It is difficult to figure where the Penn State wrestling team will end up in 2004-05. There are a lot what-ifs when analyzing the program.
Though the eighth-place showing at Midlands did not meet team expectations, there were some great competitions and reasons to be optimistic about what the season may hold in store. The team must get better performances from some of the veterans, though, if it wants to make a serious run at a top-three finish in the Big Ten tournament and/or a top-10 finish at NCAAs.
Here is a quick look at each of the weights as Penn State gets ready for a big weekend at Rec Hall. Troy Sunderlands squad will take on sixth-ranked Lehigh for a second time this season (after losing to the Mountain Hawks, 24-15, in the final of the inaugural Pennsylvania Duals on Nov. 14):
125: Adam Smith was named one of the co-captains before the season. He seems to have stagnated in his progression. Though a lingering back injury may be partially to blame, Smiths performance is a cause for concern for the Nittany Lions. As a four-year starter, Smith has given little indication to this point in the season that he will be a legitimate All-America contender. He has looked a little slow against the top-flight competition this season.
133: Bryan Heller is emerging as a threat to upset any of the ranked wrestlers. His tenacity has kept him in several matches, including a narrow loss to Shawn Bunch from Edinboro. If Heller continues to improve, he could be a real factor at the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
141: DeWitt Driscoll. Along with Smith, Driscoll has been a bit of a disappointment to this point in the season. The redshirt junior seems to have all of the skills necessary to become one of the upper echelon wrestlers here, but he is consistently getting caught in bad positions. If Driscoll can correct some fundamental mistakes and regain his confidence, he could still become a stalwart in the lineup.
149: James Woodall was a wrestler I thought could emerge as a darkhorse in the national title race at this weight. Though he has suffered a couple of narrow losses, nothing has happened to change my mind. Woodall is a very dangerous wrestler who can score from anywhere on the mat. Staying off of the bottom against the likes of Matt Storniolo and Matt Kocher will be important, but Woodall has the ability to beat anyone in this weight in a given match.
157: Nathan Galloway probably came to Penn State with some unrealistic expectations. I think Galloway made very good use of his redshirt year and is a much-improved wrestler from his redshirt campaign. He is stronger, not just physically, but mentally. He has shown no signs of having the on-mat meltdowns that marred his freshman season. However, Galloway may still be a year away from being an All-American.
165: Steve Troup has been thrown to the wolves this season. Though he has been on the short end of some lopsided scores, he has shown an ability to keep wrestling and trying his moves regardless of the situation. That is not something to take for granted. As the freshman gets stronger and learns from his experiences, he figures to be in Penn States future plans. Jeremy Hart is also on the mend and could be back in the lineup by February.
174: James Yonushonis would have gotten my vote for most improved wrestler this season before Midlands. A couple of close losses took Yonushonis out of the tournament quickly there. But he has closed the gap considerably between himself and the highly-ranked contenders at this weight. Though he lacks some of the natural skills of the elite at the class, his work ethic has him on the verge of earning a ranking.
184: Eric Bradley is as steady a wrestler as Penn State has. He reminds me of Glenn Pritzlaff in his ability to stay in good position and wear down his opponents. Bradley is one of five or six wrestlers who could conceivably win the national title at this weight this season. The only concern is that Paul Bradley defeated him at Midlands after Bradley went undefeated against the Hawkeye standout last season.
197: Phil Davis is quickly emerging as a crowd favorite with his unorthodox and exciting style. Davis is always a threat to get the pin and has not backed down from anyone. He has remarkable poise on the mat for a redshirt freshman. Though Joel Edwards is not out of the mix yet, Davis is certainly wrestling like the position is his.
HWT: Josh Walker has waited a long time for his chance to get out of the shadow of Pat Cummins. Walker is in tremendous shape and has good quickness for a heavyweight. He lacks the strength of Cummins but could be a darkhorse to garner All-America honors. Hell have to improve from the neutral and bottom positions, though, to get there.
As for Fridays matchup with Lehigh, it should be a treat for fans. Make no mistake, this rivalry is back in full force and the Nittany Lions have shown an ability to improve and reverse earlier setbacks over the last few seasons under Sunderland.
However, while both teams look to have an improved lineup from the first meeting, Lehigh appears to have inserted more firepower than Penn State. A key to this weeks match will be Hellers performance against Matt Ciasulli. Ciasulli pinned him in the first period when they met at Midlands. Penn State will likely have to get wins from Smith, Woodall, Bradley and Walker and then pull a surprise somewhere along the way.
The Penn State team and the sport will get some great exposure with both Fridays meet against Lehigh at 7:30 and Sundays match vs. Pittsburgh being televised live by Fox Sports Pittsburgh and WPSX, with rebroadcasts on CSTV. Heres hoping for some good numbers in the FoxSports telecast will lead to an increased willingness by television execs to broadcast the sport.