Suriano injury hurts PSU’s national title chances

NCAA Wrestling Championships

ST. LOUIS — As wrestlers, media and NCAA officials gathered in the Scottrade Center’s Blue Note Lounge on Wednesday for the news conferences to kick off the 2017 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, news broke that changed the complexion of the entire tournament.

One tweet from Penn State wrestling’s official Twitter account sent a ripple through the proceedings: “We would like to announce at this time that FR 125-pounder Nick Suriano will not be able to compete in this year’s NCAA Championships.”

Suddenly, Penn State’s quest to defend the title it won in 2016 and to record its sixth championship in the last seven contested was very much in doubt.

Suriano injured his left ankle on Feb. 19 in the NWCA National Dual Championship win over Oklahoma State and didn’t compete at the Big Ten Championships on March 4-5. In the intervening days, speculation was rampant about whether Suriano could compete and how effective he would be if he did.

“We were trying to give him as much time as possible and it was always going to be day-before type of decision. We were trying to get him to a point where he would be competitive enough to compete and protect himself and I don’t feel like he’s in that position. So, he’s not going to wrestle,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said Wednesday.

“We have just as good a chance as anybody to win right now. To win the national tournament you have to wrestle great. If we wrestle great, we’re going to win. If Ohio State wrestles great, they’re going to win, or Oklahoma State or Iowa. That’s fun. That’s what you want.”

Zain Retherford, the Nittany Lions’ two-time All-American 149-pounder and a defending champion, was part of a student-athlete news conference that preceded one by a select group of coaches. His reaction was telling.

“We’re here for Nick. It sucks. It’s not where he wants to be right now. He wants to be competing. That’s his competitive drive. We’re all here for him. We still have stuff to do without him,” he said.

“I just found out. I think the team is going to compete the same way, regardless. We want to score as many points as we can in the time we have out there on the mat. That doesn’t change at all. We gotta do what we gotta do.”

Penn State had positioned itself as the favorite among four teams likely to challenge for the team title with Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Iowa. The Nittany Lions’ road to a title is that much harder with Suriano’s absence. Without the potential points that Suriano would have produced at Big Tens, Penn State finished as the runner-up to Ohio State.

Eight of nine Nittany Lions are seeded among the top five at their respective weights. Defending champion Zain Retherford (149) and returning runner-up Jason Nolf (157) are seeded No. 1. Returning runner-up, at 174, Bo Nickal (184) is seeded second. Suriano and Vincenzo Joseph (165) are No. 3 seeds. Mark Hall (174), Matt McCutcheon (197) and Nick Nevills (285) are seeded fifth. Jimmy Gulibon (141) is unseeded.

Suriano’s first-round opponent, Kyle Akins of Buffalo, will now receive a forfeit.

Sanderson had said at the team’s pre-NCAA media day on Monday that he didn’t think the Big Ten second-place finish would have any bearing on their NCAA tournament.

“I don’t think so. I think the Big Ten tournament is different than the national tournament, which is different from the dual meets. We want to be at our best at every event. I don’t think we wrestled terribly at the Big Ten. We could’ve wrestled better at a couple weights. Ohio State wrestled great,” he said.

“But, yeah, we want to win the national championship, right? That’s the goal. That’s the individual goal and that’s the team goal, and that’s the big picture. Not to take anything away from the Big Ten. We want to win the Big Ten as well. I don’t think it really changes much.”

Even with seven wrestlers scoring the bulk of its points at the Big Ten Tournament, Penn State fell just 10 points short of winning the title. Several Nittany Lions took that as a positive for NCAAs.

“I think a lot of guys on our team, including me, feel like they can wrestle better than they did at the Big Tens,” Nolf said. “I’m excited because I know that people are gonna be thinking that maybe this guy can beat this guy, but we’re gonna wrestle a lot better, so that’s probably not going to happen. I don’t think I contributed as much as I could. I could have gotten more bonus points in the finals.”

Sanderson has said repeatedly, and McCutcheon echoed, that the team trains the entire year to peak over this three-day period.

“It’s the best time of the year and we get to show what we’ve been working on all year. I think our team has a chance to do something special this weekend so I’m very excited,” he said. “Our long-term plan is to go out there and get better and peak at the end of the year. We’re still improving this week and getting better for things Thursday, Friday and Saturday.”

Sanderson said that Suriano being unable to compete had a wide effect, but it also presented an opportunity.

“Nick Suriano had very lofty goals. He was wrestling great and getting better. You want to see him. He’s not a guy who hopes to win when he’s a senior. He wanted to win as a freshman. He was doing awesome. It’s tough for him. It’s tough for his family. It’s tough for the team because we’re a close team and we feel bad for each other and want to see each other be successful,” the coach said. “It’s also a chance for the rest of the guys to step up and score additional points.”

That chance starts at noon with first-round matches.