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Can Levi Haines win a national title as a freshman? Here's what he'll have to overcome

There might've been a time this season when Levi Haines' success seemed surprising.

But at this point ... who can be surprised by anything the Biglerville native does on a wrestling mat?

The Penn State true freshman will make his debut at the NCAA Wrestling Championships this week. The championships begin Thursday afternoon and conclude Saturday evening in Tulsa.

Haines entered the season as a backup in Penn State's lineup but now enters the NCAA Championships as one of the favorites at 157 pounds. Haines is 23-1 this season and was just named Big Ten Freshman of the Year after winning his first Big Ten title.

Penn State's Levi Haines, top, wrestles Iowa's Cobe Siebrecht at 157 pounds on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in State College, Pa.
Penn State's Levi Haines, top, wrestles Iowa's Cobe Siebrecht at 157 pounds on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in State College, Pa.

That title came in eye-opening fashion. Haines was going up against Nebraska junior Peyton Robb, the country's top-ranked wrestler at 157 pounds, but won, 3-1, in overtime with an impressive takedown. Haines landed a single-leg move, remained steady as Robb fought off the takedown and lifted the Cornhusker in the air a second time before completing the move.

It was the latest in a series of impressive wins for Haines this season. And it cemented him as a contender for a national title as a true freshman — something that would be an incredible feat.

But it won't be easy. Haines will need to win four matches to reach Saturday night's championship bout. If he loses before then, he can still finish as high as third. An eighth-place finish or higher earns him All-American honors.

Here's a look at the path Haines will need to take to a first-place finish this weekend.

Freshman phenom:Former YAIAA state champion wrestler turning heads at Penn State

Who is standing in his way?

North Carolina's Austin O'Connor won an NCAA wrestling title in 2021. He could be Haines' opponent in the finals this weekend.
North Carolina's Austin O'Connor won an NCAA wrestling title in 2021. He could be Haines' opponent in the finals this weekend.

Haines hasn't lost since Nov. 13 against Northern Colorado's Vincent Zerban in an early season tournament. Since then he's beaten a handful of ranked wrestlers in both dual meets and the Big Ten Tournament. That has earned him the No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Still, Haines will face competitors this week he's never seen before.

He's set to face 31st seed Ashton Eyler of Lock Haven in the round of 32 Thursday afternoon. If he can win two matches to reach the quarterfinals, he will likely wrestle No. 7 Bryce Andonian of Virginia Tech. Andonian finished third at 149 pounds last season.

If Haines reaches the semifinals, the most likely outcome is a rematch against Robb. The Nebraska junior is now 25-1 this season and seeded third after his loss to Haines two weeks ago. He took fourth at the NCAA Championships last season.

Haines and Robb were tied, 1-1, after three periods the last time they wrestled. A rematch could go in either direction.

If he reaches the finals, his most likely opponent is North Carolina sixth-year senior Austin O'Connor. The top seed in the tournament is 18-0 this season and is looking to become a five-time All-American. O'Connor win the NCAA title at 149 pounds in 2021. He took eighth at 157 pounds last season while battling injuries.

O'Connor is 24 years old while Haines is still 18.

Can a true freshman really win an NCAA title?

Penn State's Levi Haines has gone 23-1 since being inserted in the starting lineup this season.
Penn State's Levi Haines has gone 23-1 since being inserted in the starting lineup this season.

It used to be a rarity, but it has happened a number of times in recent years.

Mark Hall won a national title for Penn State as a true freshman in 2017. Current Penn State senior Aaron Brooks had a legitimate chance to win a national title his first year of college but the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 tournament.

Pennsylvania native Spencer Lee won a national title his first season at Iowa in 2018. The sixth-year Hawkeyes senior is going for his fourth title this weekend. Olympian Kyle Dake won four consecutive national titles at Cornell beginning with his true freshman season in 2010. Those are just a few examples.

It's common for schools (including Penn State) to redshirt their top recruits to let them develop for a year before entering the lineup. Nittany Lions legends David Taylor, Ed Ruth, Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal all took that path. Another recent legend, Zain Retherford, was a fifth-place All-American as a true freshman but redshirted the following season.

That originally seemed to be the path Haines would take this season. He entered the season backing up Terrell Barraclough but had five "free" dual meets he was allowed to wrestle in before losing his redshirt status. He was so impressive in those early appearances that Penn State coach Cael Sanderson started him in a pivotal match against Iowa on Jan. 27. He responded by beating Cobe Siebrecht, 3-2, and hasn't looked back since.

He's now the only true freshman in Penn State's lineup.

More on Haines:How Adams County's state champion wrestler became a Penn State commit

Will Penn State win another team title this weekend?

