2024 NCAA Championships Watch Party

Penn State Wrestling's Refocused Starocci Ready To Chase Fourth NCAA Title

Penn State Wrestling's Refocused Starocci Ready To Chase Fourth NCAA Title

After forfeiting out of the Big Tens while recovering from a knee injury, three-time NCAA champ Carter Starocci is ready to chase his fourth national title.

Mar 13, 2024 by Travis Johnson
Penn State Wrestling's Refocused Starocci Ready To Chase Fourth NCAA Title

Carter Starocci walked into Rec Hall on Wednesday and stopped for a crowd of reporters waiting for him. The Nittany Lion senior, already sweaty from a pre-practice workout, grinned and stepped into the middle of the group.

“This should be fun,” Starocci said.

Aware that he gave Penn State fans a bit of a scare with a cryptic, late-night Tweet after he was forced to medically forfeit away his chance at a fourth Big Ten championship last weekend, Starocci quickly cleared the air. 

Yes, he wanted to and believed he could wrestle effectively in last weekend’s Big Ten tournament. Yes, he was angry that coach Cael Sanderson opted to pull him from competition. Yes, with the benefit of hindsight, Sanderson was right to look after Starocci and the knee he tweaked less than two weeks ago.

There’s more at stake.

“It was frustrating, but I think just looking back on it, it’s a blessing to have a coach that really cares about me just not as a wrestler, but as a person,” Starocci said. “I think he’s in a lose-lose situation. He puts me out there and then he’s kind of second-guessing himself or the other alternative is I’m getting pissed at him. But at the end of the day, he’s the boss man. I work for him. So whatever he decides, that’s what I’m going to roll with.”

Sanderson has maintained an even-keeled approach to the situation as he understands his outspoken superstar can be emotional.

“He’ll be ready to go. He’s Carter,” Sanderson said. “He’s just passionate. He loves wrestling. He’s a competitor. He wants to win. He wants to be the greatest and he wants to dominate every match. I love it, I think it’s great.”

Although he battled illnesses during the regular season that forced him out of a handful of duals, Starocci still isn’t used to sitting out. The toughest part about missing last weekend wasn’t the fact that it was for a conference championship.

Starocci wasn’t bent about missing out on a chance for a top NCAA seed, either.

“At the end of the day, a Big Ten title is cool and so is an NCAA title, but all that stuff comes and goes,” Starocci said. “I just truly enjoy beating on guys, and I can’t do this forever, so as I’m doing it I just want to make sure I take everybody out and do it again and again. That’s what’s fun for me.”

Starocci and teammate Aaron Brooks can become Penn State’s first four-time champions at next week’s NCAA Championships. The Nittany Lions will try to win their 11th team title under Sanderson.

While Brooks all but guaranteed himself the top seed at 197 with his fourth Big Ten championship, Starocci had to rely on an at-large bid to get into the 174-pound bracket.

“The at-large, it was put in place for a situation like this,” Starocci said. “I don’t care what they seed me. Don’t even have me seeded. Just have me wrestle every single kid in the bracket one by one and I’ll take them on.”

Getting Better

Starocci was able to work out in the days leading up to Big Tens and felt healthy enough to go on Saturday when his first match rolled around.

Sporting a sturdy tape job on his leg, Starocci said Tuesday he feels even better and “can do everything” he’ll need for the NCAA Championships.

“I was ready to go,“ Starocci said. “I think me being a competitor and just who I am and how I was brought up, I just want to take all those guys out and keep sending messages and that’s fun for me.”

Mental Edge

One could make a good case that nearly every wrestler who faces Brooks will be considered an underdog. 

The Penn State senior has won 30 matches in a row with 13 technical falls, five pins and seven majors. He’s done so by adopting the “nothing to lose” mantra many underdogs use to fuel themselves.

In his mind, the playing field is always level against an opponent who comes at Brooks with “nothing to lose”.

“I think a lot of people, that’s very true for them,” Brooks said. “They’ve got to kind of build a story or an agenda or perspective to be an underdog. That motivates people because that sets them free from pressure, it’s like, ‘oh I have nothing to lose.’ But the actual truth is you never have anything to lose whether you’re the favorite or the underdog.”

Sanderson, used a similar mental approach to win four NCAA titles in his unblemished collegiate career.

“I really value the person that’s expected to win and then just go out there and (does) it,” Sanderson said. “It’s easy to be an underdog. Same thing with going for four. You have an opportunity to do something exciting and you can be motivated by that or you can allow fear or doubt slow you down. It’s a great opportunity for these guys to go do what they do.”

The Light Side

Braeden Davis has risen quickly in Happy Valley.

The baby-faced youngster came to Penn State confident that he was ready to compete for a spot in the starting lineup. Less than eight months later, he’s got a chance to wrestle for a national championship.

Davis’s feisty showing in the Big Ten tournament where he won the 125-pound title, could be an indicator of things to come. Since Nico Megaludis won a championship in 2016, the Nittany Lions are just 2-3 at 125 in the NCAA tournament. 

The reigning Big Ten champion is hoping to change that.

“I thought I saw it all along,” teammate Aaron Nagao said. “He was really good the first time I wrestled him and I think he’s showing it.”

In College Park, Maryland, Davis outwrestled two much older opponents and outscrapped two others in gritty sudden-victory decisions. He first handed fifth-year senior Justin Cardani of Illinois an 11-1 loss before beating Wisconsin’s Eric Barnett and Michigan’s Michael DeAugustino in sudden victory. 

Davis surged in the finals against Minnesota’s Patrick McKee. He used three back points in the second period, added an escape and a third-period takedown to cap an 8-1 win. 

“It’s been great,” Sanderson said. “He’s just a competitor and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of a kid’s career and their season when they’re willing to go out there and just fight hard. And that’s really what it’s all about. It’s just being willing to go out there and compete when the lights are on and go after what you want.”