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Penn State Wrestling: Ironhead Offers Projections but No Promises

It’s an unpleasant reality but if you’re a rasslin’ rooter, you can’t avoid thinking about it:  “How in the world am I going to survive a season without going to Rec Hall?”

There, there, my fellow mat fan. It’s going to be alright. Let me give you this personal word of assurance.

Back in 2011, I was still living in the wrestling-blighted state of Texas when the Nittany Lions went after their first NCAA team title under Coach Cael Sanderson.  (Yes, I know Bo Nickal is from Texas, but he is a full-blown anomaly. Google “college wrestling in Texas” and tell me what you find.)

Fortunately, I was able to locate an Internet feed of the Penn State Wrestling Network and, right away, I marveled at the radio work of Jeff Byers. “Ironhead,” as he’s also known, was somehow able to deliver the thrills of a visual sport through a non-visual medium. It didn’t matter that I was way out there where people would rather wrestle a steer than another human being. Byers brought all the excitement to me as Penn State captured Big Ten and NCAA crowns. And I’m sure he’ll do that for all of us this year—regardless of COVID-induced barriers.

With the Lions ready to begin their season Saturday at Rutgers, I sat down with Byers a few days ago and asked him to provide a 2021 preview. Although he spoke a bit more quietly than he does behind the microphone, Ironhead offered great insights into Penn State’s crop of new wrestlers and into the expected battle with Iowa for the NCAA title. 

How do you feel right now that there’s an actual wrestling season approaching?

Byers:  Very happy, very excited about it. I’m certainly hoping everything comes to fruition and that they can get through it in much the same way the football program did. But, yeah, just glad that we’ll have the opportunity to see some of these kids compete.

Was there a point where you thought the whole thing was hopeless?

Byers:  Not really. I thought there was a pretty good chance that we’d get some sort of a season. I wasn’t sure exactly what it would look like. But I tend to be a glass-half-full guy anyway, and I really thought we’d find a way to at least get some dual meets and the postseason tournaments.

A lot of people are surprised because wrestling is such an intense body contact sport. So tell me how in the world they’re going to pull this off.

Byers:  It is going to take a lot of money and a lot of expertise, that’s for sure. A lot of testing. I think at Penn State they’re getting tested six days a week. So they’re staying on top of it. They’re obviously concerned and driving home to the kids the importance of taking all the precautions that they can to make sure the virus doesn’t enter their pod. But the truth is you can do everything right, and it can still get there. 

I was thinking about your situation for this year and picturing you broadcasting from the Rec Hall track where it might be hard to see the action. How are you feeling about things?

Byers: Yeah, it’s definitely going to be a different kind of a season. Being on the track in Rec Hall is something I did for my first seven seasons or so of announcing, so that isn’t a big deal. I’ll bring my binoculars just in case, but it’s not really a problem. The biggest challenge is that if there’s a question over at the scorers’ table, I can’t just pull my headset off and listen to what the officials are looking for (on video replay). 

As for away dual meets, I just learned that—out of an abundance of caution—I won’t be traveling to cover them. But, like you’ve seen with commentators on other sports, I’ll have access to video feeds so that I can provide coverage that should be pretty seamless.  

We all know that mental health can be tough for folks these days, and your own wife, Marisa Vicere, is heavily involved in supplying mental health assistance for our community’s teenagers. Have you realized you’ll be doing your part by connecting folks to Penn State wrestling?

Byers: Truthfully, I have not thought of it in those terms. But I have thought about how it’s going to help my own mental state of health. When I had the opportunity to do the first Nittany Lion Wrestling Club event on September 19, that was great. It was great competition, but the main thing was just having the opportunity to actually see competition.

Well, let’s talk about this year’s Penn State team. If you chose one adjective to describe this year’s team, what would it be?

Byers: I think “exciting” is the signature of Cael Sanderson’s Penn State teams. They’re fun to watch, they’re offensive-minded, they’re aggressive and they have really special athletes. And I think this year is certainly not going to be an exception. You’ve got a few veterans, but it’s a very young team. I think you’re going to see the emergence of what we’re hoping will be the next superstars here at Penn State.

Talk about some of these kids, if you would.

Byers:  It’s interesting because I have not had a chance to see some of them at all. Robbie Howard (125 pounds) is one of them I have not seen. Obviously the kids that competed last year I have seen and Carter Starocci (174) has competed in a few of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club events. So I’ve had a chance to see him. 

