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Transfers Dean and Hildebrandt bolster Penn State’s NCAA team title hopes

by Andy Elder, Special to

Images of Drew Hildebrandt and Max Dean of Penn State courtesy of Penn State Athletics.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When the 2021 NCAA Wrestling Championships wrapped up in the Enterprise Center last March, two themes had emerged.

First, Iowa had paid off on a two-year promise to win its first national championship since 2010 with one champion, two runners-up and four other All-Americans. The Hawkeyes looked like they were marching toward a title in 2020 but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NCAA to pull the plug on a national tournament Iowa would have been favored to win.

Second, even with a fabulous 4-0 performance in the finals and two other All-Americans, Penn State couldn’t find a way to win its fifth consecutive title. With the NCAA granting all wrestlers an extra year of eligibility, the Nittany Lions figured to be looking up at the Hawkeyes in the race to the NCAA title at the end of the 2021-22 season.

As the 2021-22 season dawned, Penn State coach Cael Sanderson acknowledged that his team needed to find a way to manufacture the 15.5 points that separated it from Iowa in St. Louis.

“We just have to step it up in every weight,” he said at the team’s preseason media day last November. “We need to score some bonus points. We need to score points in 10 weight classes; that would be helpful.”

By the end of this season, two transfers who weren’t on the Nittany Lions’ roster the previous season, and one who was but whose career was thought to be over combined to give Penn State its strongest lineup at the most important time of the year. Max Dean and Drew Hildebrandt figure to provide plenty of postseason points, and Brady Berge has that potential, too.

It took a while to get that point, though.

In the early stages of the season, Penn State had identified eight solid starters in Roman Bravo-Young (133), Nick Lee (141), Beau Bartlett (149), Creighton Edsell (165), Carter Starocci (174), Aaron Brooks (184), Cornell transfer Max Dean (197) and Greg Kerkvliet (285).

Finding consistent winners at 125 and 157 was more elusive. Through the end of December, Penn State tried two different starters at 125 with limited success. But it was in that month that news broke of former Central Michigan All-American Drew Hildebrandt’s addition to the roster.

Three different Nittany Lions started at 157 through early January, but none of three could produce consistent wins. Then, in early January, Brady Berge announced that he was pausing his coaching career at South Dakota State to return to Happy Valley.

He debuted at 165 on Jan. 16 against Rutgers and looked rejuvenated. Several weeks later, he missed a dual against Ohio State and Sanderson hinted that Berge was exploring a shift down a weight to 157. He wrestled at that weight on Feb. 20 and Penn State finally had its optimal lineup in place.

As it turns out, neither Iowa nor Penn State will enter the postseason with identical lineups to ones they finished last season with. The Hawkeyes feature two different starters, while the Nittany Lions have three.

Iowa suffered a big blow at 125 when Spencer Lee announced on New Year’s Day that he was opting to have surgery on both his knees and would miss the rest of the season. Drake Ayala stepped in for the three-time champion.

While Iowa’s lineup changes might be seen as some as a slight dropoff in postseason point potential, Penn State’s additions of Hildebrandt and Dean are huge plusses.

Hildebrandt compiled an 8-1 record and rose as high as No. 5 in the rankings. Dean, too, only suffered one loss and finished at 15-1 and ranked No. 1.

“They've been amazing for this team. I think the main thing is that they've really just added is their great personalities. You know, one thing I can say about both of them is they're just great young men who came here to get better,” Brooks said. “I think that's something that everyone in this program respected. Once they came into the program it kind of made us continue to strive for that the same thing as well.”

Sanderson pointed to one trait above all others, while adding other thoughts on their contributions to the team.

“They're both just really consistent. Obviously, great kids. Do everything right now. They're early to practice every day. They're coachable. They're smiling. You know, they're they're very grateful to be on the team and competing. So, I mean, from that standpoint, it's a big deal,” he said. “And they've done a great job. And Brady Berge came back mid-season too, so we have a really solid lineup right now.”

Dean was the first domino to fall in Sanderson’s plan to maximize his lineup. From all reports, his was not only a physical fit for the team.

“(Penn State’s) track record of success explains itself and the coaching staff and all the guys on the team … just people of integrity and I'm just excited to be here and look forward to accomplishing my goals,” said Dean. He added that his goals are two individual titles and two team titles in his two years of remaining eligibility.

Hildebrandt has only been at Penn State for a couple months, but he said he’s fit right in from the day he stepped on campus.

“I’ve felt welcomed and accepted since I’ve come here,” Hildebrandt said. “The fans here are amazing, all class. Best decision of my life, so far. One of, I should say.”

Both Dean and Hildebrandt seem universally admired by the Nittany Lions.

“Max is tough and he’s won some big matches and came through for us. The same for Hildebrandt. He’s been one of the more consistent 125-pounders we’ve had,” Bravo-Young said. “So, they’re big additions and good people. They work hard and I’m happy to have them on the team.”

Heading into the Big Ten Championships this weekend in Lincoln, the additions of Hildebrandt and Dean have been a big net positive for the Nittany Lions. This weekend and, more importantly, March 17-19 at the NCAA Championships in Detroit, will reveal whether the addition of those two will add up to another title for Penn State.
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