Michael Beard could have many reasons to get excited about Sunday.
It’s a double chance for Beard, the 197-pounder Lehigh’s sophomore, to take on the No. Rank and 2022 NCAA Champion Max Dean in his bout.
That would certainly be enough for a big day, but then add a little fact: Beard used to wrestle for the Nittany Lions, actually became an All-American for them in 2021.
So, big day?
“I think there’s a little something to that,” said Beard, who is ranked 9th by Intermat at 197th. “I’m still friends with all the guys back there. But I still have a job to do and my main focus on Sunday is my game and that doesn’t change before then.”
With Penn State wrestling Rider Friday night in Trenton, there’s always a chance the Dean-Beard match won’t go through, but the Mountain Hawk knows what to expect.
“Max stays in the game,” said Beard, 4-1 on the season, of Dean’s 5-0. “He’ll wrestle every seven minutes. Max won’t take a break or anything.”
You could say that about the entire Penn State team. Prior to Rider, the Nittany Lions had only one duel, a 44-3 win over Lock Haven, but they’ve dominated invitations and openings. Penn State’s lineup consists of four No. 1 wrestlers – Dean, Roman Bravo-Young (133), Carter Starocci (174) and Aaron Brooks (184) plus one No. 2, Greg Kerkvilet at 285. RBY, Starocci and Brooks are all two-time state champions.
Lehigh (3-2), ranked 18th in the most recent NWCA poll, has wrestled three top-ranked opponents this season but nothing quite like it. Of course, there’s nothing quite like Cael Sanderson’s juggernaut, who has won nine of the last 11 NCAA championships and looks like the obvious favorite to make it 10th out of 12.
“There’s always going to be a little difference (for Lehigh) when we’re going up against the No. 1 team, and we’re excited for the opportunity,” Beard said. “But as far as our training goes, it’s pretty much the same as any other weekend.”
It certainly is, but of course the match isn’t quite like any other; For one, it will be the largest crowd to see Lehigh wrestle in Bethlehem since attending Penn State in 2019, who set the Stabler attendance record for wrestling with 6,047.
This is the 110th meeting between Lehigh and Penn State, making the Nittany Lions the Mountain Hawks’ toughest opponent. Penn State leads the series 72-34-3 and has beaten Lehigh 11 times in a row; The Mountain Hawks’ last win (2009) came in Sanderson’s first doubles spell as Penn State coach.
History doesn’t favor Lehigh and recent results don’t show a much better trend, as the Mountain Hawks fell against the last two ranked opponents they’ve faced, 25-6 to Oklahoma State on Nov. 12 and 22-12 to Pittsburgh on Nov. 19 .Nov.
While losing to the Panthers, who are now ranked 17th, is no shame, Lehigh could have done much better.
“I definitely think we were down with the way we wrestled Pitt,” said Beard, who dropped his bout against the 8th-ranked Panthers with Nico Bonaccorsi 10-4. “I think that night Pitt wanted to win more than our guys in some games and other than that we had some technical issues that me and some other guys had. We went back to the room to fix the mistakes we made – we had really hard practice this Monday and Tuesday, very intense with a lot of fast drilling – and we kept moving towards the next game.”
Despite losing to Bonaccorsi, who finished as runner-up in 2021, Beard said his overall wrestling has improved since joining Bethlehem as a transfer this summer.
“The Lehigh trainers opened me up on offense and I’m a lot more confident in my attacks,” Beard said. “I feel like I’m more relaxed and that also comes with confidence. I’ve gotten a lot stronger and I’m a lot more confident in my wrestling than I’ve ever been, which was something I’ve had to grow as a wrestler.
Beard, who finished seventh in the NCAAs as a 15th seed in 2021 with 197 for Penn State, said he sees many similarities between the Nittany Lions and his current homeland.
“I don’t see a big difference there,” he said. “Both teams are obviously working hard and have the same goals.”
So Beard, who studies political science, is a perfect match for Lehigh.
“I love it,” he said. “The team, the coaches really made me feel welcome,” he said. “When I decided to enter the (transfer) portal, I was in contact with Lehigh pretty much immediately; They had been my first choice when I originally thought about what to do for college. Lehigh is only an hour from where I live (Lancaster) and the coaching staff here is fantastic.”
There would be a win over Penn State – for Beard and the Mountain Hawks.
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Brad Wilson can be reached at [email protected].