Penn State Wrestling: Squad Eyes Another National Title as Lineup Takes Shape
It's summer time and the living is easy, as the song lyrics say. Unless, you're Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson and his staff.
If that's the case, summer is a time for scouting, conducting camps and laying the groundwork for their next attempt at a national championship, which would be five in a row.
There are certainly pieces in place to help. However, this will be a brave new season, one without two of the best wrestlers in Penn State and collegiate history — David Taylor and Ed Ruth.
"If we could get them back another year, we'd take them. It was fun," Sanderson said.
"It was different at least the last three years, probably the past two years. The first one we weren't expected to win. We didn't have the best team that year; we just had a good tournament. The second year, yeah, we had a great team and a great tournament. With that one, we were way ahead. It wasn't even close. Year three, the expectations start coming in a little bit and things changed a little bit.
Ed and David have done a great job of leading a team that was supposed to win. That's not easy. Everyone wants to be the underdog. It's just a different starting point. It's exciting."
Of the 10 starters who stepped on the Chesapeake Energy mats in Oklahoma City, seven return. That doesn't mean, however, that all seven will return to the starting lineup.
Sanderson talked about some intriguing possibilities for the lineup, but that's all they are right now — possibilities. There are still four months until the Nittany Lions take the mat again. Lots of things could change between now and then.
Here's a weight-by-weight look at next year's lineup:
Nico Megaludis is the clear favorite here. The three-time All-American has one last shot at climbing to the top of the podium after three near misses. This season may not be his last attempt.
Sanderson spoke candidly about the possibility of Megaludis redshirting the 2014-15 season, and possibly Olympic redshirting the 2015-16 season. That scenario would open the door for Jordan Conaway.
"That's not 100 percent. We're not really sure what we're going to do with our lineup yet. We've talked with Nico about having him redshirt. We have Jordan Conaway that's right there, too. We love Conaway. We believe he would have been an All-American this year at 125 if he had had the opportunity. That's another reason it's been hard for us to pick up 125-pounders. We still have two years with those guys," Sanderson said.
"Nico has the opportunity to redshirt and even do an Olympic redshirt the year after. That would give Jordan two years at 125. There are options there. How hard is it to throw Nico Megaludis out there when you've got him? You want him out there wrestling for you. He's a rock. He's the leadoff guy and is so consistent. I've never seen him wrestle when he's not going 100 miles per hour. That's just how he is. What a great leadoff guy he's been for us."
Jimmy Gulibon returns here after a freshman season of unfulfilled potential. Most would agree he showed flashes of the wrestler who won four PIAA titles. But, at other times, he was frustratingly inconsistent.
"He wasn't at his best this year. He knows that, we know that. Anybody who was watching knows that. He has had a good spring. I think his confidence is getting back up to where it needs to be. He has wrestled well. He wrestled well at the University Games. He beat some good guys there. He's a guy who's in here training all the time, all summer. He's a guy you have to tell, 'All right, you need to go home.' He's gonna be fine," the coach said.
"He just has to get a good start. He had a rough start last November. The kid hasn't lost a whole lot of matches in his life, so that's part of it. We just have to make sure he's ready to go in November. If his weight's good and he's firing on all cylinders, he'll be tough to beat.
The more he wrestles and creates flurries, he's so fast, he's so good, he's so strong that he could be right there in the national championship hunt. He's so good that coming into last season I thought we had a for-sure All-American. I'm not taking anything away from him; that's just how good he is. We're very confident in him."
Coming off a fifth-place finish at the NCAA tournament as a freshman, Zain Retherford is the incumbent. He still has a redshirt year available, but with no clear-cut replacement, he's the probable starter.
"Zain's just what he is. He loves what he's doing. He's got a heart full of gratitude just to compete. To be there every day. Just a real sound mind. He's a competitor. He's mean. And he's still learning how to wrestle, how to score and attack on his feet," Sanderson said.
"He's a good one. We're excited about him. He did an amazing job. He steps in as a true freshman and helps us win the national tournament. Without him we weren't winning nationals this year."
149 pounds and 157 pounds
It's hard not to group these two weights together since the expected starters are twins Andrew and Dylan Alton. Of course, if Andrew isn't up to the task, Zack Beitz has shown he is a more-than-capable replacement.
Both Altons have battled through injury plagued years the past two seasons. Both are expected to be at their healthiest this fall since their respective breakout freshman campaigns.
