Lions poised for nationals
UNIVERSITY PARK — With the start of the 2018 NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Championships just three days away, Thursday through Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, word out of Penn State’s Lorenzo Wrestling Complex on Monday was that the Nittany Lions are healthy and confident.
That should put smiles on the faces of Penn State fans everywhere and introduce a bit of unease in places like Columbus, Ohio, Columbia, Missouri and Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said at the team’s NCAA Championships media day that his team emerged from the Big Ten Championships with its health intact, including defending 157-pound NCAA champion Jason Nolf, who won two matches and then medically forfeited to sixth place.
“That’s one of the things that you hope for going into a conference meet, a qualifier for the national like that. We’re feeling pretty good,” he said.
“I think you saw the longer he wrestled, the more confident he got. He was just playing around a little bit more. His speed looked great, his shots looked really good and that’s what we wanted him to discover. It went as well as it could have.”
Nolf sounded like a man ready to defend his title.
“I think I’m 100 percent. I know I’m at 100 percent,” he said. “I’m feeling better than ever, and I’m excited to compete.”
As much as it is paramount to have a team as physically healthy as possible, Sanderson said mental health is just as important.
“The mental game is just as important, if not more important. It goes hand in hand with the physical preparation. If you’re not physically prepared it’s going to be tough to be mentally tough and believe you’re ready to go,” he said. “They go hand in hand. One’s not going to go without the other. You can be physically prepared and not mentally prepared.”
Sanderson has said repeatedly during his years in Happy Valley that being grateful, having fun on the mat and not being afraid to make mistakes while giving maximum effort are the keys to success for his teams.
His wrestlers sounded like they’re prepared to deliver on those demands.
“Trusting the process is pretty important. It’s important to me. I think about that before I wrestle. I know that I did everything I could up until that point to be the best I can be, the best rested or whatever it is,” said Vincenzo Joseph, the defending champ at 165 pounds.
“That kind of gives you a little more confidence going into each match knowing that you’re the best you can be leading up to it so you just wrestle the match and whatever happens happens.”
Bo Nickal, who is looking to add another 184-pound championship to the one he won last year, said consistency is the key for the Lions and for him.
“I think it’s the same thing as the whole year. We just take it one match at a time. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first match of the year or the NCAA finals. We treat every match the same. I think we’re confident in our preparation and our training and that just allows us to go out there and wrestle to the best of our ability,” he said.
“I really don’t think there’s too much standing in my way. Just go out there and wrestle to the best of my ability. That’s what I’m trying to do every match, just wrestle my best, then everything else will take care of itself.”
For Shakur Rasheed, who finished second at 197 pounds along with Penn State in the team race, this is his first trip to the NCAA tournament. It sounds like he learned valuable lessons at the Big Ten tournament he can apply at NCAAs.
“It wasn’t the outcome I wanted or the team. That’s in the past. Nationals is when we shine. Just get ready for that. Get in the mindset and get ready,” he said.
“I was very tense. I kind of fell into all the stuff that people outside were saying like I’m the bonus point guy and things like that. I focused on that too much. I took the tournament way too serious. It’s a fine line, but this is it. This is all that matters. Everything else cannot compare to this. At the end of the day, win, lose, whatever, nothing’s going to change. I’m still going to live my life. It doesn’t matter. I’m focusing on that. I’m just going to have fun.”
For Penn State, the most fun is in winning individual and team titles. Sanderson said that finishing runner-up to Ohio State at the Big Ten tournament should have refocused the Nittany Lions.
“I think our guys wrestled well. We just didn’t wrestle wrestle great enough to beat Ohio State. I think they had a great tournament. They won a lot of close matches, and some tough matches and just won the tournament,” Sanderson said.
“I think anytime you lose, that should clarify a lot of things. It just kind of helps you really focus in on what it is you do want. So hopefully that helps us. I don’t see it hurting us, right? Losing is never fun but I think our guys are clear on what they want to do: They want to win the national championship and this is the week to do it.”