Penn State’s Carter Starocci set to return from injury: Will he win 4th NCAA wrestling title?

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Carter Starocci smiled when asked about his at-large bid for the NCAA wrestling championships.

“I kind of like it,” Penn State’s three-time NCAA champion said Wednesday, his first time meeting with reporters since sustaining a knee injury on Feb. 25. “I don’t care what they seed me at, don’t even have me seeded, just have me wrestle every single kid in the bracket one by one and I’ll take ’em all out inside three days. That’s the same plan. I think it’s more enjoyable this way.”

Starocci, coming off a pair of medical forfeits at Big Ten championships that he called “frustrating,” said he’s locked in on preparing for his shot at a fourth NCAA title. Physically, he said he’s “fully healthy” and added that on the mat he can do “everything” right now. Starocci had his right leg heavily taped ahead of Wednesday’s practice after wearing a brace last week.

“I think it was definitely the right decision,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said “He’s doing well. He’ll be ready to go. He’s Carter. He was gonna wrestle that day and probably would’ve done really well. But the risk of it didn’t make sense. … He’s seeing progress every day.”

The 174-pound standout said he planned to wrestle last weekend in the conference championships, but Sanderson opted to hold Starocci out — reminding him that the main goal is to make sure he’s as healthy as possible for NCAAs, which start March 21 in Kansas City. Starocci took some of his frustrations with the decision public on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, but said he and Sanderson are in a good spot.

“He was in a lose-lose situation,” Starocci said. “If he puts me out there and he’s kind of second guessing himself, or the other alternative is I’m getting pissed at him. At the end of the day, he’s the boss man. I work for him. Whatever he decides is what I’m gonna roll with. … He’s done everything I ever wanna do in this life inside and outside of wrestling. Almost every word that he says that comes out of his mouth — maybe besides that day — I’m always on board with.”

Starocci and teammate Aaron Brooks (197 pounds) are both trying to become four-time NCAA champions. They’d join elite company — including that of their head coach — if they can pull off the feat. Only five wrestlers have been four-time champs, an achievement that Brooks and Starocci both said would be “cool” while also saying it isn’t their ultimate goal. With the U.S. Olympic Trials in State College in April, both have their sights set on Paris and beyond.

What’s the hardest part about aiming for that fourth title? Both can ask the man coaching them for advice if they want, but Sanderson said at this point there’s not much different that he needs to tell them.

“It just depends who it is,” Sanderson said. “I think the key to any sustained success is just don’t change. You just don’t change what you’re doing, don’t take things for granted. You have to compete with gratitude and with enthusiasm. You see that a lot in all aspects of life people kind of like being the underdog. They like to think maybe they’re the victim or picked on or something. But really, I value the person that’s expected to win and they just go out there and do it.”

Required reading

(Photo: Audrey Snyder / The Athletic)

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