The Penn State Nittany Lions reclaimed their status as the top team in the country last year when they won the 2022 NCAA tournament behind five champions and six total All-Americans.
With almost all of those placewinners returning and a series of highly-touted recruits also looking to join the lineup, this team is as dangerous as ever.
Here’s what the competition schedule will look like for the defending champs and some of key matches these athletes could face on their quest for another championship trophy.
The dual season begins in Rec Hall
The Nittany Lions are scheduled to kick off their 2022-2023 campaign on home turf, taking on the Bald Eagles of Lock Haven in front of a friendly Rec Hall crowd. Penn State has not wrestled Lock Haven since 2015, and the Blue and White dominated the Bald Eagles in this last meeting, 50-0. This year’s Lock Haven team has three ranked wrestlers including No. 13 Anthony Noto, No. 20 Ashton Eyler and No. 15 Isaac Reid, though the team will still face a significant uphill battle against the defending champs. Noto and Eyler will have their chance to take on lower-ranked Nittany Lion opponents at 125 and 157 pounds respectively, and the Bald Eagle athletes will provide a solid test for these young Nittany Lions. At 125 pounds in particular, Penn State's No. 15 Robert Howard redshirted last season but put up a 7-6 record in his true freshman season. This early challenge against NCAA qualifier Noto is a good way for Howard to start his year.
Looking at this dual as a whole, Penn State has the potential for a shutout. Last year, the Nittany Lions prevented Rider and Maryland from scoring any points against them, and this dual could result in a similar situation. If Howard upsets Noto early and sets a tone, the Bald Eagles could be in a tough spot. Look for 2022 NCAA champs Roman Bravo-Young, Carter Starocci, Aaron Brooks and Max Dean to run up the score too if they all wrestle in this early season dual. This is a matchup where Penn State will want to put on a show and make a statement.
Best potential matchups against Rider, Lehigh and Oregon State
Following the home opener against Lock Haven, Penn State is expected to send several wrestlers to the Black Knight Open in New York before returning to dual action against Rider on Dec. 2 in New Jersey. They'll then travel to Lehigh on Dec. 4 before hosting their second home dual of the season one week later against Oregon State on Dec. 11.
Here are the most exciting potential matches across those three duals:
- No. 27 Shayne Van Ness (Penn State) vs. No. 17 Quinn Kinner (Rider)
There's intrigue surrounding both of Penn State's redshirt freshmen Van Ness and 165-pounder Alex Facundo simply because there isn't enough collegiate data on these two athletes to predict how they'll compete against other ranked opponents in the varsity scene. Rider's Quinn Kinner, who wrestled his first two years at Ohio State before transferring, provides an opportunity for Van Ness to measure himself against an NCAA qualifier and a solid wrestler. This is the only match of the dual where Rider has a wrestler ranked higher than a Penn State wrestler, so if Rider is going to put points on the board and avoid being shut out again, Kinner will likely be the one to challenge for a bout victory.
- No. 1 Max Dean (Penn State) vs. No. 8 Michael Beard (Lehigh)
Kinner vs. Van Ness, however, won't have nearly the drama and the hype that this 197-pound potential matchup between Max Dean of Penn State and Michael Beard of Lehigh will have. Beard, a Pennsylvania native who committed to Penn State back in 2017, finished as an All-American for the Nittany Lions during his redshirt freshman season before being relegated to the back-up position after Dean moved to State College. Dean, of course, went on to win the national title at this weight, while Beard prepared for his transfer to Lehigh. Now, with Beard likely back in a starting position, he's not only an All-American threat again but potentially a title threat as well. He'll have his first chance to prove that on Dec. 4 in his home gym against the defending champ.
- No. 15 Robert Howard (Penn State) vs. No. 7 Brandon Kaylor
Robert Howard's entry into college wrestling came at an unusual time, as the true freshman was thrust into the Nittany Lion lineup in 2021 during the shortened season to fill an important gap for his team, and he weathered the Big Ten schedule as well as could be expected of a young future star. Howard went 7-6 that first season, qualifying for the NCAA tournament and advancing to the Round of 16. After redshirting last season, the New Jersey native is back in the mix, and he'll have his shot against an All-American early in the season when the Oregon State Beavers come to town. Oregon State's lightweight, Brandon Kaylor, went 22-7 last year and beat Ryan Miller, Eric Barnett, and Noah Surtin at the NCAA tournament to finish on the podium in eighth. Howard will be expected to keep this one close, certainly, but if he can pull off the upset, he could rise dramatically in the national rankings and gain some confidence heading into the winter months of the season.
