Rare Underdog Penn State Wrestling Team Looks to Win National Title

By Rob Dougherty on January 14, 2021 at 8:00 am
Aaron Brooks will be a leader for Penn State's team this year.
Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen

Wrestling is back.

It feels really good to say that wrestling is back. Penn State will enter the 2021 wrestling season as an underdog to the No. 1 Iowa Hawkeyes, but all hope is not lost for Cael Sanderson's team. The Nittany Lions are currently ranked No. 3 per Intermat's Tournament rankings, behind Iowa and No. 2 Michigan, but when the dust settles, expect Penn State to be competing for the top of the podium at NCAAs.

Penn State is coming off of a difficult 2019-20 season following injuries to NCAA Champion Anthony Cassar, All-American Shakur Rasheed, NCAA qualifier Brady Berge, and Seth Nevills. However, the 2019-20 team still had senior leaders and former NCAA Champions Vincenzo Joseph and Mark Hall. They also had three wrestlers who realistically could have been wrestled in the NCAA finals in Roman Bravo-Young, Nick Lee, and Aaron Brooks. The Nittany Lions would have been underdogs in the 2020 NCAA Tournament had it taken place, but there would have been plenty of excitement around the studs in the PSU lineup.

Penn State's Projected Starter Rankings
Weight Wrestler
125  UR Robert Howard (Fr.) 
133 No. 3 Roman Bravo-Young (Jr.)
141 No. 2 Nick Lee (Sr.)
149 No. 10 Jarod Verkleeren (Jr.)
157 No. 11 Brady Berge (Jr.)
165 No. 6 Joe Lee (Fr.)
174 No. 5 Carter Starocci (Fr.)
184 No. 3 Aaron Brooks (So.)
197 No. 13 Michael Beard (Fr.)
285 No. 6 Greg Kerkvliet (Fr.)

The 2021 season is going to start a new chapter in Penn State's history under Cael Sanderson. There are no returning national champions in the lineup for the first time since 2015-16. Sanderson had this to say about the future of the program and this current team: 

Despite the youth in the lineup, Penn State has a great influx of talent coming this season. There are still some familiar names in Bravo-Young, Lee, and Brooks, though. Bravo-Young and Lee both came up short in the Big Ten Tournament finals in 2020, but they were both certainly capable of rebounding and making the 2020 NCAA finals. Brooks entered the 2020 NCAA Tournament as perhaps the favorite at 184 pounds, and he's going to enter this season as a favorite to be a finalist.

Penn State is bringing in Joe Lee, Carter Starocci, Michael Beard, and Greg Kerkvliet to replace Joseph, Hall, Rasheed, and Cassar. Those are certainly some big shoes to fill, but the new guys have plenty of talent of their own.

No. 6 Joe Lee is the younger brother of Nick Lee, and had a very promising redshirt freshman season last year, including a 10-3 win over No. 7 Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh). He has the potential to have the highest-scoring matches on the team thanks to his fast-paced style (like his brother) and reckless abandon. He probably isn't a contender for the title as a freshman, but he should be in the All-American conversation.

No. 5 Carter Starocci is one of the most exciting young talents coming into this season. He went undefeated during his redshirt season, winning the Southern Scuffle and performing at a very high level in the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club events late in 2020. His wins in the NLWC events were over Chance Marsteller, Devin Skatzka (by fall), and Thomas Bullard. Starocci enters the year as a legitimate threat to win the title at 174 pounds.

No. 13 Michael Beard had a more inconsistent redshirt season but still showed his talent. He picked up wins over Nick Reenan, Dakota Geer, and Jordan Pagano, and he's a very active 197 pounder. Beard has the tools to be on the podium, and even contend for a high place in March.

No. 6 Greg Kerkvliet could be the most promising of the bunch, and he enters the 2021 season as a potential NCAA title contender. Kerkvliet went undefeated last season as a grey shirt and finished third at the US Olympic Qualifier to qualify for the Olympic Team Trials. At the NLWC showcase events, Kerkvliet has been dominant, having defeated Demetrious Thomas (Pittsburgh), Youssif Hemida (Maryland), and Deonte Wilson (North Carolina State) by a combined score of 30-0. Kerkvliet is going to be dangerous.

There's also an unknown factor among a couple of the incoming underclassmen. Robert Howard is an extremely tough 125 pounder who made the cadet world team on three occasions and is a two-time New Jersey state champion. He will be a contender to be on the podium. It's a well-documented fact that Penn State has not scored a team point at this weight in NCAAs since Nico Megaludis won his national title in 2016, but Howard seems likely to break that streak this season.

One more freshman that could make some noise is Beau Bartlett. He's listed on the Penn State roster as a 141 or 149-pounder. Either way, if he makes his way into the lineup it would likely be at the expense of No. 10 Jarod Verkleeren. Bartlett is a special talent and a man of culture.

If Bartlett goes at 149 pounds, expect him to be an All-American contender and potentially an NCAA title contender. He pushed two-time NCAA finalist Bryce Meredith to the limit in an 8-6 loss at an NLWC showcase event and looks primed to become a college superstar.

Make sure you stick with Roar Lions Roar all throughout the wrestling season as the only place you need to go for all of your Nittany Lion Wrestling coverage.