STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State’s 11 NCAA wrestling championship banners were displayed above the elevated mat, reminders to those who flooded into the Bryce Jordan Center on Monday of all the program’s success.
The annual BJC dual, held in the 15,261-seat arena, was dubbed a throwback event, with the Nittany Lions wearing pink and black singlets in honor of the school’s original colors. The 2014 national championship team, one of 10 to win a team title during Cael Sanderson’s tenure, was honored during the dual. Fans roared as Penn State legends David Taylor and Zain Retherford waved back at a crowd of 12,049 that watched No. 1 Penn State dominate No. 14 Rutgers 35-3, three days after a 29-6 road rout of No. 3 Iowa.
As fans celebrated another win for Penn State’s most successful sport — and a team that continues to dismantle opponents while eying another national championship in a chase that will intensify in the next month — the Nittany Lions hit another milestone.
Monday marked the Penn State wrestling program’s 1,000th dual meet victory, making it the sixth school to hit that mark. It’s fitting that this team, one that could be Sanderson’s most complete since taking the helm in 2009, was the group to reach that number. Penn State has the top-ranked wrestler in five of the 10 weight classes. This is a roster overflowing with talent and depth, something that was especially evident on this night. That depth could be the separator between some ridiculously good Penn State wrestling teams and one that has a chance to be the best in the history of the sport.
Monday night wrestling pic.twitter.com/58d6rEM0Pk
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) February 13, 2024
The man in charge, of course, isn’t thinking that way, even if many who made the trek to campus decked out in pink and black are likely letting their minds wander about how historically good this team could be.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Sanderson said. “We’re just trying to be the best team that we can be this year. We have a lot of really good people who are fun to work with everyday. … We’re just gonna try to keep getting better as we progress along here.”
Two years after Penn State had five individual NCAA champions, it’s in position to do it again. And this time the quest for 10 All-America honorees is not only in play, but also realistic. This group could challenge for the 170-point mark at NCAAs, the record set by Dan Gable’s Iowa team in 1997.
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In the push for all the accolades that could pile up in March, Sanderson said he just tries, like always, to stay out of the way of his assistant coaches as they all work to hone in on each wrestler’s goals.
“We just want our guys to be clear on what they want and full of enthusiasm as they get to the end and just kind of train that way,” Sanderson said. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to do that in the past years and this year will be the same.”
Penn State won nine of 10 bouts against the Scarlet Knights on a night when Sanderson said an illness went through the team, keeping top-ranked wrestlers Carter Starocci and Greg Kerkvliet off the mat. Senior Terrell Barraclough, who moved up to 174 to fill in for Starocci, posted a 4-3 win against No. 13 Jackson Turley. And Lucas Cochran moved up to heavyweight to replace Kerkvliet and beat No. 8 Yara Slavikouski.
Meanwhile, 197-pounder Aaron Brooks, looking to become a four-time NCAA champion — something that Penn State has never had — pinned Michael Toranzo in this first period.
Another pin for @pennstateWREST! 📌
No. 1 at 197 Aaron Brooks earns the win over Michael Toranzo. 💪 pic.twitter.com/k80MAsMAwB
— Big Ten Wrestling (@B1GWrestling) February 13, 2024
It’s no easy feat to get a crowd to the BJC on a Monday night in the dead of winter. But when there’s a special team to see, one that can be more challenging and expensive to watch otherwise in the sold-out but intimate 6,846-capacity Rec Hall, the wrestling faithful will make the trip. This lineup is must-see, even when shorthanded, and that is a testament to what’s been built here.
“I know Monday night is not ideal to travel and a lot of the fans that fill up the arena are traveling so we appreciate that,” Sanderson said. “That’s kind of why we were trying to come up with something that would be a little more exciting, so we did the throwback stuff with the colors and all that.”
To be clear, this was not Penn State’s first choice for the BJC dual. Penn State wanted all the lights and smoke — the NCAA championship vibes, as Brooks called this special setting — for the dual against No. 5 Nebraska this Sunday. That, a program source said, was the plan until the Big Ten scheduled the Nebraska dual on a day and time that coincides with Penn State’s annual 46-hour THON dance marathon, which is held in the Bryce Jordan Center.
Rec Hall will surely be rowdy on Sunday, and the scheduling mishap won’t take away from the excitement this team can always generate, regardless of the venue, date or time. We’re in the midst of a special era of Nittany Lions wrestling, and Monday night again showed the dynasty is showing no signs of slowing down.
“We’ll be ready to rock come March,” Barraclough said.
(Photo: Audrey Snyder / The Athletic)