Penn State Wrestling: 5 Reasons Nittany Lions Will Win 3rd Consecutive National Championship - NittanyCentral

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NittanyCentral is home for the latest Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, Penn State Basketball news, updates, and analysis of the Penn State Nittany Lions

NittanyCentral is home for the latest Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, Penn State Basketball news, updates, and analysis of the Penn State Nittany Lions

The latest news, insight, and analysis of Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, and Penn State Basketball, including schedules, game results, analysis of breaking news, rumors, speculation, and recruiting coverage of future Penn State Nittany Lions

NittanyCentral is home to the latest Penn State Nittany Lions news, updates, insight, and analysis, including in-depth coverage of Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, Penn State Basketball, and much more

Penn State Wrestling: 5 Reasons Nittany Lions Will Win 3rd Consecutive National Championship

With their run-away win this past March in Tulsa, Penn State Wrestling took home its second straight NCAA title and their 10th in the past 12 NCAA Championships. To say Cael Sanderson has built a dynasty in Happy Valley is a gross understatement. But, the look of the 2023-2024 Nittany Lions team could be drastically different than this past year’s squad. Do they have the fire power, talent, and experience to win three in a row? You betcha! So with that, let’s take a look at the five biggest reasons Penn State Wrestling will hoist another team trophy in Kansas City at the end of the year. 

The Transfer Portal

During the Nittany Lions’ run of eight team titles out of nine years between 2011 and 2019, Cael Sanderson rarely utilized the transfer portal to bolster the starting lineup. Which made sense due to the student-athletes having to sit out a year. But, as we all know by now, that is a thing of past because the Transfer Portal didn’t really become a thing until it … well, until it did. The Penn State coaching staff was able to snag Greg Kerkvliet from Ohio State and then they got Cornell star Max Dean the following year. Dean’s commitment presented the first instance in which a transfer was coming to Happy Valley and immediately inserted into the starting lineup. Then in late fall of the 2021-2022 season, former Central Michigan standout Drew Hildebrandt transferred to the Nittany Lions as they were desperately looking for anyone who could suit up at 125. And the former All-American was excellent for the Nittany Lions during the regular season, however his Big Ten and NCAA performances were far from spectacular. So, in one season, Cael Sanderson brought in two guys to start immediately. The results speak for themselves, as one of the grapplers won an NCAA title and the other was instrumental in preserving Penn State’s perfect record in dual meets. While Penn State was relatively quiet portal-wise prior to last season, they’ve more than made up for it lately. With the additions of Bernie Truax, Mitchell Mesenbrink, and Aaron Nagao, the Nittany Lions have bolstered their roster with prior All-Americans and potential future NCAA champions.  This year’s starting lineup will most likely consist of a total of three former transfers with Nagao at 133, Truax at 184/197, and Kerkvliet at 285. That represents the most transfers in the starting lineup in Cael Sanderson’s career. If you think this trio will be an important piece of the puzzle in Penn State’s pursuit of three straight NCAA titles, then you would be 100% correct.


Penn State Wrestling will have a competitive guy at 125

I may be going out on a limb here, but, I have a feeling something is finally going to break right for the Nittany Lions at the lightweight spot. Before I get into that, yes, I do agree that Penn State Wrestling won’t necessarily need a competitive guy at 125 to dominate the college wrestling world again. But, and this is a big BUT, if this year’s lineup is without the services of its only two returning NCAA champions (Carter Starocci and Aaron Brooks) due to the Olympic year, then they may need some points and help at 125. Two years ago it looked like Robbie Howard was on track to being a top 10 guy. He qualified for the NCAA’s his true freshman year and had a decent showing at the 2021 NCAA’s. However, injuries have derailed each of his last two seasons and it’s really hard to say what the future holds for Howard. Speaking of the Transfer Portal, Michigan’s Kurt McHenry recently offered his services to Penn State. The former two time Cadet World Champion certainly adds depth to the wrestling room but his college resume doesn’t exactly jump off the page. Then there’s last year’s starter, Gary Steen. While it was a rough year for the redshirt freshman, he’s now had another year under his belt and the training and experience could finally click with his talent. But, here’s my prediction: I believe Robbie Howard will finally be healthy, he will win 20+ matches, earn an automatic berth into the 2024 NCAA’s, and make some waves at said NCAAs. 