- No. 1 Aaron Brooks (Penn State) vs. No. 6 Trey Munoz
Penn State's Aaron Brooks has been utterly dominant in his career with the Nittany Lions thus far, losing just twice in the last three seasons. Brooks has run through the gauntlet of Big Ten talent previously, so a ranked non-conference foe is nothing new for him, but this match is interesting more because of what it could reveal about where Oregon State's Trey Munoz is at. Munoz, a third-year Blood Round finisher for the Beavers, went 24-5 last year and notched wins over All-Americans Jon Loew and Brit Wilson. Oregon State has been on the upswing over the last two years, so expect Munoz to put up a fight. Brooks will likely cruise through most of his matches this year on his quest for a third national title, but if there's a Brooks match to watch in particular in the early half of the season, this would be a good one to note.
Looking ahead to the Collegiate Duals
Following the dual with Oregon State, the Penn State Nittany Lions will travel to New Orleans for a series of duals against opponents that will be announced at a later date. This is the second-consecutive year that Penn State has participated in the Collegiate Duals after finishing 3-0 at this event last year with wins over Northern Iowa, Cornell and Arizona State. Northern Iowa and Cornell will both be back this year, along with the defending ACC champions N.C. State and MAC powerhouse Central Michigan.
The field has been announced for the 2022 National Collegiate Duals and it includes three of the top-five teams in the land, along with 9 ranked schools overall. https://t.co/JWbYYkvRGKhttps://t.co/bZzW8AQwkj pic.twitter.com/ojCqPwXqKi— InterMat (@InterMat) August 23, 2022
Big Ten foe Ohio State joins the duals this year along with North Carolina, Iowa State, Lehigh, Lock Haven, Oregon State and Cal Poly. The Collegiate Duals do not include in-conference duals, so Penn State will not wrestle Ohio State, but the event will still be an ideal opportunity to see the Nittany Lions against top-ranked opponents from around the country.
Big Ten action kicks off in January against the Badgers
The Wisconsin Badgers ended last year’s dual season ranked No. 7, and they’ll have their shot against the defending champions on Jan. 6, the first of eight Big Ten duals for Penn State. Wisconsin has a slight possible path to victory here, but the biggest problem for the Badgers is their lack of depth in some of Penn State’s strongest weights. The Badgers do not currently have a ranked wrestler at 174 pounds or 184 pounds, and this gap gives No. 1 Carter Starocci and No. 1 Aaron Brooks the opportunity to maximize bonus points. At 197 and 285 pounds, Wisconsin will bring No. 20 Braxton Amos, a 2021 Junior World Champion, and No. 11 Trent Hillger, a two-time All-American, but both will have tough tasks ahead of them in No. 1 Max Dean and No. 2 Greg Kerkvliet. The goal for Wisconsin will be to keep those last two matches as close as possible and avoid falling into too far of a deficit before the upper weights.
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The lower and middle weights are where Wisconsin could thrive, and No. 2 Austin Gomez in particular will likely have an interesting match ahead of him against No. 27 Shayne Van Ness. Gomez became a fan favorite last season after he won the Big Ten tournament and then scrambled his way through the NCAA tournament to finish fourth. Gomez is aggressive, strong and fun to watch, and his young Nittany Lion foe will be tested in a major way against the reigning conference champ. A pin or a major from Gomez here could swing the match for Wisconsin and create important momentum for the Badgers ahead of matches at 157 and 165 where they are also favored.
If Wisconsin’s No. 6 Eric Barnett, No. 12 Joe Zargo, No. 2 Gomez, No. 17 Garrett Model and No. 6 Dean Hamiti all wrestle to their rankings and earn victories at 125, 141, 149, 157 and 165 with one or two of them notching bonus points, they have the opportunity to stop Penn State. The last time these two teams met, though, the Blue and White ran away with the victory 34-6. This battle is in Wisconsin, and it’s a key early contest for both teams to see how well their guys are performing against top competitors.
Hosting the Wolverines and the Spartans
Following their dual with Wisconsin, Penn State will return home to host both Michigan and Michigan State on Friday, Jan. 20 and Sunday, Jan. 22, though neither of these duals will likely have the hype that the Penn State-Michigan dual provided last year. The Wolverines have eight ranked wrestlers on their squad right now — a solid lineup — but only three are currently ranked higher than their Nittany Lion counterparts. For Michigan to stay competitive with Penn State this year, the team will need to see greatness from No. 2 Will Lewan at 157 pounds and bonus points from No. 5 Cameron Amine at 165 pounds. Penn State beat a loaded Michigan team last year in Ann Arbor 29-6 after bonus points from Nick Lee and wins from Roman Bravo-Young, Beau Bartlett, Brady Berge, Starocci, Brooks, Dean and Kerkvliet. Lee and Berge have since graduated, but the core of the Penn State lineup returns, and the Nittany Lions will be looking to generate a similar lopsided score.
