By Brandon Pelter, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With the Big Ten Tournament days away, Penn State wrestling continues its postseason preparation. After a third consecutive perfect season for the Nittany Lions, they are now looking to earn their seventh Big Ten title in the last nine years.
Not much has changed when it comes to preparation, as Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson noted the high level of intensity has remained the same as usual.
"It's tricky because you're trying to get ready for nationals, that's obviously the most important thing, but you have to get there and our conference meet is very important to us too," Sanderson said. "We've been training hard and we'll come home and train hard next week."
According to Sanderson, the Nittany Lions will be with top-ranked Jason Nolf at 157 pounds. Nolf was injured against Rutgers on January 28th and has not wrestled in competition since.
"He's doing well," Sanderson said. "He's a tough kid and healed quickly so we'll see him Saturday. Right now the plan is to get him out there and compete and we'll see from there."
With Nolf returning to the lineup, Penn State will see both familiar contenders take to the mat in East Lansing, Michigan as well as new ones.
While Sanderson noted he prefers the Nittany Lions set their goals higher than a spot in the NCAA Tournament, he also mentioned there's no denying the path to being a national champion begins with qualifying.
Senior Carson Kuhn is one of those Nittany Lions fighting for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. It will take a few wins for Kuhn, but he is ready for the challenge.
"I'm really excited," Kuhn said. "I've wrestled on big stages before and this is going to be a really big stage too, but I think I have the experience to be able to relax and do my best and compete at my best potential. I've had a lot of road blocks but it seems like all those road blocks are gone now so I'm going to do everything that I can and wrestle hard and have some fun."
At 133 pounds, fellow transfer Corey Keener is also excited for his first experience at the Big Ten Tournament. Progressing throughout the season, the senior is now ready to make the most of his opportunity.
"I'm feeling very confident," Keener said. "I've had some good practices, and the matches that I lost in the Big Ten duals, I know I can compete with those guys and I know that I can beat them as well. I would've liked to have won those matches, that's always nice, but it's nice wrestling those guys and getting a feel for where they're at and where you're at and where you need to improve. I think I've worked on those areas. I'm excited to compete against those guys this weekend."
At 141 pounds, Nick Lee also continues to prepare for his first postseason. For Lee, his preparation comes in working with one of Penn State's best, Zain Retherford, to keep improving.
"He's a really good partner for me so I try to seek him out to get practice with him," Lee said. "He's really good, one of the best in the world, so there's a lot I can learn from him."
As Lee continues to learn from the two-time NCAA national champion, his biggest lesson comes from one of Retherford's top strengths.
"You see guys wrestling Zain and they get really tired," Lee said. "I think (practicing with Zain is) good for me because it helped my conditioning and neutral, top, bottom, all areas he's good, so really everywhere I can learn from him and everywhere I've gotten better."
Since making his Penn State dual debut against Michigan, Sanderson and the staff have been confident in the true freshman from the start.
"We look at him as a title contender, he has put himself in that position now," Sanderson said. "Big Ten title contender and national title contender and if you can win the Big Ten, you can win the nationals. I think he has come a long way and he hasn't really changed, his work ethic has been the same and he has been preparing for this for a long time."
After a tight battle for the spot in the postseason lineup, Shakur Rasheed will represent Penn State at 197 pounds. Opponents will have to watch out for Rasheed's lethal cradle, which Sanderson can recall seeing many years ago when Rasheed was in high school.
Following a six hour drive to watch Rasheed wrestle, Sanderson arrived for an unexpected visit to see all of seven seconds of Rasheed on the mat before he hit the cradle and pinned his opponent.
"I think he has shown he can beat anybody," Sanderson said. "There are some very good wrestlers in the weight class but Shakur is planning on winning. He has a great chance at doing that."
Penn State will also be traveling Jarod Verkleeren, Brady Berge, Anthony Cassar, Devin Schnupp and Luke Gardner to East Lansing. While they won't be competing for the Nittany Lions, they play a vital role on the team.
"Gardner does a great job," Sanderson said. "You have him watch film on somebody and he can imitate them perfectly. It's very helpful for us. They keep our guys safe but also give them a nice feel and a good test."