Carter Starocci with Casey Cunningham (center) and Cael Sanderson (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
For all of Penn State wrestling's recent dominance, there's been one accolade that's eluded the program in the past several years - a Big Ten Championships team title. The last time the Nittany Lions won was in 2019, when the only current starter on the team was super-senior Roman Bravo-Young.
Last season, Penn State fell 1.5 points short of first place, which went to the Michigan Wolverines.
But for a program that's been pretty good at winning over the past dozen years - nine NCAA team titles, six conference titles and 32 individual national titles - coach Cael Sanderson didn't seem too concerned about it at the team's media availability on Monday.
"I'd like to win, as a coach, but we haven't really talked about that," he said, with blue-and-silver star-shaped balloons floating behind his head. "We don't really talk about winning and losing. It's kind of an expectation these guys have. Little kids want to win, you don't have to tell them they want to win. It's something you're born with."
The 12th-year Penn State head coach said he prefers not to put too much pressure on his wrestlers by focusing on results but is instead looking for enthusiasm, effort, and improvement.
"But your question is, do we want to win the Big Ten Conference? Heck yeah, let's go," he said.
The Nittany Lions will head into Ann Arbor with a pretty good shot to do just that. If the preseeds, which were released Monday, hold, Penn State will have nine of 10 wrestlers in the top 5 of their weight classes - including four No. 1s.
Despite that advantage, Sanderson said his team isn't taking anything for granted.
"It's just about taking time to be grateful for the opportunity," he said. "These kids are very blessed. It's a good time to be a college athlete, with all the resources they have, and a great time in college wrestling because of all the exposure and the following that especially the Big Ten Conference has. There's a lot of really good teams, good coaches and a lot of support behind these programs. That makes it fun."
The coach's relaxed attitude appears to have rubbed off on his team. Junior Carter Starocci said that after taking the weekend off, they started practice on Monday by cranking up some Rihanna and "getting some good energy going."
The media never got a straight answer on what all the balloons outside the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex were for. Sanderson said he thought someone's parents brought them in for their birthday.
"It's all of our birthdays - it's Big Tens and nationals," Starocci said.
Beau Bartlett said he thought the balloons were there to lighten things up a bit.
"A lot of time people get silent around the postseason," he said, rolling a dodgeball back and forth in his hands. "It's like silence, all serious, it's business now, got to lock in. And we have sparkly star balloons - and dodgeball. It helps us relax and realize it's a game. There's two days. It's a sport. No one knows who the 1997 national champ is. In 20 years, no one is going to know. It's just what we like to do. We're really passionate about it right now and just giving our best effort."
(Note: While Bartlett may not know who any of the 1997 national champs were, I'm sure plenty of others in wrestling do: Mark Ironside, Cary Kolat, Mark Branch and Kerry McCoy, to name a few.)
Bartlett is headed into this third Big Ten Championships - his first at his preferred weight of 141 pounds. He went 1-2 his first year and qualified for NCAAs his second year by earning the conference's final allocation. This year, he said, he's not going to worry as much about trying to qualify.
"Yeah, you always want to wrestle your best and you always want to win but in the back of my head was 'top seven, top seven, top seven,'" he said. "I don't know how many allocation spots are at Big Tens this year, I really don't care. You want to win it, that's what you want to do. That's what I'm focused on - wrestling with enthusiasm, scoring points, wrestling physical, wrestling assertive and just letting it fly."
While Bartlett has a few Big Tens under his belt, four Nittany Lions - Alex Facundo, Levi Haines, Shayne Van Ness and Gary Steen - will be making their conference tournament debuts.
Sanderson's hope for those freshmen is that they worry less about trying to win and just enjoy competing.
"Our job is to take pressure off them, not put it on them," he said. "Most importantly, it's just having the right mindset, the right positive energy and just believing in them and letting them do their thing."
On the flip side of the freshmen, the Nittany Lions will have Bravo-Young vying for his third Big Ten title and fellow seasoned veterans Starocci, Aaron Brooks and Max Dean (who has also won an EIWA championship) each seeking their second. Heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet should also find himself in a good position to make the finals on Sunday afternoon
While Sanderson wouldn't go so far as to make a prediction, Starocci did: 2022-23 Big Ten champions.
"I think this is probably the best team I've been a part of, and just energy-wise, everyone is doing backflips in the room," he said. "As you can see, there's balloons and stuff. Every day is a celebration, so, I guess (it's about) just taking in these moments and just realizing how fast the season goes by, so you can make sure that when one of those opportunities opens, you take full advantage."