Big Ten

Penn State Wrestling Looking To Other Options After Shayne Van Ness Injury

Penn State Wrestling Looking To Other Options After Shayne Van Ness Injury

Penn State wrestling is dealing with the loss of All-American Shayne Van Ness to a season-ending injury and looking at options to replace him.

Dec 6, 2023 by Travis Johnson
Penn State Wrestling Looking To Other Options After Shayne Van Ness Injury

In the days after Shayne Van Ness suffered a season-ending injury in practice, his coaches were left feeling empty and were haunted by what-ifs.

Cael Sanderson took a deep breath before breaking the news on Tuesday, that Penn State’s surging 149-pounder, who finished third at NCAAs last season, will likely need surgery and won’t be able to lend his powerful, high-pressure style as the Nittany Lions’ try for an 11th NCAA title since 2011. 

“It takes days, weeks before you feel normal again, because you care about the kids and feel terrible for them,” Sanderson said. “And I love watching Shayne wrestle. He's moving forward all the time. He's really, really good. And he's just improving at a fast rate. So, you know, a little setback for him. Stinks for him. But that's part of the part of sports and part of life.”

And part of coaching, Sanderson said, is questioning himself. By Tuesday’s practice, he and the rest of Penn State’s staff had spent a week struggling with the question of why this happened at this time to a wrestler who was doing everything right.

“Of course you're questioning, OK, what can we do to eliminate and prevent injuries moving forward, and how can we obviously help Shayne, mentally and physically making sure he has everything?” Sanderson said.

It’s an almost impossible answer in the realm of combat sports. 

The fact that it happened to Van Ness, a sophomore who had built up a steely confidence since his comeback for third in March’s NCAA tournament, made it even tougher to swallow.

Van Ness had already earned a conference wrestler of the week award, looked strong and precise in his first three matches and had begun to show a little more of his personality after a shy, quiet year in front of reporters and cameras last season. 

A week ago, he proudly proclaimed his mantra for this season — “Shayne Van Ness Stomps” — a hint that he’d push for bonus points in every match and wanted to win the team’s internal competition for most pins. 

He had five last season and three in a row to start this year.

“It’s definitely difficult,” 157-pounder Levi Haines said. “I feel for him, obviously. He’s a great training partner for me. Just hoping the best for him and his recovery and he’ll be back, better than ever.”

Next Man Up

The Nittany Lions have a few options to replace Van Ness in the lineup, though it’ll be hard to replicate his offense and point-scoring ability.

As of Tuesday, redshirt freshman Connor Pierce and fifth-year senior Imran Heard are the only other two wrestlers the team lists at 149. 

Freshman Tyler Kasak took over for Van Ness in the team’s dual against Lehigh on Sunday. The true freshman was solid in his debut against Lehigh’s Drew Munch in a scrappy, 7-5 win.

Kasak is listed at 141, where Sanderson envisioned him slotting in as a backup for starter Beau Bartlett, however.

“He's a good size kid,” Sanderson said. “He was really working hard to get his way down to 41. But yeah, he has some potential there.”

Kasak is 4-1 so far. His only loss was via 4-1 decision to Bartlett when they met at Army’s Black Knight Invitational on Nov. 19. Junior David Evans, also listed at 141, could also bump up to 149, Sanderson said. Evans is 25-8 in his career, including his redshirt freshman season at 133.

“Those are all really good kids who work really hard and are ready to compete,” Sanderson said.

The Outdoorsman

On Sunday against Lehigh, Levi Haines didn’t look like the same explosive 157-pounder who stormed into the NCAA finals last season as a true freshman.

After a sluggish start in which he gave up the opening takedown to Max Brignola, no one that knows what Haines is capable of is worried.

Haines himself chalked it up to a bit of rust he had accumulated over the last four weeks. He had been held out of live wrestling since the Journeyman Classic on Nov. 12 with an unspecified ailment.

“He just didn't have the same look in his eye and the same body language,” Sanderson said. “You could tell he didn't feel right, but he still found a way to finish strong, and I think get a couple of takedowns in the third period.”

Haines pulled away to win 12-6. 

While he was off the mat, last season’s NCAA runner-up at 157 pounds found time to get out into his second sanctuary — the Pennsylvania woods. An avid deerhunter with hunting permits near State College and near his family’s home, Haines proudly announced he’s already bagged a doe and a buck this season.

“Hoping to get another one in the freezer,” Haines said. “Keep me fed the rest of the year.”

Strong Debuts

Bernie Truax recently had the unique experience of making his debut inside Penn State’s Rec Hall as a Penn Stater not wrestling for Penn State, technically.

As a competitor in the NWCA All-Star match on Nov. 21, Truax’s first taste of the rickety-but-charming old arena and its intimate seating configuration felt a bit incomplete.

There was no pre-match fanfare with his teammates all suited up, getting a pre-match speech from coaches all focused on the same goal. This was every man for himself.

When Penn State hosted Lehigh on Sunday, Truax finally felt what it’s like to be fully received as a Nittany Lion. It hit him when teammate Carter Starocci pinned Thayne Lawrence in just 2:07 before Truax was up. As Truax ran to the mat, the fans were still on their feet for Starocci.

“For me, the energy in there is so different compared to a lot of places I’ve wrestled at,” Truax said. “At first, I was nervous, of course, and then once Carter had just wrestled his match and everyone’s standing up, celebrating, I just felt an extra energy and then I felt free and that was a lot of fun going out there and competing.”

Truax fed off the energy and turned in a 19-4 technical fall over Jack Wilt.

Fellow newcomer Mitchell Mesenbrink also made his Rec Hall debut, but his process is a bit different from Truax. Mesenbrink, who’s tied with Bartlett for a team-best eight wins, has to shut out the extra noise.

He had no problem keeping his focus and notched a 17-2 technical fall against Jake Logan in 6:13.

“I feel like, being a combat athlete, you want to make sure the arena you’re wrestling in isn’t really affecting your wrestling, even if it’s for you,” Mesenbrink said. “But afterwards, I was kind of overwhelmed and I started smiling because I’ve never been (to Rec Hall), so the first time I ever got to be in a dual was wrestling in it, which is really cool and I’ve always wanted to wrestle for Penn State, so it was kind of overwhelming to take it all in after the match was done.”