Feb 10, 2023; Piscataway, NJ, USA;  Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Cael Sanderson (center) looks on during the match against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Jersey Mike’s Arena. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 10, 2023; Piscataway, NJ, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Cael Sanderson (center) looks on during the match against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Jersey Mike’s Arena. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Nittany Lions are trying to win their 10th team crown in the past 12 tournaments under Sanderson.

Penn State was edged out by Iowa in 2021 but won the team race last year and are favored to repeat this weekend. The Nittany Lions beat the Hawkeyes for the Big Ten team title two weeks ago — scoring 147 points while Iowa scored 134.5. But while Penn State has nine NCAA qualifiers this season, the Hawkeyes are sending all 10 of their starters to Tulsa.

Roman Bravo-Young (133 pounds), Carter Starocci (174) and Aaron Brooks (184) are all looking for their third individual NCAA titles. 197-pounder Max Dean is a defending national champion but is seeded ninth after losing in the Big Ten title match. Heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet is the No. 3 seed and a two-time All-American.

The Haines file

Biglerville's Levi Haines gets picked up by his dad and head coach, Ken Haines, after winning the 145-pound championship bout at the PIAA Class 2A wrestling championship at the Giant Center in Hershey on Friday, March 12, 2021. Haines won by fall at 2:19.
Biglerville's Levi Haines gets picked up by his dad and head coach, Ken Haines, after winning the 145-pound championship bout at the PIAA Class 2A wrestling championship at the Giant Center in Hershey on Friday, March 12, 2021. Haines won by fall at 2:19.

The son of former Gettysburg High School state champion Ken Haines, Levi went 100-5 over three seasons while wrestling for his father at Biglerville. He lost in the state title match his first two seasons, but went 30-0 and won the Class 2A title at 145 pounds his junior season. He also competed for the U.S. national team at the Cadet World Championships in Budapest while in high school.

His 100th win came in the 2021 state final and it ended up being his final high school match.

Haines elected not to compete his senior season and instead competed in open college tournaments to prepare for his Penn State career — even winning tournaments at Edinboro and Franklin & Marshall. He also trained with David Taylor at the Olympic gold medalist's M2 training facility outside State College.

Haines is part of a small list of YAIAA wrestlers to compete for Penn State during its dynasty. Central York's James English and New Oxford's Jordan Conaway both overcame obstacles to become NCAA All-Americans. Bermudian Springs' Austin Clabaugh was a preferred walk-on for the Lions but did not start.

York County wrestler also competing at NCAA Championships

Central York's Michael Wolfgram slaps his coach's hand  after defeating Dallastown's Raymond Christas during a 285-pound championship bout at the District 3 wrestling championships at Hersheypark Arena Saturday, February 23, 2019. Wolfgram won by tech fall 24-9 5:08.
Central York's Michael Wolfgram slaps his coach's hand after defeating Dallastown's Raymond Christas during a 285-pound championship bout at the District 3 wrestling championships at Hersheypark Arena Saturday, February 23, 2019. Wolfgram won by tech fall 24-9 5:08.

2019 Central York graduate Michael Wolfgram will be competing at the NCAA Wrestling Championships for the second consecutive season.

The West Virginia junior is seeded 25th in the heavyweight bracket. He's 20-12 this season and took eighth place at the Big 12 tournament. He did not place at the NCAA Championships last season.

Wolfgram went 139-17 over four seasons with the Panthers. He won three straight District 3 Class 3A title from 2017 to 2019 and posted undefeated regular seasons those years. He earned fourth and third place at the PIAA tournament his last two seasons.

NCAA Wrestling Championships schedule

Thursday, March 16

Session one: 12 p.m. ( preliminaries, round of 32)

Session two: 7 p.m. (round of 16, consolations)

Friday, March 17

Session three: 12 p.m. (quarterfinals, consolations)

Session four: 8 p.m. (semifinals, round of 12)

Saturday, March 18

Session five: 11 a.m. (placing matches)

Session six: 7 p.m. (championship finals)

How to watch

Thursday: The first session will be on ESPNU starting at noon. The second session will be on ESPN at 7 p.m

Friday: The early session will be on ESPNU at 11 a.m. and the semifinals will be on ESPN at 8 p.m.

Saturday: The medals round will be on ESPNU at 11 a.m. The finals will be on ESPN at 7 p.m.

Matt Allibone is a sports reporter for GameTimePA. He can be reached at 717-881-8221, mallibone@ydr.com or on Twitter at @bad2theallibone.

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: NCAA Wrestling Championships: Can Penn State's Levi Haines take first?