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Penn State's Brooks, Starocci Ready To Chase History | Nittany Lion Insider

Penn State's Brooks, Starocci Ready To Chase History | Nittany Lion Insider

Penn State wrestling's championship chase is led by Aaron Brooks and Carter Starocci, who are in pursuit of their fourth NCAA titles.

Nov 8, 2023 by Travis Johnson
Penn State's Brooks, Starocci Ready To Chase History | Nittany Lion Insider

Carter Starocci has spent plenty of time gazing at the award plaques that line the entrance and walls of Penn State’s practice facility.

Names of All-Americans in big, bold letters serve as reminders of past success. Still faces of past champions stare back at him each time he comes and goes.

The Nittany Lion senior has noticed over the years that one category is missing. If he and teammate Aaron Brooks have their way, someone will have to find a fresh place to chisel their names as the program’s only four-time NCAA champions.

“I think me and Aaron can do it,” Starocci said at Penn State’s media day on Wednesday. “We work hard every single day. This is what we love to do, so I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else right now. I want to be here in this practice room getting better.”

Penn State’s two stars are coming off dominant junior campaigns that preceded very different offseason paths. 

In the weeks following April’s U.S. Open, Starocci mostly laid low as he waited for a sore knee to heal. In the meantime, he avoided twisting himself up and instead worked on MMA striking. He also contemplated the near future that he hopes will include making the 2024 Olympic team.

Starocci wasn’t sure if coming back to Penn State for another folkstyle season at 174 pounds would make sense considering he’s eyeing the 74-kilogram (163-pound) weight class for the 2024 Games.

“I was kind of ready to be done,” Starocci said. “With college, having to make weight like once or twice every single week, that kind of makes it a little more challenging when you bring your weight down. So I was going to get ready to go down to 163 and then just do the Olympics, but me and my coaches came up with a game plan and we’ll be ready to do both.”

Now that he’s back, Starocci also wants to extend the nation’s longest active winning streak of 52 straight bouts.

Brooks wants to start a new streak for himself at a new weight.

Even though he battered most of the opponents he faced last season en route to his third NCAA title at 184 pounds, Brooks admitted he struggled at times, especially late in the season.

During the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, Brooks was setting his alarm to wake up multiple times a night to check his weight. He’d often be over the limit and have to work out hard at dawn to get back down. He shouldn’t have that issue this season.

When Brooks walked out to talk to reporters on Wednesday, he was noticeably bigger. 

“He’s a beast,” Starocci said. “I see him wrestling (285-pounder) Greg (Kerkvliet) and he’s almost the same size as Greg. I think Aaron’s a guy that can win at any weight class. He’s not a guy that needs to cut weight or gain weight, I think whatever Aaron decides to do, he’s going to do well at.”

That sounds about right. This summer Brooks added to his freestyle resume with U.S. Open and U23 World Championship titles at 86 kilograms. That’s a bit bigger than his folkstyle weight last March.

Brooks said most of his gains came naturally. He hasn’t had to hit the weight room or eat everything he sees.

“My body’s telling me to go up, might as well,” Brooks said. “I feel great. Lot of energy, just focusing on wrestling my last year and being present, 197 is good.”

Depth, Depth, Depth

Penn State coach Cael Sanderson wouldn’t say for sure this is the deepest roster he has had, but he paused for a few seconds on Wednesday to consider it.

Penn State returns 10 NCAA qualifiers, eight All-Americans and two defending NCAA champs in Starocci and Brooks, Levi Haines (157) and Kerkvliet (285) reached the national finals, while Beau Bartlett (141) and Shayne Van Ness (149) won third-place bouts.

“I think we have a really solid room right now and a lot of good guys throughout the lineup,” Sanderson said. “Just more depth than we’ve probably had, which is nice.”

That includes more than a handful of wrestlers at lower weights where Penn State had few options last season.

The Nittany Lions count six wrestlers certified at 125 and five more at 133 so far this year. Last season Penn State had a combined seven at those weights, including departed star Roman Bravo-Young.

Finally Healthy

The most exciting new component in the lineup might just be an old face. 

Robbie Howard is expected to wrestle for the first time since his true freshman year in 2021. He missed the 2022 season to recover from knee surgery and took a medical redshirt last season after he was hurt early in the team’s preseason training cycle. 

“I’m just happy to see him,” Brooks said. “I know it was tough for him last year. He got cleared, came in, got hurt kind of right away. You hate to see that, but to see that he’s out there and healthy is truly a blessing.”

Brooks and Howard were teammates on the Cadet World Team when they were in high school and Brooks is looking forward to the firepower he believes Howard can bring at 125.

He showed glimpses of it way back in 2021 when he went 7-6 including two wins in the NCAA tournament.

“We’re going to wrestle through this first month and try to establish our lineup,” Sanderson said. “Robert looks great. He’s healthy, his weight’s good and he’s ready to rock.”

New Guys

The Nittany Lions added three transfers they think will be key contributors this season in Aaron Nagao (133), Mitchell Mesenbrink (165) and Bernie Truax (184) from Minnesota, Cal Baptist and Cal Poly, respectively. 

They may have to wait just a little longer to see Nagao in a Nittany Lion singlet, however. Sanderson announced that Nagao — who was dealing with an unspecified ailment earlier this fall — will not wrestle when Penn State kicks off its season at the Journeymen Collegiate Classic in Bethlehem, Pa. on Sunday. 

Despite the precautions, Nagao was geared up for practice on Wednesday and said he was looking forward to making his debut soon.

“I”m practicing every day, working out every day,” Nagao said. “The recovery has been awesome.”

Status Quo 

Despite the fact that his father, Ken Haines, topped out at 197 pounds as a star for Lock Haven, Levi Haines hasn’t grown much since Penn State fans last saw him.

The fluffy-haired returning 157-pound runner-up said he’s actually lighter now than he was at this time last year. Last fall Sanderson said he expected Haines might see a similar growth-spurt to his dad’s. So far, 157 pounds looks like it’s the perfect spot for him still.

Nothing has really changed for Haines — not even his own expectations. When asked if he felt like there would be more pressure on him in Year 2 as the defending champion, Haines didn’t miss a beat to respond.

“It’s just the same as last year because I thought I was the #1 guy last year,” he said.