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Session VII notes: Lee wins third title with two bad ACLs, Griffith's title sheds more light on #KeepStanfordWrestling; Sanderson praises RTC system

by Andy Elder, Special to

Feature photo courtesy of John Sachs.

For Iowa three-time champion Spencer Lee, it’s no ACLs, no problem
Most wrestling fans knew by now that Spencer Lee is a rare kind of wrestler. But few knew before Saturday night’s ESPN broadcast that he has been defying modern medicine while earning his third national championship.
In a live interview with ESPN’s Quint Kessenich, Lee revealed some rather startling medical news.
“I'm battling a lot of things," Lee said. "Eight days ago, I tore an ACL in my other knee. I'm wrestling with no ACLs. Whatever, man. I didn't want to tell anyone, because F-excuses. Excuses are for wusses.
"That was a tough turn for me. I could barely wrestle. I could barely shoot. I can't sprawl. But I believed in my coaching staff and everyone believed in me. Here I am."
Stanford update – Griffith wins title, Abas takes seventh, team in 17th, with tons of attention to #KeepStanfordWrestling

We don’t think that the good folks at #KeepStanfordWrestling and those looking to save 11 programs dropped by the school could have scripted anything better than tonight’s NCAA wrestling finals.
Stanford’s Shane Griffith, the No. 8 seed, beat No. 3 seed Jake Wentzel of Pitt, 6-2, to win the 165-pound title at the NCAA Championships. Griffith gave a real-life example of the great athletes and students on the Stanford wrestling team, a compelling display of why the university should reverse its decision.
Instead of skipping the season, which was an early consideration for Griffith, he decided to go for it along with his teammates, and ended up becoming Stanford’s second NCAA champion, joining 157-pound champ Matt Gentry who won back in 2004.
Griffith wore a Keep Stanford Wrestling sweatshirt on center mat during his match, including an extended time with a challenge by Wentzel’s coaches at the end of the match. He also wore that sweatshirt on his ESPN interview and in his post-match NCAA media interview. And he got to talk about his team and the quest to save the program.
“I played a good role with my training throughout the season. We all had goals for this season, before the pandemic and this decision came out. It adds fuel to the tank. Just trying to prove them wrong,” he said.
When asked about the next step, he didn’t talk about himself, but about the effort to save the program.
“Just keep fighting the fight. If it’s a week-long battle, a year, 10-years, who knows? I know we are going to keep fighting the fight,” he said.
Freshman Jaden Abas placed seventh at 149 pounds, and the Cardinal finished 17th with 35.5 points.
Prior to the finals, #KeepStanfordWrestling made an urgent appeal for the wrestling community to express its anger to the Stanford administration about its decision. Based upon the reaction to the post on USA Wrestling’s social platforms, it seems many did exactly that. For those inspired by Griffith’s victory and the team’s courageous season, there is still time to get involved and help affect change.
At one point, the small but vocal collection of fans rose as one and chanted “KEEP STANFORD WRESTLING.”
As of Saturday, wrestling alumni had raised $12.5 million in an attempt to endow the program.
Sanderson espouses the importance of Olympic Regional Training Center
Penn State wrestling lives in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex portion of Rec Hall, but that’s just part of the Nittany Lions’ ecosystem.
Within those walls also resides the Penn State Olympic Regional Training Center and the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
All of that adds up to a lot of collegiate and post-collegiate talent under one roof and in one room.
Penn State Head Coach Cael Sanderson said it’s a draw for recruits and a benefit for current Nittany Lions.
“I think USA Wrestling and the opportunities they have to be Olympic champions is kind of cool of wrestling. NCAA wrestling is the pinnacle of, obviously, folkstyle wrestling, but they go hand in hand. They’re both major goals of these kids,” he said.
“Most of the kids in our room, I believe, want to be Olympic champions. I think that’s the reason they choose Penn State. We have some great, great people in the room, in the RTC. I think about coach Cody (Sanderson) and coach Casey (Cunningham) and (Jake) Varner. You can see those guys just really focus on these individuals and help them to be the best they can be. It’s great to see. We have a great staff and I just try to stay out of the way.”
Sanderson pointed to the individualized training and close, personal relationships his coaches forge with the Nittany Lions.
“Roman comes off the mat and he’s like, ‘Where’s Cody?’ because those guys spend a lot of time together, and Nick. The upper weights spend time with Casey. I’m really proud and happy for Coach Cody and Coach Casey,” he said.
Penn State will be sending a host of wrestlers to the 2021 U.S. Olympic team trials on April 2-3 at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.
Nick Lee, Carter Starocci and Aaron Brooks sound like they will be in Fort Worth. Bravo-Young said it would be a weight cut and he’s considering it.
“I’ll be getting ready,” Lee said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys from the NLWC that are getting ready to go down there and have some fun, including some new faces. I’m really excited for that. As far as expectations, just to be my best self. That’s the only expectation I can set.”
Starocci said he works out with a variety of guys in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, including one who might surprise you.
“I don’t have a set guy that I go with all the time. I know a guy who has helped me the most recently is Thomas Gilman,” he said. “He’s a small dude but I’ll get in a foxhole with that dude any day of the week. He’s as tough as it gets. Yeah, I’ll be at the Olympic Trials, and I’ll get that Olympic gold medal, as well.”
Brooks vouched for the talent in the room.
“I train with them a ton,” he said. “I’m wrestling with the best guys in the world every day. When I go out there on that stage and remembering that God is with me always, I’m prepared. God put me in a room with guys like Bo Nickal, David Taylor. It’s a blessing.”
15 freshmen All-Americans led by champions Starocci and Ferrari; Will there be five-timers?
The 15 freshmen who won NCAA All-America honors this year all have one thing in common. This year did not count toward their four years of eligibility. That means all 15, if they choose to wrestle four more years in college, have the potential to become five-time All-Americans. Of course, there has never been a five-time All-American.
Likewise, freshmen NCAA champion Carter Starocci of Penn State (174) and AJ Ferrari of Oklahoma State (197) could become the first five-time NCAA champions if they continue competing and winning.
In all of the medal matches, there was only one match between two freshmen. A pair of freshmen wrestled in the 184-pound third-place match, with Parker Keckeisen of Northern Iowa beating John Poznanski of Rutgers.
There were 12 different teams with one freshman All-American. Penn State had three freshmen on the podium, Starocci, Michael Beard (197) and Greg Kerkvliet (285). Missouri had a pair – Keegan O’Toole (165) and Rocky Elam (197).
1st at 174 — Carter Starocci of Penn State
1st at 197 — AJ Ferrari of Oklahoma State
3rd at 165 — Keegan O`Toole of Missouri
3rd at 184 — Parker Keckeisen of Northern Iowa
4th at 184 — John Poznanski of Rutgers
5th at 133 — Lucas Byrd of Illinois
5th at 197 — Rocky Elam of Missouri
6th at 125 — Sam Latona of Virginia Tech
6th at 149 — Kyle Parco of Fresno State
7th at 133 — Chris Cannon of Northwestern
7th at 149 — Jaden Abas of Stanford.
7th at 165 — Cameron Amine of Michigan
7th at 197 — Michael Beard of Penn State
4th at 285 — Cohlton Schultz of Arizona State
7th at 285 — Greg Kerkvliet of Penn State

