by competing in an NCAA tournament.



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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