While Penn State may have emerged from its early season competitions unscated, the team did not have quite the smooth sailing that it likely expected.
The Nittany Lions found themselves behind in the team score on several occasions and wrestled somewhat close duals versus both Penn and Lehigh.
A number of wrestlers for Cael Sanderson’s squad found themselves filling in for injured or ill athletes at several points during the early stages of the season.
Penn State’s four national champions have been missing from the lineup more than anyone else on the roster so far and appear to have been hit hard by an illness making its way through the team.
“We’ve had a lot of illness go through the program,” Sanderson said. “It hit us this week and last week and even the week before. You think it's gone and then it comes back, it’s been pretty rough.”
Junior Aaron Brooks has missed the last two duals, leading to sophomore Donovon Ball filling in at 184 pounds.
The sophomore has stepped up in a big way, winning both of his bouts while Brooks recovers.
Sanderson has also held senior Roman Bravo-Young out of the dual against Penn and elected to forfeit the last two heavyweight bouts against Penn and Lehigh, as sophomore Greg Kerkvliet has also dealt with illness.
Sanderson informed the media that the team was prepared to send out sophomore Michael Beard at heavyweight if need be.
Beard, who wrestles at 197 pounds, would have been tasked with wrestling Lehigh’s Jordan Wood who weighed in at 281 pounds and is the No. 10 heavyweight in the country.
Yet another national champion on the blue and white’s roster has missed some time during the season, but not due entirely to illness.
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Fifth-year senior Nick Lee narrowly avoided a scary knee injury early in the season and is still wearing a heavy wrap around his knee during bouts.
Lee was held out of the Nittany Lions’ home opener against Army following his injury, but returned to face Penn following an extended break for the team between matches during late November.
“If we didn’t need him, he wouldn't have wrestled this week,” Sanderson said. “He’s been sick and obviously he’s banged up a little bit, but he still chose to go for us. The first time he wrestled hard since [the Army] match was in the Penn match.”
Lee also spoke briefly on the status of his knee following the Lehigh match where he defeated Connor McGonagle 13-6 for his 100th career win.
“It’s good. We have the best trainer in the world, so I got a good tape job and it's getting a lot better,” Lee said. “ If it wasn’t good enough I wouldn’t be wrestling on it.”
It may still be early, yet Penn State’s close December matches show that this team simply can’t afford to have similar health issues down the stretch when it takes on more talented opponents like Michigan and Iowa.
Penn State’s coaching staff is also keenly aware of that fact and has stressed health frequently.
The depth of Penn State’s roster has had its ups and downs this season with some athletes stepping up in big moments, which the coaching staff is a large part of.
“The coaches preach eating healthy and getting your sleep is a big thing too,” junior Creighton Edsell said. “That has helped me throughout the year and a lot of the guys on the team and the backups too. Whenever they need to step up they step up and they're ready to go.”
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