Penn State Wrestling

Levi Haines Dominates Penn State Wrestling, Shatters Rankings: Inside Journey to Becoming an NCAA Champion

With the standards set by Cael Sanderson over the past decade plus, the Nittany Lions‘ 2022 recruiting class was rather ho-hum. Based on FloWrestling’s recruiting rankings from the past 12 years, Penn State Wrestling had an average class that came in at 7.6. However the 2022 group wasn’t even in the top 25. The biggest reason for their drop in the rankings was due to the class only containing two commits. Connor Pierce (141/149) came in as an unranked grappler and Levi Haines (157/165) topped the charts as the No. 9 overall recruit. Ohio State was the unanimous kings of the 2022 recruiting cycle as they hauled in three of the top four overall recruits that year. They plucked Nick Feldman (No. 1) and Nic Bouzakis (No. 4) from Pennsylvania and snagged Jesse Mendez (No. 3) from the Hoosier state. Tom Ryan also bolstered his top-heavy class by sprinkling in two more ranked wrestlers in the top 35, No. 24 Luke Geog and No. 34 Seth Shumate. And, during that same 12 year recruiting stretch, the Buckeyes average class surpassed the mighty Nittany Lions by a whopping two-tenths of a point (7.4). But in the end, numbers are just that … numbers. Because once those “numbers” get to their respective campus, they start to train with their coaching staff and the rest of their team. Which is where the real difference in culture and coaching begins to shape each of the guys. In the case of Levi Haines, rather than dominating Pennsylvania State wrestling for a fourth straight year, he decided to skip his senior campaign and train full time at David Taylor’s M2 Training Center. And during the time Haines was technically a senior in high school, he participated in both the 2022 David Lehman Open and 2022 Edinboro Open.  All Levi did was go a perfect 9-0 in the two Opens will racking up a major decision and pinning three opponents.

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Going into Haines’ true freshman season in 2022-2023, the Penn State Wrestling faithful knew they would see him in action in several dual meets thanks to the updated redshirt rule put into place by the NCAA. The rule stated that a true freshman could compete for their program attached five times throughout the year and still keep their redshirt intact. But, with the experienced and competitive Terrell Barraclough at 157, it would make sense for the Penn State coaching staff to get Levi some action during the year while maintaining his redshirt. Which is exactly what happened in the early season action. Haines got off to a good start by compiling a 9-1 record in the Jonathan Kaloust Bearcat Open and Black Knight Invite. And, Barraclough was the starter at 157 for Penn State’s duals against Lock Haven, Rider, Lehigh, and Oregon State. News out of the wrestling room in the late summer and early fall of 2022 was that Terrell was still routinely beating Levi. However, the turning point for Levi seemed to start at the 2022 Black Knight Open where both Barraclough and Haines were signed up. It just so happened that both Barraclough and Haines made it to the finals where they would square off once again. This time, it was Levi who had his hand raised at the center of the mat following a razor close 2-1 decision. Penn State Wrestling fans certainly took note of the result but as I pointed out above, Barraclough was still the starter in the Rider, Lehigh, and Oregon State duals which followed the Black Knight Open. 

