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Penn State Wrestling Season Preview

The Lions return four NCAA champs to a lineup that some wrestlers believe could be the best in school history.

The Penn State wrestling team returns four NCAA champions, two additional All-Americans and a roster of young talent ready to bloom for the 2021-22 season. That prompted Aaron Brooks to make a bold statement about his teammates. 

"I think this is the most talented team Penn State has ever had," the defending national champ at 184 pounds said. "... I think our team's really hungry. The pandemic, last year's results, really have our team working hard. For me, looking around the room and seeing the work these guys are putting in, the skills they're trying to obtain, is really motivating."

During Penn State wrestling media day, the team's four returning champs and coach Cael Sanderson described a group determined to challenge Iowa for the national championship. The Lions finished second to Iowa at the NCAA tournament in March, though they stole the show Saturday night by going 4-for-4 in the championship finals.

Brooks, Roman Bravo-Young (133), Nick Lee (141) and Carter Starocci (174) return to lead a roster that has plenty of championship potential and a few questions to answer.

Penn State opens the season Nov. 13 at Spooky Nook in Manheim, Pa., with a pair of duals against Sacred Heart and Oregon State. The Lions open their home schedule, welcoming fans back to Rec Hall, Nov. 18 against Army.

Some highlights from Sanderson and Co. during Penn State wrestling media day.

A look at Penn State's 2021-2022 wrestling lineup

The four champs are solid, as is heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet, who placed seventh at NCAAs last year after being injured much of the season. Sanderson also said that Beau Bartlett (8-3 as a freshman) is slotted at 149, while Joe Lee (an NCAA qualifier at 165) likely is moving to 157, opening the 165-pound spot for freshman Alex Facundo (more on him in a bit).

The other two weight classes are more competitive. Penn State is testing several wrestlers (notably Gary Steen, Robert Howard, Brandon Meredith and Baylor Shunk) at 125, where the team has had chronic lineup inconsistencies. Sanderson didn't rule out reaching into the NCAA Transfer Portal for a wrestler: "Every program checks the transfer portal every day," Sanderson said.

And at 197, Michael Beard (7th at NCAAs as a freshman) is competing with Cornell transfer Max Dean, who was the NCAA runnerup at 184 as a sophomore in 2019. Dean has not competed in a dual match since. He redshirted during the 2019-20 season (wrestling unattached in open tournaments) and did not wrestle last season at Cornell, as the Ivy League canceled its season.

Roman Bravo-Young healthy after bout with MRSA

Bravo-Young, Penn State's 2020-21 male athlete of the year, was hospitalized for several days this past summer with a staph infection caused by MRSA. Bravo-Young said the infection cost him 3-4 weeks of training and was "pretty intense."

"It's just scary," he said. "If you don't take the proper hygiene [protocols] after practice, that stuff could be deadly. But I learned a lot."

"The scary part is just the potential severity of MRSA or anything of that nature," Sanderson added. "But he's good to go. The thing about Roman is, he's training year-round. He's another guy who you've got to get to kind of slow down because he's training all the time."

Bravo-Young went 19-0 last season, punctuating the campaign with a 4-2 sudden victory over Oklahoma State's top-seeded Daton Fix in the final. He is a senior but would be eligible to return for the 2022-23 season. However, he expects this to be his last season of college wrestling.

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"I already got a monkey off my back by winning last year, so I want to go out there and be the best me and just enjoy it," Bravo-Young said. "It's my last year, I'm going to graduate and pretty much came a long way. I'm just going to go out there and just let it fly and try to get those highlight reels like I always do."

Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young seeks to become a two-time NCAA champ this season. (Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports)

Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young seeks to become a two-time NCAA champ this season. (Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports)

Aaron Brooks, Carter Starocci learn Olympic lessons in Tokyo

Brooks and Starocci played different roles at the Tokyo Olympics this summer. Brooks, who went 14-0 last season and was a Hodge Trophy finalist with Bravo-Young, was David Taylor's training partner and part of the contingent that helped the former Penn State wrestler win a freestyle gold medal.

Starocci (14-2) coached with the team from Puerto Rico and spent time with Team USA and other wrestlers at the Olympics. Both called the experience educational.

"That's somewhere I see myself in the near future," Brooks said. "To be able to see how the training goes, leading up to that kind of competition and just being able to kind of tag along and pick the brains of the top coaches at Team USA as well as spend more time with coach Cael and everyone this summer, it was a great blessing for me."

Penn State's Aaron Brooks is the defending NCAA wrestling champ at 184 pounds. (Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports)

Penn State's Aaron Brooks is the defending NCAA wrestling champ at 184 pounds. (Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports)

A freshman to watch

Several Lions mentioned Facundo, a true freshman from Michigan, as a newcomer to watch. Facundo was a four-time state champ at Davison High, going undefeated his freshman and senior seasons.

He is unranked to start the season but went 6-1, including three majors and two pins, to place fifth at the Clarion Open last weekend.

"I see a lot of me in him," Starocci said. "... I haven't met too many kids that kind of walk the walk. You can tell by his aura and his energy that he brings to the room that he really wants to achieve all his goals. I know that he didn't win the Clarion Open, but that's not going to phase him. His mindset is still going to be sharp, and I believe that he'll be a national champ."

"In my opinion, he can be a four-time NCAA champion," Brooks added.

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