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Penn State puts six in NCAA finals, clinches team title

Mar. 23—KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Carter Starocci has said that he wasn't worried about his seed in the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

Turns out that the three-time NCAA champion from Penn State didn't need to be.

Wearing a heavy brace on his right knee, Starocci knocked off a pair of national champs on Friday and will compete for a fourth title on Saturday night, as will teammate Aaron Brooks.

The Nittany Lions had already wrapped up the team title before the end of Friday night's session, as coach Cael Sanderson's team piled up eight All-Americans, six finalists and 148 points — more than twice as many as second-place Michigan.

Penn State has won three consecutive tournament titles and 11 of the past 13.

Starocci defaulted a pair of matches at the Big Ten tournament as he recovered from a knee injury, which resulted in the three-time defending champion being named the No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament. Starocci beat top-seeded Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech, who won an NCAA title in 2019, 4-0 in the quarterfinal round, then knocked off fourth-seeded Shane Griffith of Michigan, a 2021 title-winner, 2-0 Friday night.

"Those guys are really good wrestlers, but I think when you wrestle me and the lights are on, the ankle bracelets get strapped up and the butt clinches up a little bit and those nerves sink in, it's a whole different ballgame," Starocci said. "I'm coming forward the whole time. It's something you really can't game plan."

Starocci will face Rocco Welsh, a true freshman from Ohio State, in the 174-pound title bout.

The knee injury seemed to limit Starocci in his first two bouts in Kansas City — he gave up a takedown in each — but he adapted quickly.

"It's definitely an adjustment, for sure. At the end of the day, who wants it more?" he said. "When I'm out there, I really couldn't care less about my knee. I chose to wrestle. If it stays in Kansas City, it stays here.

"You can always repair it. That's the mindset going in."

Brooks continued his dominating run, as he beat Missouri's Rocky Elam 17-2 in the semifinals. The three-time NCAA champion will face Mifflin County graduate Trent Hidlay of North Carolina State in the 197-pound championship bout on Saturday night.

Greg Kerkvliet scored an 8-1 victory over Arizona State's Cohlton Schultz to reach the 285-pound final, where he'll face Michigan's Lucas Davison.

Levi Haines pinned Virginia Tech's Bryce Andonian 48 seconds into the sudden-victory period to advance to the 157-pound final. The top seed, Haines will face No. 2 Jacori Teemer of Arizona State on Saturday night, when he'll seek his first title after finishing as a runner-up last year.

"It's a little bit different from last year to this year," Haines said. "I was kind of putting a little bit of an expectation on myself at the beginning of the year. I was kind of struggling with some of the pressures and things. I felt like there was an unspoken expectation on myself."

At 141 pounds, second-seeded Beau Bartlett beat North Carolina's Lachlan McNeil 5-1 to reach the finals, where he'll face No. 1 Jesse Mendez of Ohio State. Mendez and Bartlett split a pair of matches this season, with Mendez winning the Big Ten title two weeks ago.

Mitchell Mesenbrink, a freshman transfer from California Baptist, put on a takedown clinic in beating Iowa's Mike Caliendo 17-9.

Mesenbrink will face Iowa State's David Carr, who knocked off two-time NCAA champion Keegan O'Toole of Missouri in the semifinals, for the title on Saturday night.

Penn State freshman Tyler Kasak beat North Carolina State's Jackson Arrington, a Forest Hills graduate, 5-4 at 149 pounds to become an All-American. Bernie Truax, a 184-pounder, gives the Nittany Lions an eighth All-American.

Braeden Davis (125) and Aaron Nagao (133) each fell one victory short of earning All-American honors for Penn State.