National Champions by Conference

Big Ten (6) — Spencer Lee (125), Roman Bravo-Young (133), Nick Lee (141), Carter Starocci (174), Aaron Brooks (184), Gable Stevenson (285)
Big 12 (2) — David Carr (157), AJ Ferrari (197)
Atlantic Coast Conference (1)– Austin O’Connor (149)
Pac-12 (1) — Shane Griffith (165)
* Starocci is the fifth 174-pound national champion for Penn State. He joins Mark Hall, Ed Ruth, Matt Brown and Glenn Pritzlaff.
* Ferrari is the first true freshman national champion for Oklahoma State since Pat Smith won his first title in 1990. That’s 31 years, in case your math skills aren’t so good.
* North Carolina’s Austin O’Connor, who won the 149-pound title, is the Tar Heels’ sixth national champion in the history of the program, and the first since T.J. Jaworsky won his third title in 1995.
* In the last match of the night, Iowa’s Spencer Lee won his third national championship. The other nine champions — Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young (133 and Nick Lee (141), O’Connor (149), Iowa State’s David Carr (157), Stanford’s Shane Griffith (165), Penn State’s Carter Starocci (174) and Aaron Brooks (184), Ferrari (197) and Minnesota’s Gable Steveson (285) — were first-time winners.
* Iowa’s Lee is the seventh three-time champion in program history, joining Ed Banach (1980, 81, 83), Barry Davis (1982, 83, 85), Jim Zalesky (1982, 83, 84), Tom Brands (1990, 91, 92), Lincoln McIlravy (1993, 94, 97) and Joe Williams (1996, 97, 98).
And, with the NCAA granting all wrestlers another year of eligibility, all 10 champions and 80 All-Americans are free to wrestle next year. The 2022 tournament on March 17-19 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit could feature the deepest field of talent ever assembled.