Anytime Nick Lee has stepped on the mat this season, there's been pressure on him.

Pressure to prove that he's one of the nation's preeminent 141-pounders after back-to-back fifth place finishes, the standard issue pressure which comes with donning a blue and white Penn State singlet week after week, or even the pressure to rise above the fray and standout in a lineup with stars like Mark Hall and Vincenzo Joseph.

And yet, in spite of the unrelenting pressure he's under to succeed, Lee has managed to handle it with relative ease, compiling an 18-0 record with five ranked wins over Big Ten opponents, four top-10 wins and 15 bonus point wins.

That was in the regular season, though.

When the postseason gets underway with the start of the Big Ten Tournament at the Rutgers Athletic Center on Saturday, the pressure —perhaps amplified — will be on Lee once again to go show up on a big stage and produce.

It's in this pressure of the postseason however, where Lee finds some degree of self-actualization, some degree of belonging even despite being one of the nation's top wrestlers and having the self-confidence to realize that.

"It's a very select group of people in the country that get to compete in nationals and the Big Ten Tournament," Lee said. "So everybody — no matter what team you're from — if you're there, you should be proud of that and try to have fun in the tournament. The pressure's there but it's a blessing. It means you're doing something right."

Lee has always produced.

He's finished in third place at the Big Ten Tournament each of the last two seasons and in fifth place at nationals in that same time span, good for All-American nods.

He's also racked up an impressive 82-11 record not even three full seasons into his career, including 24 ranked wins.

But this season, Lee's teammates have noticed something different.

The talent is still there like it always has been. Instead they point to a certain work ethic and mindset that has been elevated, which will bode well for Lee come postseason time.

"He's a beast. He's gonna win nationals this year," Lee's teammate Jarod Verkleeren said. "There's a lot to learn from him: his pace, his style of wrestling — it's good, it's really good."

Verkleeren at 149 pounds along with his teammate Bo Pipher at 157 pounds, are making their postseason debuts this season, and both are looking to Lee as a source as inspiration with the biggest moments of their careers are on the horizon.

"Nick always wrestles his hardest and is always ready to go every weekend. He's always consistent and he's always someone who's going to give his best effort no matter how he feels and no matter what the situation is," Pipher said. "So he's definitely someone I look up to."

Now a junior, Lee has emerged as a go-to leader and point scorer and integral part on a Nittany Lion team vying for its ninth NCAA title in 10 years under Cael Sanderson.

The Evansville, Indiana, native is known for his unrelenting positivity, which often manifests itself in a smile and a trademark level-headedness regardless of if he wins or loses.

Lee's teammate and fellow All-American Shakur Rasheed even went so far as to say last year that Lee is "always cheesing'" and is the wrestler Rasheed would comfortably bet on to routinely be in a good mood.

It's in being himself where Sanderson feels Lee's and others' leadership does the most good.

"We're not really a rah rah kind of a team. We just love to compete and have a high expectation and we try to keep things in perspective and that gives us a lot of strength and power," Sanderson said. "We have individuals that just by being themselves, that's the best leadership we can have."


This postseason is different than most that Sanderson and even Lee in his young career, have been a part of.

This season has been more laden with lineup changes, freshman starters, spot starters, injuries and pulled redshirts than nearly any in Sanderson's tenure.

It's something he's admitted the Nittany Lions have had to cope with and adjust to, and it's resulting in five Penn State wrestlers making their postseason debuts this weekend.

But in Lee, Sanderson's got a calming voice and a leader who in addition to leading by example, will also be leading by not saying much at all, for fear of psyching out the relative newcomers.

"There'll be a time to talk about that but I don't wanna get in their ear too much. These guys have been wrestling the whole season and they've wrestled in big tournaments before," Lee said. "Nothing like the Big Ten Tournament probably, but I don't want them to have it in their head that it's anything other than just another tournament because it's not. I just want them to be their best just like any other tournament."


Lee is taking his own advice and isn't treating the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments like something worth stressing over.

So when Lee steps on the mat, he'll likely do so with a target on his back as some combination of No. 2 Luke Pletcher of Ohio State, No. 7 Chad Red of Nebraska, No. 8 Mitch McKee of Minnesota, No. 11 Tristan Moran of Wisconsin and No. 18 Dylan Duncan of Illinois, will look to avenge their regular season losses to Lee.

The caliber of those opponents and having seen them once before gives Lee a certain confidence heading into the postseason.

"Getting tough matches throughout the year benefits everyone. And I think if you ask anybody in the Big Ten on any team, they'll tell you the same thing: seeing the best guys in the nation the entire season is definitely an advantage experience-wise going into the national tournament," Lee said.

It's also those tough matches and depth at his weight which led Lee to dub the Big Ten Tournament the country's toughest.

That means for at least one more weekend this season, Lee will be under that pressure which he revels so much and has risen above often times before, meaning he'll get one more chance to showcase his skills and prove that his regular season success wasn't a fluke.

"The Big Ten Tournament, in my mind, is probably the toughest tournament in the country. That's the exciting part too though — you're not gonna have any matches that you can overlook," Lee said. "You've got to be ready for every single one. So I think that's the exciting part for me — I get to show my strength and try to be my best for every match so that's the exciting part."

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