Pearsall clinches first berth to NCAA’s Warwick grad places fifth at Big Ten Tourney
By: BRUCE MORGAN Record Express Sports Editor, Staff Writer
Penn State University fifth-year senior Bryan Pearsall was in danger of seeing his goal slip through his fingers.
Wrestling in the 141-pound weight class at the Big Ten Championships last weekend, the 2008 Warwick grad had already suffered a tight 2-1 loss to Purdue’s Brandon Nelsen in the quarterfinals and found himself trailing Indiana’s Alex Gregory 4-2 in the third period in Round Two of the consolations.
If that score held up, his lifelong dream of qualifying for the Division-One NCAA Championships would be history.
Thanks to some late fight, it didn’t.
Pearsall rallied to beat Gregory 6-4.
Then he overcame an early 6-2 deficit to Michigan’s Camryn Jackson in his next match and major decisioned the Wolverines’ wrestler 19-11 at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill.
"(The match against Gregory) was just one of those where sometimes it’s hard to bounce back from a loss and I just had to dig deep and get through that match," Pearsall said. "The next match against the Michigan kid was real similar. I was down early … it was heart and conditioning that won those matches more than anything."
His reward was a guaranteed berth to the NCAA Tournament, slated for March 21-23 in Des Moines, Iowa. He ended up placing fifth to claim one of the six NCAA berths allotted to the 141-pound weight class at Big Ten’s.
Pearsall, who improved to 23-9 this season, is one of three former PIAA District Three stars now wrestling for the Nittany Lions to advance to Des Moines, joining Susquehanna Township product Ed Ruth, the 184-pound champ, and New Oxford grad Jordan Conaway, a fifth-place finisher at 133.
In 2012, Pearsall placed seventh at the Big Ten Championships and missed going to the big dance by just one spot.
"It’s amazing," he said of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. "It’s been one of my goals since forever. It just feels great to get that weight off my back and finally know that I’m going to be there."
The fourth-seeded Pearsall (54-50 career) began his final appearance at the Big Ten’s by catching Wisconsin’s Tom Kelliher in a first-period cradle and winning by fall in 1:24.
That cradle was also one of his signature moves at Warwick. Although he has added some muscle since going to Happy Valley, Pearsall is still able to capitalize on his lanky body frame.
"It’s been one of my main weapons on top," he said. "I’m really comfortable there and I’m lanky, so I can lock up cradles fairly easily. I’m wrestling about 20 pounds heavier than I was in high school, so I feel like I’ve put on a fair amount of muscle. And I don’t feel like I’m getting really outmuscled by any of the guys I’m wrestling."
That was certainly the case in the quarter-finals against Nelsen, an opponent Pearsall had defeated twice earlier in close decisions. This time, Nelsen was able to score a late third-period reversal for a 2-1 victory.
"There’s kind of a familiarity factor (with Nelsen)," Pearsall said. "He got me in that one, it was a tough match, but hopefully I’ll get to see him again."
That set the table for his bout with Gregory, whose takedown early in the third put him up 4-2. But Pearsall scored four points late to pull out a 6-4 victory.
Then against eighth-seeded Jackson, the Lions’ senior dominated the final four minutes, turning Michigan’s redshirt freshman three times in the second period on his way to a 19-11 major, bonus points for the team and his first trip to the NCAA Championships.
Following a hard-fought 6-2 loss to Minnesota’s No. 2-seeded Nick Dardanes in the consolation semi-finals, Pearsall went into the fifth-place bout against Northwestern’s Pat Greco. The two wrestlers battled through an even three periods, and then Pearsall countered a Greco shot to post a thrilling 4-2 overtime victory.
"(Placing fifth) was good," he said. "Both of us kinda didn’t want to give it up and I really had to fight for that win. It was a tough match, but I got the win in overtime and I was real excited about it."
As a team, the Nittany Lions were also excited to win their third straight Big Ten crown under fourth-year coach Cael Sanderson, a national wrestling legend. Penn State finished a perfect 4-for-4 in the finals and had 151.0 team points to place ahead of runner-up Minnesota (139.0).
"We always try to look at it as we’re not trying to defend anything, we just want to go win another title," Pearsall said. "Every year, we’ve had a different group of guys — some similar guys throughout the lineup — but it’s been a different lineup every year. So everyone has to come together and work as one unit to get that title. We have a good camaraderie about the team. We look at it as we’re a family and we just go out there and wrestle for each other, and that is really what helps us score the team points and get the championships."
Pearsall admitted that he struggled a little bit in his first year under Sanderson’s system. But he eventually found his footing and has put together a stellar senior season. His 23 wins to this point are already eight more than his previous season-high, which he set while going 15-12 as a junior.
"(Coach Sanderson) made a big difference," Pearsall said. "When I learned to adapt what worked for me before and what works for me now, that he taught me, I kinda meshed the two styles together and found out something that really worked. It just turned me into a tougher wrestler. I just don’t give up any positions. If I get into a scramble, I try to win the scramble every time and I just have that mentality where I won’t be ridden, I won’t let guys get out — just mentally tough when you’re wrestling."
Pearsall will now look to carry that mental toughness into his first appearance at the NCAA Championships, which get underway next Thursday, March 21. With a top-eight finish, he would become Warwick’s first All-American since Pat Cummins placed fourth in 2003 and second in 2004.
"That’s the ultimate goal (to be All-American)," Pearsall said, "and I just have to take it one match at a time." More PEARSALL, page B-6