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Carter Starocci's true test arrives as Penn State wrestling rolls in NCAA Championships

KANSAS CITY, Mo. − It took all of two opening rounds for Penn State wrestling to hit its typical championship form.

Following a couple of unexpected early setbacks, Cael Sanderson's Nittany Lions steamrolled through the evening session of these NCAA Wrestling Championships at the T-Mobile Center. Each of their 10 wrestlers won their second session matches, eight advancing to Friday's quarterfinals.

The biggest intrigue left: Is 174-pound dominator Carter Starocci truly healthy enough to make history?

Though Starocci won his opening matches, he did allow allow his first two takedowns of the season and hung on to victory in too-close-for-comfort fashion in the evening. The hopeful four-time national champ was wrestling for the first time since injuring his knee nearly a month ago.

Penn State's Aaron Brooks prepares to take the mat with coach Cael Sanderson during the NCAA Wrestling Championships at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Missouri, on Thursday, March 21, 2024.
Penn State's Aaron Brooks prepares to take the mat with coach Cael Sanderson during the NCAA Wrestling Championships at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Missouri, on Thursday, March 21, 2024.

Still, Sanderson sounded confident after it was all over − no worries that Starocci couldn't shake big underdog Adam Kemp of Cal-Poly, winning just 5-3.

“He did what he needed to do to move on. I think that’s kind of what he’s thinking," Sanderson said of his 174-pound senior. "When he needed to score he scored fast. So he can wrestle, he can do it …"

The wrestling world should understand the full picture soon enough: Starocci's toughest match in months comes at lunch time Friday against top seed Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech. (Lewis earned that No. 1 spot after Starocci medically forfeited out of the Big Ten Championships).

Beat Lewis, and Starocci will be well on his way to becoming just the sixth wrestler in collegiate history to win four individual national titles. Teammate Aaron Brooks, of course, could join him Saturday evening.

Penn State wrestling, Aaron Brooks dominate second session

Penn State's Carter Starocci celebrates after defeating Nebraska's Mikey Labriola, not pictured, during the championship round of the NCAA Wrestling Championships 2023 at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. on Saturday, March 18, 2023.
Penn State's Carter Starocci celebrates after defeating Nebraska's Mikey Labriola, not pictured, during the championship round of the NCAA Wrestling Championships 2023 at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. on Saturday, March 18, 2023.

Overall, it proved to be a banner opening day in the end for Penn State, which has its sights set on breaking national records for finalist, champions and team points. The Lions lead that team race and are in good history-making shape with 34.5 points − 10 better than second-place Iowa and Iowa State.

Their effort improved significantly in the evening round, mostly with turnaround efforts from sophomore Aaron Nagao at 133 pounds and Tyler Kasak at 149. Both suffered unexpected defeats in the opening session.

Each also transformed themselves in their follow-up matches: Nagao posted a 16-1 technical fall while Kasak easily handled a 14-5 major decision in their consolation bracket action.

"They both looked great, came back with a little fire. Big day tomorrow," Sanderson said.

"Obviously, their goal is to win nationals and right away that’s no longer an option. But there’s a lot of honor in battling back. Those are the things that really are just as important, if not more important in life: being able to land like a cat and get back up and go compete."

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Penn State got two dominating victories from undefeated Levi Haines at 157 pounds, Mitch Messenbrink (165), Aaron Brooks (197) and heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet. Penn State's freshman sensation Braedan Davis (125) and seniors Beau Bartlett (141) and Bernie Truax (184) also advanced to the quarterfinals with solid wins.

Penn State wrestling: Carter Starocci starts new win streak?

On Wednesday, Starocci, once again, maintained that his recovery is complete during a pre-championships press conference ("I'm ready to go. I'm 100 percent") and how he's energized by head-turning No. 9 seed position.

He has won two bouts after his national-best 64-match win streak was stopped with those injury defaults two weeks ago.

"I think this is more fun this way. And I guess the committee − as far as that, I honestly really couldn't care less. I'd rather wrestle everybody, honestly. But I think they seeded it a little weird. But again, it doesn't really matter."

More than anything, he talked about the positive impact of teammate Aaron Brooks, the other potential four-time NCAA champ. Only five other collegiate wrestlers have ever done that, including Penn State coach Cael Sanderson.

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Both are seniors but Brooks is a year older.

Their paths crossed early on, Brooks wrestling his way to state titles in Hagerstown, Md; Starocci in Erie, Pa.

"I've known Aaron ever since I was a little kid," Starocci said on Wednesday. "I was always traveling a lot. He was always winning. So I was always watching his matches as a young little kid. I always looked up to Aaron ... just watching him go about his day and things like that.

"He's a kid I've always looked up to, even though close in age ... try and take some of his moves and stuff like that."

Frank Bodani covers Penn State sports for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at  fbodani@ydr.com and follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @YDRPennState.

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Penn State wrestling, Aaron Brooks roll in NCAA Championships