2023-24 Penn State Wrestling

Cael Sanderson: Carter Starocci Still In 'Search And Destroy' Mode

Cael Sanderson: Carter Starocci Still In 'Search And Destroy' Mode

After sustaining an apparent leg injury on Feb. 25, Penn State wrestling star Carter Starocci's plans haven't changed for the postseason.

Mar 4, 2024 by Travis Johnson
Cael Sanderson: Carter Starocci Still In 'Search And Destroy' Mode

Carter Starocci already won a national championship with a broken hand. Now he’ll try to win one with an injured leg. 

The Penn State star won’t let an apparent right knee injury suffered in the final regular season dual keep him from chasing his fourth NCAA title in less than three weeks. 

“He’s doing pretty good,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said before the team’s practice on Monday. “I don’t know if it’s a situation that me talking really does a lot of good, but what his plans are, they haven’t really changed. I think it’s still search and destroy basically.”

Starocci tweaked the knee trying to untangle himself from Edinboro’s Joey Arnold on Feb. 25. He was in obvious pain and needed to be helped off the mat.

Sanderson said Monday that Starocci initially had pain, but Penn State’s medical and training staff considered that a good sign and not an indicator of an injury that would keep the 174-pounder off the mat. Sanderson also noted that Starocci has been a quick healer in the past. 

Although he wore a brace, Starocci appeared to walk without any issue into the team’s practice on Monday.

“Well, it’s like a day-to-day thing where he’s getting better significantly over time, so his plan is to do what he does and go compete,” Sanderson said. 

Perhaps more concerning for Penn State is the fact that Starocci’s path through the NCAA could be much tougher if he can’t lock up the top seed. To do so, he’d need to wrestle at least three more matches to qualify for a Ratings Percentage Index ranking, one of several criteria that will be used to determine the seedings for the NCAA Tournament.

All wrestlers need at least 15 matches to earn an RPI. Starocci, who missed duals earlier this season battling illness, is 12-0 this season. Those three needed matches will come at Big Tens in Maryland this weekend. 

Forfeiting to guard against overworking the knee is a possibility and Starocci would still get credit for the matches with losses, though those may sink his NCAA seeding.

Penn State was forced to take a similar approach with Jason Nolf six years ago. Nolf suffered a knee injury late in the season but still went on to win a national title a month later.

“That’s something that we’ll have to step in there if we don’t feel like it’s in his best interest,” Sanderson said. Obviously, getting to the nationals is number one and then being at your best at the nationals is number two, so what we have to do to help him do that is the plan.”

Sanderson said Starocci’s spirits were good and the senior posted some positive words on social media over the weekend.

“A true champion can adapt to anything,” Starocci wrote. “You can either run from your adversity or face it head-on and conquer it. There’s only one way out and I’m going that way. This game teaches you a lot and one thing I learned for sure is my mind is absolutely bulletproof.”

Heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet said he isn’t worried about Starocci and expects him to make another championship push.

“He’ll be fine,” Kerkvliet said. “He knows how to take care of himself.”

The Veteran

Bernie Truax didn’t realize how good he’d have it when he initially decided to transfer from Penn State.

The wide, contagious grin he wears almost every time he steps in Penn State’s room — and the way he jokes with teammates being interviewed each time he passes by — says it all. 

The sixth-year senior is having the most fun he’s ever had wrestling. He plans on sticking around the program after his eligibility runs out.

“There’s just so much to learn from,” Truax said. “I thought I was going to learn, but you can learn from every single person in the room and so that makes it so great. Also the coaches’ mindset, the team mindset, I’ve just learned so much by being here, it’s amazing.”

At 11-3, two of Truax’s losses this season have come to Big Ten opponents. He’s heard and read for years how tough the Big Ten Tournament is — and how uniquely tough it is just before NCAAs where those Big Ten rematches often materialize as soon as the quarterfinals — and is looking forward to avenging his defeats.

Truax was caught on his back and pinned by Maryland’s Chase Mielnik on Jan. 28 and dropped an 8-6 decision to Nebraska’s Lenny Pinto on Feb. 18.

“That’s the exciting part,” Truax said. “I’ve taken two losses against Big Ten guys and that’s when it’s fun. Alright, you got me, now let’s go scrap and see who wins this time.”

Scouting Help

Few Penn State starters watch a ton of film. 

Truax is among them, but he will pull up an occasional match or two when he’s got an opponent who he’s never faced before or if he’s got a rematch with an opponent who was tricky to prepare for previously.

“I like to watch a match where they lose,” Truax said. “And then I see, okay, this is what works against them. Then I watch a match when they do really well and I see what their go-to stuff is.”

Bonus Guys

Big Ten teams can bring 15 wrestlers to the conference tournament. That includes 10 competitors and five teammates to serve as workout partners.

Sanderson said the team takes a collaborative approach on the five “bonus guys” who’ll make the trip.

That process involved polling the starters as to who they like to spar and warm up with. Truax, for example, likes to go with another starter — 165-pounder Mitchell Mesenbrink whose attack rate might be faster than any 184-pounder Truax might have to defend against in competition.

Terrell Barraclough may already have a spot on the bonus-guy list. He’s often mentioned among many of the middleweights’ favorite training partners and has wrestled at 157, 165 and 174 in the last 13 months.

He’s also respected as one of the hardest-working Nittany Lions behind the scenes. 

“It’s a tough job if you’re a backup going to these tournaments because you’re in the back warming people up the whole time,” Sanderson said. “But it’s something we’re kind of working through here, we’ve got to figure that out soon.”

New Guys

Sanderson was hoping to have rising 149-pounder Shayne Van Ness in the postseason lineup before an injury ended his season before it really got started.

Initially, there was some concern about who would take over for the powerful Van Ness. Before that, there was concerns about 125-pounder Robert Howard’s ability to return from multiple injuries that slowed his career.

A pair of freshman have helped ease those worries and Sanderson is as confident in 125-pounder Braeden Davis and 149-pounder Tyler Kasak as he is in anyone.

The two freshmen have stepped up to seize spots vacated by the injured upperclassmen and are heading into their first postseasons a combined 29-5 with 15 total bonus-point wins.

Sanderson attributes their success to the fact that both entered the program looking to compete for starting jobs right away.

“That’s more common than it once was that these guys can come in and they just want to get in there and compete,” Sanderson said. “They don’t want to sit back and watch.”