Levi Haines Makes Presence Felt on Big Stage for Penn State Wrestling

It wasn’t until the 2022 National Collegiate Duals that Levi Haines made his first appearance in the Nittany Lions’ starting lineup as Barraclough was a little banged up. Haines took full advantage of the opportunity, by pinning Central Michigan’s Corbyn Munson in the first period. Levi then rolled up UNC’s Danny Nini and Iowa State’s Jason Kraisser in back-to-back decisions and he was a perfect 3-0 for the tournament. In Penn State’s next dual meet against Wisconsin in early January, it was again Levi Haines at 157 for the Nittany Lions. This is the matchup which put the entire wrestling nation on alert because Levi absolutely manhandled the No. 16 ranked Garrett Model in a 12-8 decision victory. There were multiple times in the match that Haines picked Model up off the mat from lower leverage positions. Which is something you do not see very often. With Haines appearing in a total of three attached outings (Central Michigan and UNC duals counted as one), the big question lingered as to how many times the coaching staff would trot out the stellar freshman. In Penn State’s first of two dual meets at the Bryce Jordan Center, Cael Sanderson went with Haines to face the All-American Will Lewan. And the result of this match completely electrified the BJC crowd as Levi scored a takedown in sudden victory to win the match 3-1. Terrell Barraclough then got the nod in the Michigan State dual meet two days later. But, all eyes were on the tunnel in the Iowa dual meet the following Friday evening. With the Nittany Lions trailing 11-6 following the first four matches, would the coaching staff turn to the experienced Barraclough or the hot rookie Haines? And out came the bushy hair of Levi Haines. In a tight match, Levi was up 1-0 going into the final period. Siebrecht was on the bottom position and he quickly freed himself to knot the score at 1-1. Haines then landed a beautiful high double and powered through to land the takedown and ultimately win the match 3-2. Cael knows best. So that brought Haines’ total appearances to five on the year. One more and he would burn his redshirt. Which brings us to the Ohio State dual meet. Would it be Terrell or Levi to take on the Buckeye’s talented youngster, Paddy Gallagher? Well, as we now know, it was Levi Haines who took to the mat that night. And following his utter destruction of Gallagher in the 14-2 major decision, Levi was simply too good not to be the guy going forward. His performances on the mat completely forced the coaching staff’s hand. Speaking of “forced”, that just about sums up Haines’ last handful of matches during the regular season where he piled up two lopsided decision, a technical fall, and a pin. It was now onto the 2023 Big Ten Championships. How would Penn State’s newest young gun handle the pressure and volume of matches in the span of only two days? I think the answer we’re looking for here is “Pretty darn good”. Levi breezed past his first round opponent and then snuck by Purdue’s Kendall Coleman 3-2 in the semi finals. Which lead to a finals matchup against Nebraska’s All-American Peyton Robb. This match went pretty much exactly how Levi’s match against Will Lewan went. The score was knotted at one apiece going into sudden victory where Haines was quick to strike on a single leg. Using his athleticism and brute strength, Haines powered through a counter by Robb, took him to the mat, got the takedown, and took home his first Big Ten title. Wow! Levi kept the train rolling in the 2023 NCAA Tournament by cruising past his first two foes. Which then set up a match against the reigning third place finisher in the 2022 NCAA’s at 149, Virginia Tech’s Bryce Andonian. With the match tied at 8-8 late in the third period, Levi Haines did this … 

(2) Levi Haines pins (7) Bryce Andonian to claim All-American status.

📺 ESPNU#NCAAWrestling x @pennstateWREST pic.twitter.com/eSujW78BBA

— NCAA Wrestling (@NCAAWrestling) March 17, 2023

 In the semi finals, Levi was matched up against Peyton Robb for the second time in two weeks. But this time Haines ended the match in regulation by besting Robb in a 5-3 decision. The win gave Levi Haines a perfect record 18-0 record since joining the starting lineup and it punched his ticket to the finals of the 2023 NCAA Championships. All from a guy who I thought would redshirt on the year. Well, everyone knows how the finals match went. But look, Levi was going up against the now four time All-American and two time NCAA Champion (UNC’s Austin O’Connor). It was a sixth year senior facing a true freshman. The outcome was fairly inevitable. However, Levi Haines’ incredible run in the Big Ten and the NCAA was amazing and it’s exactly what happens to good wrestlers who come and compete for Penn State Wrestling. They get better. They become champions. 

Levi Haines’ Penn State Wrestling Career in Perspective

 Going back to some of the numbers I talked about earlier … Remember the top-loaded class Ohio State brought in the same year as Levi Haines? Between Nick Feldman (No. 1), Jesse Mendez (No. 3), and Nic Bouzakis (No. 4) they have a total of 36 wins in unattached and attached appearances. Would you like to guess how many Levi Haines has? Yep, that’s correct. He has 36 all by himself. Quality over quantity. Oh, and how many NCAA titles does Ohio State have in the past 12 championships? Yes, it’s one. What about Penn State? Enough said.

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Chris Snyder

Expertise: College Wrestling, College Football, Lays Chips Education: Penn State University Location: State College, PA Even though he had no prior journalism experience, Chris has now covered Penn State Wrestling and Penn State Football for the past three years. And it's clear he also likes constant torture as he's been a PSU Basketball fan for way too long. Several years back, Chris made the seamless transition from PGA Professional to computer programmer and thoroughly enjoys following and writing about all things related to Penn State sports during his spare time.