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Penn State will welcome the Spartans of Michigan State two days later, where the Nittany Lions could see four ranked wrestlers including No. 9 Rayvon Foley, No. 18 Chase Saldate, No. 23 Layne Malczewski and No. 15 Cameron Caffey. The biggest weight to watch in this dual is 197 pounds where No. 1 Max Dean will likely wrestle No. 15 Caffey, the only wrestler with a win over Dean at 197 pounds. Caffey beat Dean at this dual last year, though the Nittany Lion upper weight would later enact revenge at the Big Ten tournament and go on to win the weight nationally later that month. Now Caffey has his shot against the champ again, and if Michigan State wants to stay competitive in this dual, the Spartans will need points from Caffey.
No. 9 Foley also has a good opportunity in this dual to challenge himself against a defending champion in No. 1 Roman Bravo-Young, if both wrestlers take the mat. Foley has been with the Spartans since 2017, but, oddly, has never faced Bravo-Young in college. After finishing seventh in 2019 but missing the podium in the seasons that followed, Foley will be aiming to earn one final All-American this year, and an opportunity to compete against the best in the weight will help him assess where he can improve before March.
Penn State vs. Iowa, the biggest dual of the season, is Jan. 27, 2023
Penn State vs. Iowa. This is the big one. The Nittany Lions topped the defending national champion Hawkeyes last season in Iowa's home gym behind wins from Drew Hildebrandt, Bravo-Young, Lee, Starocci, Brooks and Dean, but both lineups will look a little different this year. Iowa's three-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee is expected to be back at 125 pounds, and he'll want to come into Rec Hall and dominate Penn State's Robert Howard. Lee has a 79.52 percent career bonus rate, and while he's never wrestled Howard, he's teched or pinned every Penn State opponent he's faced. The 125-pound weight class is where Iowa will need to pick up some points, as Bravo-Young and the dangerous lineup of Penn State's upperweights could notch bonus points of their own later in the dual.
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The Hawks path to victory over Penn State requires Lee to create major momentum and returning All-American Real Woods to notch a win of his own against Penn State's No. 16 Bartlett, something his coaches will certainly be expecting him to do. Veteran Round of 12 finisher Max Murin will also need to beat Van Ness, while newcomer No. 33 Bretli Reyna would likely need to notch a victory of his own against whoever Penn State sends out at 157 pounds. The final Iowa wrestler currently seeded ahead of his Penn State counterpart is Patrick Kennedy at 165 pounds, a young star that Iowa fans are particularly excited about this season. Kennedy will likely face Facundo in a battle of underclassmen, but a win for Iowa will be necessary here before Penn State rolls out Carter Starocci, Aaron Brooks and Max Dean. Iowa has ranked wrestlers at all of these weights, and 197-pounder Jacob Warner in particular has kept things close with Dean in the past. But beating a national champ on the road is never easy, but Iowa will want some assurance from their lightweights that they can take losses at these weights and still be in the mix.
This dual could absolutely come down to heavyweight — a potential battle between No. 4 Tony Cassioppi of Iowa and No. 2 Greg Kerkvliet of Penn State — and, if it does, Iowa has the advantage, despite the rankings. Cassioppi has beaten Kerkvliet all three times they've wrestled, and while Kerkvliet closed the gap in the last match and pushed Cassioppi to overtime, the Hawk still leads the series. Iowa's goal will be stay in the fight and leave it up to their big man to finish off the win. But a loaded Penn State roster and the home gym advantage will make that a tall order for the Hawkeyes.
The Ohio State dual will produce four top-ten upper weight battles
The Penn State vs. Ohio State dual is always exciting and full of drama, and while the Iowa dual will likely steal the spotlight and attention initially, don't underestimate the energy that Ohio State will generate in the Covelli Center. Ohio State has nine ranked wrestlers, headlined by No. 3 Sammy Sasso at 149 pounds, and this team would love nothing more than to shock the world and beat Penn State in Columbus. The Buckeyes have their best chance for victory at in the first half of the dual, as they outrank Penn State on paper at 125, 141, 149, 157 and 165 pounds. The back half of the lineup, however, certainly also includes stars for the Buckeyes in All-Americans Ethan Smith, Kaleb Romero, Gavin Hoffman and Tate Orndorff, but Penn State is just so strong here that these athletes, even on their absolute best day, will still have quite the challenge.
