Typically, everybody likes the new guy(s) in the Penn State wrestling lineup, but one of this season’s Nittany Lion newcomers is actually a wily, old veteran.
If Penn State fans didn’t know Kyle Conel before 2018, they became fast friends at that year’s NCAA Championships in Cleveland. Conel twice defeated – once by fall – Ohio State’s Kollin Moore at 197 pounds to prevent the Buckeyes from racking up team points in what was a fight to the finish in the race for the coveted team title.
Penn State clinched its seventh NCAA crown in eight years that season when Bo Nickal pinned Ohio State’s Myles Martin at 184 pounds. The irony is that Conel played a role in that title by limiting Moore’s advancement points.
And now he wants his role to be substantially larger. He transferred from Kent State, he says his surgically repaired shoulder is healthy and he is expected to win a few (thousand) more fans on Sunday when Penn State hosts Navy in its 2 p.m. season opener in Rec Hall.
“I knew of people before coming here,” Conel said this week. “Obviously, it’s a whole new environment getting used to things when you’re jumping into something new. The transition was so easy with how relaxed and fun everything is here.
“That’s what’s special to me. There’s a bunch here of guys who love wrestling and love the sport. You come in here and put a smile on their face and put a smile on my face.”
There was a smile on Cael Sanderson’s face as well when he was asked about Conel’s transfer after being granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA.
“Well, he’s obviously a really good wrestler; he took third in the country a couple years ago,” Sanderson said. “And everyone remembers him from Penn State because he had some big matches that helped our team out. But he also went into that tournament unseeded.”
Conel, who started at Kent in 2014, has a 78-25 career record; he went 30-11 in 2018, capping it off with that bronze medal at 197, where he will be when he takes the mat for Penn State.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Conel said. “I’m just doing what I love to do since I was 12 years old and that’s wrestle. I’m just happy to go out there and let loose.
“I’ve been healthy for a while now; I’ve been doing everything everyone else has. I’m getting used to the freestyle guys, guys who haven’t wrestled folkstyle in years, and how big and strong those guys are. If I’m doing what I believe I’m doing, becoming the best wrestler I can be, then my actions will speak for themselves,” Conel said.
Conel is enrolled in a one-year master’s program in the Smeal College of Business called management organizational leadership. “It’s essentially an MBA without the second year of specialization,” Conel said. “I was a computer science graduate and I have programming and tech support experience and I want to combine that with business knowledge.”
Unlike in high school in northeast Ohio and at Kent State, Conel is no longer the best wrestler on the team. “Here, there are a couple of Olympic champs, there are so many national champs. It’s actually pretty motivating,” Conel said.
“I get to wrestle against Coach Cael and, when I do something right, it feels pretty good to learn from the best and be able to compete with the best. It’s pretty fun because it’s never about trying to beat that guy, it’s all about learning. I go in the room every day and I learn. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.
ANOTHER SEASON UPON US: Navy hasn’t wrestled in Rec Hall since 2003 and the two teams haven’t met since 2005, but Penn State-Navy matches in the 1960s and 1970s were legendary. Penn State leads the series that started in 1910 by a 48-30-7 margin.
The Midshipmen are 2-1 and faced teams from the Big 12 and Big Ten last week. They trounced Fresno State and California Baptist and lost 24-12 to Wisconsin, which head coach Joel Sharratt thought was a good test against strong competition. Navy’s next victory will be its 900th in school history; the Midshipmen are 899-306-26.
“Next week we will be competing in one of the most hostile college wrestling environments and this week certainly provided a big-time atmosphere that leaves us more prepared for the battles ahead,” said Sharratt, a former NCAA champion from Iowa.
Rec Hall can be a foreboding environment, for sure, but even Rec Hall can’t match the scene in which Navy participated last Sunday. The Midshipmen wrestled Wisconsin on board the USS Midway and had great support from the U.S. Naval Base in San Diego, including a vice admiral.
Navy will be hard-pressed to prevent Penn State from pulling rank in this situation, but the Midshipmen are unlikely to back down.
“Anytime you have a group, a military team, you know the kids are tough,” Sanderson said. “I mean they’re making the ultimate sacrifice in what they’re choosing to do for a career, so we have all the respect in the world for them as individuals and competitors and we expect them to come in here and wrestle hard. We better be ready to go.”
Navy has a 42-man roster and includes athletes from 19 states. Navy’s starter at 197 is Jacob Koser, a two-time PIAA placewinner from Northern York who has an uncle who remains in the Naval Surface Warfare Center. Wyatt Long (141) from Cumberland Valley also is on the Navy roster.
Assisting Sharratt is Dan Neff, who was Solanco’s first PIAA champion in 2011 and was an All-America for Lock Haven University in 2016.
WHO’S IN THE LINEUP? Well, that’s for Cael Sanderson to know and you to find out. But here is who were listed as likely candidates:
125: Brody Teske or Devin Schnupp.
133: Roman Bravo-Young.
141: Nick Lee.
149: Luke Gardner or Jarod Verkleeren.
157: Bo Pipher.
165: Vincenzo Joseph.
174: Mark Hall.
184: Shakur Rasheed or Creighton Edsell.
197: Kyle Conel.
285: Anthony Cassar.
Rasheed said this week his surgically repaired knee is healthy but wasn’t permitted to say whether he’d be wrestling on Sunday. Brady Berge suffered a head injury in last week’s U-23 World Championships and Sanderson was quite sure on Tuesday that Berge would not compete on Sunday.
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR: And lately, Penn State fans have been getting a lot. Their reward is higher ticket prices this season, which no one really seems to be complaining about.
A season ticket costs $170 for eight matches as opposed, for example, Iowa’s $85 fee.
Sanderson’s goal to become a self-sustaining program remains intact. “We’re not,” he said. “But I think we could argue that we are if you consider camps and if you consider different donations and funding. We’re not trying to take advantage of anybody. You don’t want to charge a price that isn’t fair.
“Hopefully, people think that even though the prices are going up that it’s a fair price and it’s their way of investing back into the program, too.”
Sanderson said many opponents’ programs are stepping up their game. “That money has to come from somewhere,” Sanderson said. “Hopefully people feel like it’s a decent value. We have to give them their money’s worth. If we’re charging $6 more a match, we better step our game up.”
OPTIONS APLENTY: Brody Teske, the four-time state champion from Iowa who may well kick off Sanderson’s 11th season at 125 pounds on Sunday, has a couple of more goals than just wrestling.
“I’m really focused on four things,” Teske said Tuesday. “One, having fun; two, working to become the best version of myself; three, growing a good ‘stache; and four, growing a good mullet. All of them have a pretty solid foundation right now and there’s work to be done … that’s where I’m at.”
All right then, that’s something else for fans to monitor and judge the progress.