Greg Kerkvliet

Let’s just do a quick recap of Kerkvliet’s first three seasons in the starting lineup for the Nittany Lions. In the shortened 2021 season, Kerkvliet battled a set of unbelievable circumstances to not only make his first appearance late in the season against Maryland, but he also made the field for the 2021 NCAA Championships. And in those championships Greg defied all odds by finishing seventh and taking home his first All-American honors. Then, in his second season, Kerkvliet showed the Nittany Lion faithful a taste of what he was truly capable of. Kerk Kong beat Michigan’s all-everything Mason Parris three times on the season and finished with his second straight All-American finish by being fourth in the nation. Mason Parris got his revenge on Kerkvliet this past season but Kerk continued to impress and he made it to his first ever NCAA finals. So to recap, that’s a finish of seventh, fourth, and runner-up in his three seasons and marked improvement in his mat presence and technique for each year. However this last item is the most important of all. And that’s the simple fact that no other team in the country has a guy like Greg Kerkvliet at 285 in their lineup this coming season.

No. 1

Which will be a huge reason the Nittany Lions will be champions again.

Improvement from the guys in the middle of the lineup

Between Beau Bartlett, Shayne Van Ness, Levi Haines, and Alex Facundo, there’s no doubt Penn State has a corps of guys in the middle of their lineup that can go toe-to-toe with anyone. There’s no better example of this than what Beau Bartlett has done in his Nittany Lion Career. Just take a look at his end of year finishes the past three years: 2021Big Ten Championship – did not placeNCAA Championship – did not qualify 2022Big Ten Championship – 7thNCAA Championship – qualified but went 1-2 and was knocked out 2023Big Ten Championship – 3rdNCAA Championship – 3rd That right there is how you do it. And with further improvement in the wrestling room it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Bartlett could be competing for a national title at 141 next year. Now, let’s look at Shayne Van Ness. Obviously he wasn’t super active his true freshman year as he only competed in two total matches. But, the progress and improvement with him happened in front of our very eyes during the course of last season. Van Ness got off to a great start by winning his first nine matches but he then hit the proverbial speed bump against Iowa State’s Paniro Johnson and Wisconsin’s Austin Gomez. Then it was the same story against Iowa’s Max Murin and Ohio State’s Sammy Sasso in back-to-back matches shortly after. And in the 2023 Big Tens, Shayne lost to Murin in the quarterfinals and then again in the third place match to finish in fourth. The script remained the same and the outcome remained the same. Van Ness could compete with the best in the country however he just couldn’t get over the hump to win against them. That is until the 2023 NCAA Championships. After getting past Ethen Miller in the opening round, Van Ness had a rematch against Paniro Johnson. However this time it was Shayne who was the victor in a back-and-forth 14-9 decision. Shayne kept the momentum going by dispatching Graham Rooks and he punched his ticket to the semifinals against Yianni Diakomihalis. Van Ness battled the now four time NCAA champion to the final whistle but he ultimately fell 8-3. And in the wrestlebacks is exactly where Shayne came out of his shell and showed the nation what he was capable of. In back-to-back matches, Shayne Van Ness defeated both Virginia Tech’s Caleb Henson and Kyle Parco to finish in third place and snag his first ever All-American honors. The two wins against Henson and Parco represented wins against a total of four All-American finishes. Just imagine how good Shayne will be this coming year with his hard work, off-season training, and added confidence boost from that finish? As for Alex Facundo, he had an incredible regular season which was built on the foundation of a 12-3 true freshman season. But obviously something happened in the end of year tournaments because Facundo did not finish the season out the way he started it. But look, these things happen. It’s these types of results which separate champions from pretenders. I have no doubt the Penn State coaching staff will do everything in their power to put Alex in the best possible position to succeed going forward. It’s what they do. Alex Facundo will be back in the lineup next year at 165 and he will be better than ever. And that should be a scary thought for all of the other teams in the nation. And last but not least is the freshman phenom, Levi Haines. What he did last year was nothing short of incredible and it was not expected whatsoever. Haines went from a guy who most people thought would redshirt, to a 2023 Big Ten champion and runner-up in the 2023 NCAA Championships. And considering most guys improve the most from their first season to their second, that should be another shot across the bow for teams like Iowa, Michigan, Arizona State, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State. All four of these grapplers will work hard and train to be the very best versions of themselves and all four of them will be in the mix once the 2024 NCAA Championships roll around.

Cael Sanderson

What more can be said about Cael Sanderson and his coaching staff and the accomplishments they’ve earned at Penn State? I mean seriously, what else can possibly be said? But before I get to that, I have another thing to mention. I do realize I’ve gone this entire article and I only mentioned Carter Starocci and Aaron Brooks in passing. Obviously if either or both of these all-time Nittany Lion greats suit up, they will be huge reasons for Penn State to be national champions again. It would be insane not to think that. But here’s the simple truth and the single biggest reason the Nittany Lions will be national champions in 2024. Penn State has Cael Sanderson and the rest of the wrestling programs in the nation don’t. It’s simple. 

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