"I think we're going to find that out. I think the hunger is there. They were both wrestling so well, starting out their sophomore year. Dylan tore his shoulder in the All-Star match. He wrestled awesome in that match (against Jason Welch from Northwestern). I thought he controlled him. He looked great. When you're not healthy, your mind's not the same. You doubt yourself," Sanderson said.
"Andrew was wrestling very well, too, coming into that sophomore year. Coming into that year we thought he was amazing. He was so good. He hurt his ankle. He hurt his shoulder. He hasn't been healthy. Now he's going to be healthy. That gives him a chance to get everything else in line. It's up to him. Andrew's been cleared to go. Dylan's good to go. He's ready. He's a little bit behind. We have high hopes. We believe in those guys. We're excited to see them healthy. Hopefully, that gets everything else in line for them."
Garrett Hammond. Nittany Lion fans will have to get used to that name being called at this weight. For four years it was the incomparable Taylor. Now it's a redshirt freshman from Chambersburg, Pa.
"Right now, Hammond's pretty much our guy," Sanderson said. "We're spending some time with Hammond, getting him ready to go. He's good. He can win. He just needs to get that confidence. Don't wait around. You can wait your whole life for confidence."
Confidence will not be a problem for two-time All-American Matt Brown, the incumbent at this weight. The only thing left for Brown to do is win it all. He's been close. He finished second as a sophomore. Now in his senior campaign, and without Chris Perry and Andrew Howe at his weight, he might just be the man to beat.
"I was really happy the way he finished. He's just got to keep wrestling. Guys don't want to go seven minutes with him. They slow him down. He just has to keep wrestling and score," Sanderson said.
"Brown's ready to go. He's having a good summer. He's just got to let it go. More like David and Ed. Those guys shoot how many times a match? That's what it takes. It's no secret. He's just a guy you want to see win. You want to see him leave here happy. He's gearing up to go for the gold now."
Much like 165, this weight just won't be the same, not without Ed Ruth.
Sophomore Wes Phipps and freshman Matt McCutcheon are the favorites here. The freshman might have the edge.
"Phipps did a nice job this year. He just broke his hand and had a hard time getting back. He did a great job in the BJC match," the coach said.
"We really like McCutcheon. He's going to be really good for us. He's non-stop, loves to wrestle. Very confident. He hasn't, necessarily, had the success yet to where you're thinking, "Oh, wow, we've got Matt McCutcheon coming in.' But he's going to be really good. He's going to wrestle for seven minutes. The kid doesn't get tired. He doesn't look like much. He looks like he's small for the weight class, but he's a tough kid and we're excited about him."
After a disappointing freshman season, then a redshirt year, Morgan McIntosh started living up to his No. 1 overall ranking he carried with him from California. His seventh-place finish, however, wasn't what most people expected.
"Morgan's got to just keep getting better and stay big. He's got the ability to win the weight class as well as anybody else. He's gotta go get it," Sanderson said.
"I think he was a little tentative this year. He lost a match he didn't need to lose in the second round against the kid from Virginia Tech.
He's going to be fine. He's a competitor."
Penn State is blessed with two potential All-Americans here but, from the sounds of it, neither has shown Sanderson what he wants to see this summer.
"We haven't seen a whole lot of work out of anyone at that weight in the offseason. Last year, no one was here. This year we really haven't seen anyone. We'll see. It's kind of up for grabs," Sanderson said, pointedly.
Jimmy Lawson was the starter last year until a knee injury derailed his postseason.
"It's kind of tough. You can only wrestle one guy. Hopefully one of them takes that role and steps and takes it. We want someone to claim it in November," the coach said.
"I think Lawson was making strides toward that on the national level. Lawson's first year through him out there, he still needed to re-learn how to wrestle. Lawson left football to come wrestle. We want the guy to be successful."
Bald Eagle Area grad Jon Gingrich stepped in, had a dandy of a Big Ten tournament and then went 1-2 at nationals.
"Gingrich was a guy who came a long way. We watched him in his high school practice and decided not to recruit him. Then he said he wanted to come so we gave him a tryout and he came and he did a good job. Now he's a guy who's a potential All-American, who's beating All-Americans," Sanderson said.
Senior Nick Ruggear is a possibility here, too.
"Ruggear the same thing. He's a great kid. He's been dealing with injuries to his neck and back. He didn't get to see a lot of action last year, but he's a potential All-American, too. He's just got to be healthy," he said.
|Weekend Plans: Friday, July 18 to Sunday, July 20|