By Brandon Pelter, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With just a week until the start of the 2017-18 wrestling season, Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson met with the media for the first time. The NCAA defending national champions return all five of last year's individual national champions, looking to add their eighth title in the last nine seasons.
125, 133, 141 Still to Be
There is no question the Nittany Lions return a strong core group of seven, which includes six All-Americans, but there are still potentially three open spots in the lineup for Penn State.
With a vacancy at 125 pounds there is a three-man battle as the freshmen trio of Justin Lopez, Devin Schnupp and Austin Clabaugh continue to fight for the starting nod come opening night against Army.
"We have three freshmen and they're just all scrappy kids," Sanderson said. "We'll find out as the dust settles who our guy is in that weight class, but I'm sure that will be exciting for our fans to see who runs out there next Thursday."
At 133 pounds, graduate transfer Corey Keener has potential to earn the starting nod. A Schulykill Haven, Pennsylvnaia native, Keener is a three-time NCAA qualifier who transferred to Penn State from Central Michigan University.
"He's just a good, solid kid," Sanderson said. "Real tough in the room, but again we'll find out as the season plays along."
Jered Cortez also returns for the Nittany Lions after a season-ending injury shortened his campaign last year. He will be fighting for the start at 141 pounds alongside Nick Lee, an impressive true freshman.
"(Cortez) is back, he's 100-percent," Sanderson said. "He's been for several months now, and I think up at 141 he'll have less risk of injury, that's just the nature of the best. But, he's fast and strong and he's tough on the mat."
Lee is poised to provide stiff competition for the starting spot, but like any Nittany Lion, he'll have to earn it.
"He's got to be a clear-cut choice on the best option," Sanderson said. "It's just going to depend on who we feel gives us the best chance to score points there."
The Rest Return
For Sanderson's squad, the rest of the lineup is packed with returning potential. Five of the remaining seven spots in the lineup are filled by last season's NCAA champions, with the addition of All-American Nick Nevills and Matt McCutcheon, who provides veteran leadership as a three-time NCAA qualifier.
It's no secret Zain Retherford will be the starter at 149 pounds. Coming off a World Championships appearance this past summer, Retherford is the reigning two-time NCAA champion at 149 pounds and owns last season's Hodge Trophy as well. The senior doesn't feel any different in his final season with the Nittany Lions.
"I think it's the same mentality," Retherford said. "It's my last year, but there's no reason to change my mindset. I've been grateful to compete, keep improving and keep working on growing as a wrestler and as a person.
Jason Nolf will be poised to continue as the starter at 157 pounds, after finishing as a runner-up in his first season, then as a national champion last year.
At 165 pounds Vincenzo Joseph returns after pinning Isaiah Martinez in the NCAA finals to take home last year's crown. Joseph is ready for the new season though, focused solely on his wrestling and not the outside noise.
"For me personally, my goal is to be the best wrestler I can be," Joseph said. "So, it's on me and what I can do. I like the challenge"
Mark Hall returns as last season's champion at 174 pounds and has some added experience after winning the 74 kg title for the United States at the Junior World Championships in Finland.
"It was good (this summer)," Hall said. "It was even better winning the team title for the country, our first one in a while."
Hall will begin his season wrestling at the NWCA All-Star Classic taking on Zahid Valencia, a rematch of last year's NCAA semifinal bout at 174 pounds.
At 184 pounds, Bo Nickal returns, hoping to continue to break out new moves as the year rolls along. The junior says he has added a few more special moves, but they won't be revealed until he breaks them out during a match.
Matt McCutcheon bolsters the Nittany Lions lineup at 197 pounds, also balancing a spot on the Penn State baseball team come spring.
Nick Nevills rounds out the Nittany Lions starters at heavyweight. Nevills says he could be in the top three in scoring on the team.
"That's something I'm aiming for, more points than last year," Nevills said. "I think I was fourth on the team in points, maybe fifth, and so I'd like to be a little bit higher than that. But it's tough when you have people like Zain, Jason and Bo, who pretty much pin everybody they wrestle. It just makes you want to compete that much more to be better and try to keep up with the kind of points they're producing. That's where I'd like to see myself up there and crack the top three."
Nevills joins Hall at the NWCA All-Star Classic this on Sunday, Nov. 5.
Nittany Lions Atop the Rankings
While some teams don't mind being the underdog, Sanderson and his team prefer the challenge of being top dog from the start.
"We don't want to be the underdog," Sanderson said. "We want to have that expectation. It's a more difficult position to be in and it's what you want. It's easy to be an underdog because that means based on your history your expectations are low. Well we want, based on our history, high expectations."
The Nittany Lions kick off the 2017-18 campaign at home Thursday, Nov. 9 hosting Army at Rec Hall.