As Penn State saw last year, experience is a luxury when competing for national titles.
Traveling to Detroit, the Nittany Lions brought with them four returning NCAA champions, two seniors in Brady Berge and Drew Hildebrandt, a junior with championship experience in Max Dean and two sophomores in Greg Kerkvliet and Beau Bartlett.
Come March 2023, the Nittany Lions will not have the same abundance of experience.
However, heading into the 2022-23 season, expectations start and end at a national team title and multiple individual champions regardless of the experience of the squad.
In light of several departures from last season's championship-winning roster, some new faces will be needed in Penn State’s quest for back-to-back titles. Here are several new wrestlers that could be instrumental in the Nittany Lions’ quest for supremacy.
Redshirt freshman Alex Facundo — 165 pounds
One of the Nittany Lions’ most prized recruits in the 2021 class, Alex Facundo was considered the No. 1 recruit at 170 pounds coming out of high school.
Redshirting in his first year at University Park, Facundo has had ample opportunity to get acclimated to the meat grinder that is college wrestling and should be set to become a centerpiece of Penn State’s lineup for years to come.
In his redshirt season, the four-time Michigan state champion went 12-3 with his only losses coming via a tiebreaker loss at the Clarion Open and back-to-back losses against strong competition at the Southern Scuffle.
To claim the starting role, Facundo will have to beat out senior Creighton Edsell, who had a solid 2021-22 season. However, it is undeniable Facundo has a considerably higher ceiling with many expecting the redshirt freshman to contend for an All-American spot next season.
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Redshirt freshman Shayne Van Ness — 149 pounds
Rivaling Facundo’s lofty expectations from fans, Shayne Van Ness will also be expected to contend for an All-American designation next season.
Coming to Cael Sanderson’s program as the No. 2 overall recruit in the entire 2021 class and the top wrestler at 132 pounds, Van Ness looked poised to become another member of the ever-growing club of NCAA champions at Penn State.
So far, there is no reason to believe Van Ness will not live up to those expectations.
Despite facing some injury struggles in his redshirt season, leading him to medically forfeit two matches, the Blair Academy product and two-time national prep champion won his other two matches handily via a fall and a 10-2 major decision.
Similar to Facundo, who had the opportunity to train with NCAA champion Carter Starocci, Van Ness likely reaped the benefits of training in a room that featured an NCAA champion just one weight below him in Nick Lee and another in former highly touted recruit in Bartlett at 149 pounds.
Redshirt sophomore Matt Lee — 157 pounds
The youngest of the three Lee brothers, Matt Lee has the best opportunity for success of the remaining Lee brothers at Penn State, after older brother Joe struggled in his debut season two years ago and didn’t crack the lineup last season.
Lee will likely contend for the starting spot at 157 pounds in the 2022-23 season, a weight the blue and white struggled to find any consistency in prior to Berge’s return last season.
The Evansville, Indiana, native went 5-3 in his redshirt freshman season while wrestling at 165 pounds, with one of those losses coming to Facundo at the Southern Scuffle.
Outside of senior Tony Negron and junior Terrell Barraclough — who started at 157 pounds last season with little success — Lee presents the most experienced option for Sanderson come next winter, but he will face strong competition from a number of different contenders.
Freshman Levi Haines — 157 pounds
The other serious contender for the 157-pound starting spot is incoming freshman Levi Haines.
While it is relatively rare for freshmen to break into the lineup at Penn State because of the wealth of talent and experience the team has had over the years, the lack of a tried-and-true option at 157 pounds presents a unique opportunity for Haines.
This opportunity may have already been recognized by the Biglerville, Pennsylvania, native, who found success after forgoing his senior season to compete against collegiate competition — going 9-0 against those opponents.
Haines defeated a ranked opponent in Navy’s Andrew Cerniglia en route to a championship at the Franklin and Marshall Open, and he also defeated Paddy Gallagher, a top Ohio State recruit and former No. 1 pound-for-pound recruit, according to InterMat.
With the hype growing around Haines ever since his commitment to the blue and white, only time will tell if the young star can live up to the expectations Penn State fans have tagged him with early.
Redshirt freshman Gary Steen/Redshirt sophomore Will Betancourt — 125 pounds
While redshirt sophomore and former 2020 No. 3 pound-for-pound recruit Robbie Howard will likely be tapped to earn the starting role at 125 pounds, the need for a strong backup is apparent, given Howard’s injury history.
Sanderson will have several alternatives in line at 125 should Howard once again face injuries in the 2022-23 season, with the most talented of his options being Gary Steen and Ohio State transfer Will Betancourt.
Steen had a rough start to his college career, going 1-5 in his first six matches during his redshirt freshman season.
However, Steen appeared to turn things around a bit to close out the season, winning four of his last five bouts. His only loss during that stretch came at the hands of former Pennsylvania state champion and Cornell freshman Brett Ungar.
Steen came to Penn State as the No. 7 recruit in the country at 120 pounds, giving him a higher ceiling than most, yet his results have failed to indicate that the Hermitage, Pennsylvania, native can fulfill his potential.
Still, a year in the Penn State wrestling room could see the redshirt freshman make big strides heading into the 2022-23 season.
Betancourt also presents a quality option at 125 pounds and could potentially compete for the starting spot with Howard.
The Ohio State transfer went 15-6 in his freshman season with the Buckeyes while wrestling at 133 pounds, with two of those losses coming against stout competition in Michigan’s Dylan Ragusin and Michigan State’s Rayvon Foley.
A deciding factor behind Betancourt’s transfer was his desire to compete at 125 pounds, potentially indicating that his results from this past season could have been even better if he was able to wrestle at his preferred weight.
Regardless, Betancourt will have to compete for any action at 125 pounds and should be able to elevate his game inside of the Penn State wrestling room.
One option Penn State fans can’t rule out is the transfer portal.
An increasingly powerful force in the world of collegiate athletics, the transfer portal has allowed the best programs to get even better in many cases including that of Penn State last season.
The additions of Dean and Hildebrandt were pivotal in the Nittany Lions’ march toward another NCAA team title and could lead Sanderson to make more moves in the portal ahead of the 2022-23 season.
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