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Out of those four weights, Ohio State's two biggest chances for wild upsets come at 174 and 197 pounds, given that both Aaron Brooks and Greg Kerkvliet have majored their Buckeye counterparts at 184 and 285 during their previous meetings. At 174 pounds, defending NCAA champion Carter Starocci has never wrestled Ethan Smith, but he was pushed by Ohio State's Romero, back when the All-American was down at 174 pounds. Starocci notched his wins against Romero in the dual and in the Big Ten tournament in a 2-1 tie-breaker and in a 2-0 shutout. The Nittany Lion champ has certainly improved since then, and Smith has not finished higher than the Round of 12 at 174, but in front of a home crowd, Smith could keep things interesting. A win here from Smith would be a surprise, but this could easily be a decision match that comes down to just a few points.
Gavin Hoffman, Ohio State's 197-pounder, also has the chance at an upset over a reigning champ, as he's previously taken Penn State's Max Dean to overtime. Dean did shut down Hoffman by a greater margin in the Big Ten tournament, winning 9-3, but Hoffman's proven that he's a podium-caliber wrestler after finishing sixth last year, so if Dean isn't on his A-game, Hoffman is a threat. Again, Penn State as a team looks too tough on paper for the Buckeyes, but rankings don't dictate results. This will be a must-watch dual because anything can happen when these guys take the mat.
On the road against Rutgers and Indiana
After wrestling Iowa and Ohio State, the Nittany Lions will then travel to Indiana and Rutgers for duals Feb. 5 and Feb. 10. The Hoosiers have just one ranked wrestler at 184 pounds, DJ Washington, though he is unlikely to challenge NCAA champion Aaron Brooks, even though he is one of two wrestlers with a win over Brooks' teammate Starocci.
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Rutgers, on the other hand, could create a little more excitement, as the Scarlet Knights boast eight ranked wrestlers and have at least one athlete currently ranked higher than a Penn State opponent, presenting a notable storyline.
No. 14 Sammy Alvarez is expected to make his return to the Rutgers lineup after wrestling just 10 matches last year and not holding down the starting spot beyond Dec. 10. Alvarez is tough, and he's pushed Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young in the past, back when Alvarez was down at 133 pounds. Now up at 141 pounds, he'll likely take on Penn State's Bartlett in a match that he'll need to win to keep Rutgers in this dual at all. Alvarez has had an unconventional career as he missed the 2020 NCAA tournament because of the COVID cancellation and then missed the 2021 NCAA tournament because of an issue at Big Tens. He then sat out most of last season after taking a few unexpected losses, but he's also deeply underrated as a scrambler, and he could absolutely finish higher than his No. 15 pre-season seed in a weight class as open as 141 pounds.
The Scarlet Knights also have some firepower at 125 pounds, 133 pounds, 149 pounds, 174 pounds, 184 pounds, 197 pounds and 285 pounds, but none of those athletes will enter the dual seeded higher than their Penn State counterparts. Rutgers has had a number of talented teams in the past few years, and the Scarlet Knights always bring the intensity, but, at least right now, they look to be a bit behind the Nittany Lions heading into the winter.
Matches against Maryland and Clarion round out Penn State's dual schedule
Maryland and Clarion enter the 2022-2023 college wrestling season with a combined five ranked wrestlers and thus will have a tough challenge ahead of them in the defending champion Nittany Lions.
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Unfortunately for the Terps, two of their highest ranked wrestlers, No. 27 Jaron Smith and No. 28 Jaxon Smith, sit in two of Penn State's best weight classes at 285 pounds and 197 pounds, creating potential difficulty for Maryland in terms of scoring team points. Jaron Smith, the bigger of the two unrelated Smiths, qualified for NCAAs last year at 197 pounds and finished the year 20-15, but he's looking for more in his eighth season with the Terps, this time up at heavyweight. Jaxon Smith, on the other hand, is far less experienced but has generated great excitement for the Maryland fan base because of his strong redshirt season and his qualification for the U20 World Championships. Smith posted a record of 23-6 in the 2021-2022 season but facing NCAA champion Max Dean is a different kind of challenge.
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Two of Smith's six losses actually came against Clarion's only ranked wrestler, Will Feldkamp, and Feldkamp will get his shot at Dean as well the week after Smith. The goal for the Terps and the Golden Eagles here will be to win at least one match across the ten weights, but Penn State's depth will make that difficult.