And Starocci is every bit as dynamic is what people were talking about. You could see it in the room last year [when he was redshirting], where he was really coming on. And Mark Hall’s mentoring of him was important. It was just fun to see the passing of the torch in the room, almost daily, through the friendship that those two forged. Starocci is one of those guys who falls in the line of the Zain Retherfords, the David Taylors, the Bo Nickals, the Jason Nolfs. Like all of those guys, he has tremendous athleticism but he also has that desire to be great. He’s not getting caught up in, “Hey, I want to win a national title.” No, it’s more like, “I want to be the very best I can be. I want to win national titles. I want to be an Olympic champion.” And that’s what the great ones have.

What are some of Starocci’s trademark moves?

Byers:  That’s one of the things about him—he’s able to score a bunch of different ways. I don’t want to be putting unnecessary expectations on him, but I think he’s like Bo Nickal in that regard. I’m not saying he’s the next Bo Nickal…and I’m not saying he’s not the next Bo Nickal. But he’s a guy who can hit a cradle, can hit a double leg, can hit an ankle pick, can do a leg sweep. He’s really got a remarkable arsenal for someone as young as he is.

We’ll come back later and let you profile a few other new faces, but first I want to talk about team competition. You’ve told me Penn State could have five title contenders and maybe four or five additional All Americans, yet most people are saying Iowa is the one to beat for the team title. In fact, Spencer Lee (Iowa’s two-time national champion at 125 pounds) has promised the title to his fan base. 

Byers:  Yeah, Penn State battling Iowa is going to be great for the sport. Hopefully everything plays out and we get the opportunity to see both teams at full strength at Big Tens and Nationals. Listen, Iowa is loaded. But I do think Penn State is also loaded this year. It’s just that there is probably more certainty within that Iowa lineup in terms of how guys project for Nationals. 

Because they’re veterans?

Byers:  Yep. We’ve seen what they do so we have a pretty good idea of what they’ll do this year.  With Penn State, a lot of it may come down to how guys like Joe Lee (165) and Michael Beard (197) emerge. They’re guys that are talented, but whether or not they’re ready for that next level, that remains to be seen.

If you compared it to the stock market, you could say that Penn State has more volatility—up or down—but Iowa has got more blue chippers?

Byers: Yeah. With guys like Starocci and Greg Kerkvliet (Hwt), you don’t know with certainty where they stand, but you feel pretty confident they’re in the hunt for national titles. But I really think where it’s going to come down—especially at Nationals—is how guys like Joe Lee are going to do and Robbie Howard if he’s the guy at 125. And can Brady Berge (157) get into the top three or four at his weight class? That’s a big deal when it comes to team scoring. And listen, Roman Bravo-Young (133) is dynamic, but he’s in a loaded weight class. There’s some other programs that could figure in the mix here, too.  Michigan is probably best positioned to spoil things for the Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions. Oklahoma State and Ohio State also have teams that are capable if some things break right for them.

So you don’t think at Nationals it will be the “Big Two” and everybody else?

Byers:  Not necessarily. If everybody’s healthy and everybody progresses the way you’re thinking they will, it probably will be. My expectation is that it will be Penn State and Iowa in a battle. But I don’t think it would be shocking to see another team figure in there, especially those other three that I just mentioned. And you know, tournament wise, North Carolina State also has scoring potential. If a couple of the Penn State or Iowa kids stumble or have COVID or injury issues, I don’t think it’s a wide gap between those two and everybody else.

So if you were going to respond to Spencer Lee’s promise, what promise would you offer?

Byers:  I do not have any promises. I can only promise you that it is going to be a fun ride for college wrestling fans, if we have the tournament. And I hope we do. I really do feel badly that Iowa didn’t have the opportunity to go out and compete and probably win it last year. And I feel badly for all of the kids nationally who didn’t have the chance to compete.

Ironhead expects a close race between Iowa and Penn State for the national title, although he mentions several other teams that could pull a surprise. Photo by Bill Horlacher.

You had told me earlier that maybe Robbie Howard can place as an All-American if he’s able to make weight at 125 pounds. What rumblings have you heard from that weight class?  

Byers:  I think Robbie will be good to go at that weight. I think that weight class will be between him and Baylor Shunk, and Brandon Meredith is more of a 133 or 141-pounder now. My guess is you’ll see Baylor Shunk early in the year. Robbie Howard is coming off an injury, so he’s still trying to get up to full speed.  But if I was betting right now, Howard would be the guy for the postseason.

Well, you know, I just have to mention that Baylor Shunk wrestled for Penn Valley High School. And something like five decades ago, Penns Valley had a coach named Jim Byers—your dad. Do you feel a little family connection there?

