In the spotlight: Nittany Lion freshmen giving it their best in starting lineup
By: Guy Cipriano
Centre Daily Times
UNIVERSITY PARK — The freshman walk-ons who never medaled at the PIAA Class AAA Championships sat in their dorm room last year and visualized what others deemed unlikely.
Together, Bryan Pearsall and Justin Ortega glimpsed into the future. Their imaginations helped them endure a crowded practice room, where they toiled in anonymity, far away from Rec Hall’s signature evenings.
“We were thinking, ‘Man, it would be really cool wrestling out there in front of thousands of people,’” Ortega said.
The friends visualized many outcomes. Neither envisioned what has transpired this season.
Pearsall and Ortega are surprise starters for the nation’s 10th-ranked wrestling team. The redshirt freshmen held the 133-and 174-pound spots throughout January and February and they will compete in next week’s Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich.
They are Big Ten anomalies, wrestlers who started college careers without state hardware. Cruel endings to high school careers still drive both wrestlers.
“I had real high aspirations and I didn’t meet them,” said Pearsall, who attended District 3 Warwick High School. “It was hard. When I came to college, I knew I had a clean slate and that I could put all that behind me and start anew. But I honestly didn’t think I would be starting my second season.”
Ortega could relate to Pearsall. His career at District 1 Oxford High School featured an identical finish.
“I was real upset after the state tournament,” he said “I was under the impression I wasn’t going to wrestle in college.”
Both wrestlers received interest from small colleges looking for athletes not satisfied with their high school endings. They also received calls from former Penn State coach Troy Sunderland. Penn State offered no guarantees, other than a chance to workout with the team and attend open tournaments. But the duo landed here for similar reasons.
“I could have easily gone to a small school and been the big fish in a small pond,” Pearsall said. “But I wasn’t going to get much better.”
Year 1 of college was a typical redshirt season. Physically and mentally draining workouts with older wrestlers. Long weekends at open tournaments. Plenty of watching wrestlers listed higher on the depth chart.
Year 2 is difficult for either wrestler to describe.
Their weights started clearing when Cael Sanderson arrived as coach last April. Sanderson scoured the roster he inherited for gritty, driven wrestlers. Pearsall and Ortega fit Sander-son’s template.
Pearsall saw three wrestlers he viewed as competition for the 133-pound slot leave the program, including Tyler Saltsman. Pearsall and Saltsman spent the first semester competing to become Jake Strayer’s replacement.
“I knew last year after Strayer graduated there was going to be a hole and one of the guys would have to step up,” Pearsall said. “I knew if I worked hard and showed the coaches that I want to work, I want to win, they would see that and I would be the guy.”
An opening at 174 arrived when Sanderson redshirted All-American Quentin Wright and freshman Ed Ruth. A strong preseason culminating with a victory over senior David Erwin during the intra-squad match benefited Ortega. Erwin started at 174 and Ortega competed at 184 during the season-opener at Lehigh The duo swapped weights in December.
“I saw an opening,” Ortega said, “and I took advantage of it.”
Earning starting spots sparked euphoria. But reality surfaced once the schedule stiffened.
Pearsall is 3-21 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten. His apprehension increased when he glanced at the Big Ten schedule and saw it included four top-10 opponents.
“When I wasn’t having success at the end of December, I was getting frustrated,” he said. “But I refocused during Christmas break and I started getting better.”
Ortega is 6-18 overall after finishing 0-8 in Big Ten duals.
“I get upset a lot,” he said. “I just tell myself I’m wrestling at a D-I school in the Big Ten Conference. It’s probably the toughest conference out there. You just have to keep your head up and keep trying.”
Sanderson, a four-time undefeated NCAA champion, regularly lauds the duo’s effort. He looks past records when analyzing Pearsall and Ortega’s progress.
“The good thing is that they have really contributed to the team,” Sanderson said. “They have a done a solid job. It’s just a matter of keeping their heads moving in the right direction. I think they are and that’s a tribute to their strength.”
Pearsall and Ortega are also receiving support at home. Ortega was the subject of a motivational speech before Oxford coach Scott Gold notched his 400th career win in January. Pearsall’s father, Tom, helps coach at Warwick, where Bryan’s progress is closely monitored.
“A lot of people don’t measure me by the wins,” Pearsall said. “They are proud of me. They know I’m out there fighting.”
Pearsall and Ortega no longer live together. Pearsall left the dorms for apartment life. But like a year ago, they ponder their futures.
A strong recruiting class, which includes potential 133-pounders Sam Sherlock and Frank Martellotti, and middleweight Dirk Cowburn arrives this summer. Many expect Ruth to develop into one of the nation’s best 174-pounders. Pearsall and Ortega understand better than anybody that no guarantees exist beyond next month.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Pearsall said. “I can only keep working hard and keep telling myself I’m going to be the starter next year, too. I was telling myself this the same thing coming into this. If I keep working hard, everything will work out.”
Tags: Bryan Pearsall, Cael Sanderson, David Erwin, Dirk Cowburn, Ed Ruth, Frank Martellotti, Jake Strayer, Justin Ortega, Quentin Wright, Sam Sherlock, Troy Sunderland, Tyler Saltsman