Penn State wrestling was in the middle of a strenuous practice when the NCAA Tournament was canceled because of COVID-19 last spring.
Before they knew it, the Nittany Lions’ training was cut short. Everyone was sent home before what would become a long line of athletic cancellations directly tied to the pandemic.
For then-true freshman All-American Aaron Brooks, who was just coming off of a 184-lbs. Big Ten Championship win, this meant a potential national title run was snatched from his grasp.
“I was super excited. As a kid, it’s something you look forward to, so it being only a week away, I was really excited to compete and really ready,” Brooks said on Tuesday. “I felt like I was peaking at the right time, so when it was canceled, it was devastating to a lot of us, especially our seniors.”
Now, with the shortened 2021 season only days away, head coach Cael Sanderson believes that his young team has the potential to be extremely competitive. As you’d expect, they’re looking forward to hitting the mat once again.
“We’re kind of just rolling with the punches,” Sanderson said. “We’re learning as we go, and we’ll see if anything is modified, but we’re just looking forward to an opportunity to compete and see what we can do.”
If that wasn’t motivation enough for the team to work hard in the offseason, Brooks said each member of the team has dedicated themselves to good communication and keeping each other accountable with training regimens.
“Going home, you’re put in a different situation,” Brooks said. “It was just about finding a way, whether that’s hitting up our weight-lifting coach, borrowing sandbags from Lowe’s to do workouts in the basement, jumping rope, going on runs, shadow wrestling. It’s finding a way to adapt, but our team did a great job at communicating and giving us ways to stay into it.”
Beyond working out and staying in shape, the team also found some unconventional ways to continue to wrestle while places like Rec Hall were still closed. Sometimes, this even meant tearing up Brooks’ lawn.
“Me, Carter [Starocci], and Greg [Kerkvliet], we’re always doing something,” Brooks laughed. “Over the summer when we all were in town, we didn’t really have a place to wrestle because even Rec Hall was still shut down. We would wrestle in my front yard, and in the grass, there’s a circle patch that’s missing just from us wrestling in the yard.”
Working out together and getting some reps in goes beyond Brooks’ roommates and friends. In fact, it’s something that the entire team has spent the duration of the pandemic collaborating on. Communication is key, and accountability has been the theme so far for this unusual season.
“If my household’s getting a workout in, I’m gonna FaceTime these guys and be like, ‘Hey, we’re working out here, and I know you’re roommates, so you [need to] work out as well,’” Brooks said. “It’s just communicating, you know, sending a text like, ‘Hey, I know this might be shut down, but this [gym] is open, and I just worked out there, and everyone else can come,’ or something like that. It’s just communicating with our guys and making sure everyone’s getting [workouts] in.”
The upcoming season will present increased challenges in the form of a unique schedule. With just nine dual meets planned, Penn State will need four matches to qualify for a postseason appearance. Naturally, Sanderson feels his team is prepared to handle the unique situation.
“You’re gonna adjust regardless of the situation, regardless of how many matches you have,” Sanderson said. “So, everyone’s in the same boat and we’re not going to overthink it. I feel like we’re ready to go now, but obviously the goal is to be ready to go in March and just building toward that and improving as we move along here and compete.”
Penn State will open its season at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday with a road trip to Rutgers. The dual will be televised nationally on Big Ten Network.