Byers: I will say that Baylor is just a great kid and there’s a lot of them on this team. Creighton Edsell is another one that you just have to root for. Cause they love the sport and they come from great families. And in Baylor’s case, he’s a local kid just down the road from what I consider my true hometown, Spring Mills. I lived there from the time I was like a year old until I was 7. 

Penn State has had a series of non-scholarship 125-pounders who worked their tails off and achieved something, but usually came up short of .500. Would that also describe Baylor?

Byers:  I don’t know. I think Baylor’s got the skillset to do better than that at that weight class.  But I think Robbie’s a different level athlete and he’s just got a different gear to him.

Robbie is a two-time state champ from New Jersey…

Byers: Yeah. But I think Baylor is a strong kid; he’s fun to watch on top. And I think he has an understanding of the adjustments needed to compete at this level. So I’m excited to see him go out and compete, and I think early in the season he’ll have that chance. My guess is Howard will be the starter for the postseason.

So, we’ve already talked about Starocci, Shunk and Howard. Let’s touch on some of the other new guys. For example, you told me you are expecting a new face in the lineup at 149 pounds.

Byers: Well, 149 is probably the most unsettled weight class, but I think Terrell Barraclough (a four-time Utah state champion) will probably win the starting spot. Jarod Verkleeren is the returning regular; he and Luke Gardner were battling all last year. And Bo Pipher’s down there now and is competing and looking good. Beau Bartlett is probably a guy that could figure in there as well, presuming he can’t unseat Nick Lee at 141 pounds.

Bartlett may be a future superstar, but beating out Nick Lee? 

Byers: No, I don’t think he’s quite there yet. But Bartlett is special…

So back to Barraclough, you’re pulling him out of a hat that has three or four other good wrestlers.

Byers: Yeah. It’s hard to handicap that one. Barraclough, to me, is a guy that has really improved and, and he’s just one of those guys that wrestles the Penn State style with aggressiveness. 

What would be a distinctive of his style?

Byers:  I think it’s a little bit of his length, but more so I think it’s his ability to stay aggressive. So it’s going to be an interesting weight class. Verkleeren has a way of just pulling out, consistently, the close matches. I would not be betting a lot of money on anyone because Pipher and Gardner are right there and at 149 they can both be forces.

Penn State wrestling broadcaster Jeff Byers will not be traveling to any visiting venues this year, at least for dual meets. Photo by Jennifer Weaver Tate.

All right. So let’s talk a little bit about Joe Lee, the younger brother of Nick.

Byers: Joe is really good with his hips, he has good power with those hips. But I think the question is how consistent he can be and how well he can adjust once he sees the top collegiate competition. I’m excited to see how Joe matures throughout the course of the season.

You think he’s got a lock on the 165 spot?

Byers: I think so. I think Mason Manville will certainly push him, but I think Lee right now is wrestling well enough that it’s his.

All right. You already talked about Starocci, so let’s go on to Michael Beard at 197 pounds.

Byers: Beard is a guy with a lot of talent, a lot of ability. The one question, and this is no secret, is about his gas tank. I think it’s an area he’s obviously focusing on to be able to compete at the highest level. But he’s got to be able to go hard for seven minutes and stay aggressive throughout that third period. And he’s another one where it’s going to be a matter of how quickly it all comes together for him. 

And then there’s Kerkvliet. You mentioned him a little bit but you might have more to say. And is Seth Nevills in the picture?

Byers: Seth is definitely in the picture. But Kerkvliet is a special guy. When I was talking about Starocci earlier, I probably should’ve said “Greg Kerkvliet” with the same breath in terms of greatness and an expected instant start. His fluidity as a heavyweight is just astounding to me. He just has a smoothness about him so it never looks like he’s exerting a lot of energy. And he’s the guy that I really think right out of the gate is going to be there on the national scene. He has the athleticism, he has the knowledge, he has the hunger and the desire. And he’s got workout partners galore right now in the Penn State room…elite partners like Kyle Snyder (2016 Olympic gold medalist), Jake Varner (2012 Olympic gold medalist) and Seth Nevills. So I think in the future when you look in the annals of Penn State wrestling history, if Kerkvliet stays healthy and continues to progress, he’s going to be right there.

Well, this’ll make you laugh because I’m pretty sure the name of a certain 184-pounder has not been mentioned once so far. What does that tell you?

Byers:  It says that Aaron Brooks is just a rock, right? It’s hard to believe that Aaron’s only a sophomore because he’s such an established presence. He’s another one of those guys who has all kinds of talent, a real passion for the sport and a real understanding of his purpose. He doesn’t waste a moment of his time in the room. I think he and Nick Lee and RBY are guys who are reliable. You know the effort you’re going to get from them each time.