Mesenbrink leads five Nittany Lion newcomers for No. 1 Penn State

Updated: February 21, 2024

Photo: Penn State’s redshirt freshman Mitchell Mesenbrink (left) improved his record to 16-0 with a victory over Iowa’s Michael Caliendo in their bout at 165 pounds. (John Johnson photo)

Note: Statistics in this story, which appeared in the Feb. 20 WIN Magazine, was updated on Feb. 21.

By Mike Finn

Mitchell Mesenbrink always knew he grew up in a strong wrestling family, led by his father John, a former college wrestler and Hall of Fame high school coach from Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wisc.

But the younger Mesenbrink rarely heard about his dad’s success as a wrestler or coach.

“I idolized him because he never made it about him. He never talked about his glory days like a lot of fathers do,” said Mitchell, whose dad spent 14 years (1999-2013) at Arrowhead before Mitchell won three Wisconsin state titles at the school between 2018-22. John did coach Mitchell at Askren Wrestling Academy, which John helped create with his former Arrowhead wrestlers Ben and Max Askren, who both later won NCAA titles at Missouri. 

“It was more like, ‘What do you want to do?’ and ‘Let’s do it.’” Mitchell said. “And one of those things was me going to Penn State.”

This story appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

And what a perfect fit it proved to be for Mitchell when he showed up in State College, Pa., last summer … after spending last season redshirting as a true freshman at Cal Baptist.

Because in a large sense, the younger Mesenbrink found similar-type Nittany Lion coaches in Cael Sanderson, Casey Cunningham, Cody Sanderson and Jimmy Kennedy to his father while becoming the starter at 165 pounds for the country’s top-ranked program.

“The mission of the Penn State program is that they are not going to get either too high or too low on any great or bad performances,” said John, a former Drake (Des Moines, Ia.) wrestler who was in Iowa City, Feb. 9, to watch his son beat Iowa’s Michael Caliendo, 12-6, to improve to 16-0. (Mitchell is currently standing 18-0 with 13 bonus-point victories.)

“They are going to go in and fix the problems and keep getting better.”

John added that Mitchell has very high standards for himself as a wrestler and that the Penn State system allows him to lower that self-inflicted pressure.

“It’s kind of keeping it simple and it’s been the perfect transition for Mitchell into the Penn State program, where athletes have that freedom to be aggressive and if they make mistakes, it’s like ‘So what, let’s go fix it.’”

“Wearing this Penn State singlet and being in this culture is no problem,” said Mitchell. “But you’ve got to really embody that culture beforehand and I think the coaches are really good at seeing the athletes they want to bring in who also embody those things … and more importantly want to be good men. That really helps in helping guys transition to Penn State, especially for those of us who have only been there for eight months.”

Mesenbrink, WIN’s No. 3 wrestler at 165, was speaking about his new teammates: sophomore Aaron Nagao (133 pounds) and graduate Bernie Truax (184), who also transferred to Penn State last summer after earning past All-American honors at Minnesota and Cal Poly, respectively. Both Nittany Lions also won their bouts in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Nagao is ranked No. 8 and is 9-4 after finishing fifth with the Gophers in 2023, while Truax, ranked No. 7 and 10-3, finished fourth for a third time last March in Tulsa.)

Then throw in a pair of true freshmen — Braeden Davis (15-2 at 125) and Tyler Kasak (12-3, 149), who replaced an injured 2023 All-American Shayne Van Ness — and half of Sanderson’s 15th Nittany Lion team (which is 11-0 heading into final dual of the season) is new to the Penn State wrestling room this season.

And even though Penn State has won 10 NCAA team titles, including the last two years, since Sanderson’s arrival in 2009, this may be his best team of the Nittany Lion dynasty.

For all 10 Penn State wrestlers are ranked this season, including five rated No. 1: senior Beau Bartlett (141), who defeated Iowa’s national runner-up Real Woods in the school’s recent dual; sophomore Levi Haines (157) and seniors Carter Starocci (174), Aaron Brooks (197) and Greg Kerkvliet (Hwt). Starocci and Brooks will be going for their fourth NCAA titles in Kansas City.

Together, this group leads No. 2-rated Oklahoma State by 59 points in WIN’s Feb. 19 Tournament Power Index and they also helped Sanderson collect his 200th victory with the Penn State program. And in turn, Sanderson and his coaches would rather credit their wrestlers.

“I know we don’t think about those things,” said head assistant coach Cunningham, who has been with Sanderson since 2008 when they led the Iowa State program before heading east to Pennsylvania a year later. “We just focus on our guys. It’s not about us (coaches). Cael has never made it about himself. It’s cool for Penn State that this happened under Cael. If people hadn’t posted it, we would have no idea (about getting a 200th win).”

Cunningham also said there is no “magic” in the fact that newcomers appear to fit in immediately in the Penn State program.

“I don’t think there is any secret to who we are and what type of guys wrestle at Penn State. There is so much (information) out there (in social media) so these (newcomers) know what they are getting into. It’s not that hard of a change.”

“This is all part of the process and we are getting near the end so we need to start sharpening our stick (skills) as we get into March,” said Sanderson, who also pointed out that the coaches don’t preach for the more veteran wrestlers to help this year’s newcomers. They just do it.

“I think a big part of leadership is to share your passion for what you are doing,” Sanderson added. 

“You don’t do that by talking to them. You do it by living it. I think they do a good job. They go out there and compete hard every time. Aaron and Carter are leaders. We have a lot of strong leaders on the team.”

They also appear to enjoy the company of newcomers like Mesenbrink, who enjoyed talking to and clowning around with his teammates before 14,847 fans in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which marked a 53rd straight victory for the program heading into their Feb. 12 dual with Rutgers.

“It’s a little bit of me being unique, but I appreciate these guys a lot, especially when we are in a hostile environment and there’s only one thing to do and that’s bring each other close,” said the bespectacled Mesenbrink. “But it’s also the same if we are competing at Rec Hall, practices and everything.”

Mesenbrink, a 2023 U20 World champ in freestyle, will also be among dozens of wrestlers with Penn State ties who hope to compete at the 2024 Olympic Trials, April 19-20, in State College.

“Every time you are out there, you want to get better, because we are going to blink and it’s going to be done,” he said. “Then it’s going to be the Olympic Team Trials, then we are going to blink and it will be next season already. 

“Time moves too quick to be relishing in one moment and then worry about the future. I’m just living.”

And life is good for Mesenbrink and all the Nittany Lions.