When it comes to football, the phrase “it’s a rebuilding year” comes up often.
It’s usually used to describe a team after it has quite a bit of success winning championships, but then lost too much — players, coaches, etc.
For Penn State’s wrestling program, you won’t hear that phrase.
They don’t rebuild, they reload.
And that statement couldn’t be more true for this year’s squad.
The Nittany Lions get their season underway on Sunday in the Journeymen Collegiate Classic at Freedom High School in Bethlehem. They’ll do so with a new crop of freshmen, which include Michigan natives Josh Barr and Braedan Davis, and Pennsylvania studs Tyler Kasak — who is a PIAA champion and three-time medalist — and Branden Wentzel, who never finished lower than third and won a PIAA title.
There are several talented transfers in Aaron Nagao, Bernie Truax, Mitchell Mesenbrink and Kurt McHenry on board too.
“Everyone’s looking really great. I think you know what you’re getting nowadays in recruiting,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said during media availability on Wednesday. “There’s so much exposure and insight into programs. The transfers knew what they were getting here, and that’s why they came here. They’ve been awesome. They fit in really well. The freshmen, same thing, just a great group of good people, that’s what we look for.”
NCAA runner-up Levi Haines echoed his coach’s words.
“They are all doing great,” he said. “They are definitely tearing it up in there. They’re doing a good job. I think they all fit the program very well.”
College wrestling fans are very familiar with Nagao and Truax.
Nagao came onto the scene last year as a freshman at Minnesota. He took on Roman Bravo-Young in the Big Ten finals, which opened a lot of Penn State fans’ eyes. He finished 22-6 last year, and went on to be an All-American with a fifth-place finish for the Golden Gophers.
Up until that point, there was no one else that pushed the pace on RBY like Nagao.
Now, he’ll look to fill the void left behind with Bravo-Young’s graduation, but Nagao didn’t jump right away at the opportunity.
“I considered my options very thoroughly. Coach Cael was one of the first ones to reach out,” Nagao said. “I took two other visits. I was considering everything very thoroughly. I wanted to be there (Penn State), but the wisest choice was to take my time and consider everything.”
The ultimate reason why he chose the Nittany Lions?
“The environment is unbeatable,” Nagao said. “The coaches are awesome. Partners are unbeatable. Above all, I felt led to be here by God. It’s obviously a blessed program.”
Truax made the cross country trek from Cal Poly to join the program. During his time with the Mustangs, the graduate won two Pac 12 titles and was a three-time NCAA All-American — finishing no lower than fourth.
He is well known by Penn State fans, as he beat Max Dean last year in the NCAA consolation quarterfinals, 8-6, in sudden victory.
“They both come from great programs. They both had tremendous success where they were. They’re just outstanding individuals,” Sanderson said of Nagao and Truax. “They fit in really well. It’s kind of how I mentioned before, (they) love wrestling, want to be the best they can be, and work hard. They’re coachable, love to compete, and they’re going to be on a fun team. We’re going to have some fun this year. We’re super happy and grateful that they’re in our program.”
The Nittany Lions’ coaching staff’s ability to see their athletes’ love for the sport is one of the reasons why Mesenbrink also decided to make the trek across the country with Truax from California.
Mesenbrink redshirted last season for Cal Baptist, and wrestled in two matches — both were victories that he stuck his opponent on their backs for pins. During his high school career in Wisconsin, he was a three-time state champion and never finished lower than third.
He said he got to State College in June, and got to work right away with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. Mesenbrink had success right away.
In July, he didn’t give up a point on the way to winning a U20 Pan-Am Championship at 74 kg in Chile. A little over a month later, Mesenbrink claimed a U20 World Championship in Jordan at 74 kg.
“It was really helpful to be able to have competitions and the international scene,” Mesenbrink said of the transition. “The Pan-Am Championships and having training for something with the coaches and partners here. Honestly, it didn’t really feel like an adjustment period. It was just like, jump in and just start going.”
Another reason why Mesenbrink came east is because it was a dream of his to don the Blue and White singlet.
His dream started roughly 10 years ago when he and his dad were at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis.
“I guess it’s more, why not Penn State? Personally, I’ve wanted to come to Penn State since I was like eight,” Mesenbrink said. “My dad and I would go to the NCAA tournament, and this was in like ‘12 and ‘13, like (Ed) Ruth, David Taylor and those guys. When they first started winning those titles, I would ask my dad if he could stay after and watch the team get their trophy. Ever since then, how they dominated everything, I really wanted to come here. When the opportunity presented itself when I went into the transfer portal last March, it was just out of nowhere.”
Journeymen Collegiate Classic
When: 9 a.m. Sunday
Where: Freedom High School, Bethlehem
Radio: WLEJ (103.7 FM, 1450 AM), WPHB (104.3 FM, 1260 AM)
Nittany Lions expected to compete
125: No. 20 Robert Howard (0-0), Gary Steen (0-0), Braeden Davis (0-0)
133: Baylor Shunk (0-0), Sean Wang (0-0)
141: No. 2 Beau Bartlett (0-0), David Evans (0-0), Tyler Kasak (0-0)
149: No. 2 Shayne Van Ness (0-0), Connor Pierce (0-0)
157: No. 1 Levi Haines (0-0)
165: No. 13 Alex Facundo (0-0), Mitchell Mesenbrink (0-0), Terrell Barraclough (0-0), Matt Lee (0-0)
174: No. 1 Carter Starocci (0-0), Aurelius Dunbar (0-0)
184: No. 2 Bernie Truax (0-0), Donovon Ball (0-0), Josh Barr (0-0)
197: No. 1 Aaron Brooks (0-0), Lucas Cochran (0-0)
285: No. 1 Greg Kerkvliet (0-0,)