PSU’s Nolf keeps winning against ranked opponents

By Todd Irwin

UNIVERSITY PARK — The Big Ten Wrestling Championships get closer, some wrestlers in the conference worry if they’ve done enough or if they’ve wrestled enough tough opponents to get ready for the rugged tournament.

Penn State’s Jason Nolf shouldn’t worry about whether he’s faced enough elite competition.

Nolf, a two-time NCAA champion and the top-ranked 157-pounder, has beaten three wrestlers in the top six of the rankings in the last month. He beat Michigan’s No. 6 Alec Pantaleo, 9-2, on Friday, Nebraska’s No. 4 Tyler Berger, 10-4, on Jan. 20 and Northwestern’s No. 2 Ryan Deakin, 19-7, on Jan. 11.

“Nolf’s a gamer,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “He’s a tough, tough dude. He wasn’t happy with his match (against Pantaleo), giving up a takedown, but Pantaleo has a really good strategy in the matchup. So we have to figure out something to help him score some more points.

“But Nolf is Nolf. He’s just one of the greatest ever. We’re just really happy that he’s on our team. We’re just enjoying this senior year with him.”

Nolf is 19-0 with 11 pins, four major decisions and two technical falls. He leads the team in takedowns with 49.

Not too shabby considering what he went through last season.

When Nolf sustained a knee injury against Rutgers’ John VanBrill near the end of the regular season in late January of 2018, concern, and, yes, fear, spread throughout the Nittany Lions’ fans that he wouldn’t be able to wrestle in the postseason.

Nolf missed the rest of the regular season and was injury defaulted out of the Big Ten Championships after two bouts to finish sixth.

Nolf was given the No. 3 seed for the NCAA Championships, and he still had enough talent and toughness to go 5-0 and win his second NCAA title, beating North Carolina State freshman and Mifflin County graduate Hayden Hidlay, 6-2, in the finals. Hidlay was the No. 1 seed.

“Jason Nolf is one of a kind,” Sanderson said in November. “Him returning and winning a national title under the conditions that he did last year was nothing short of a miracle in my mind.

“Our trainer, Dan Monthley, did a fantastic job, but, obviously, Nolf had to believe, had to be patient. If you watch him wrestle, he’s the most patient kid. He wants to get things done right now, and we love that about him.”

Nolf said he didn’t think it was a miracle that he won. In fact, he didn’t really want to talk about the injury when he was asked about it before the season.

“Um, I was good then, and I’m good now,” Nolf said. “God definitely gave me some blessings, but other than that, I just did what I had to do.

“It was definitely a bit of adversity, but I just did what I had to do and stayed focused like everybody else on the team. I just had different tasks to do (like) getting healthy and doing what I needed to do to get back out there and have fun.”

“Some would call it a miracle. I would just call it Jason being Jason,” teammate Mark Hall said. “He wanted to compete. He did everything right to get back and compete in the right time. Our trainer, doctors and coaching staff just made sure to give him all the right tools to make sure he could.”

Nolf has one of the most unique styles of wrestling in the nation. He can score points from some very awkward positions, and sometimes appears to be making up moves on the mat. When he came back, though, he had to be a little bit more cautious.

“At nationals, I couldn’t wrestle as crazy,” Nolf said, “so I had to wrestle a little bit more baseline. It’s a little bit boring to wrestle that way, but it’s what I had to do. I’m back to 100 percent, so I’m feeling good.”

“I know if he starts thinking about that kind of stuff, that’s going to take away from his wrestling,” Hall said. “I honestly don’t think there was much of a change. He still went out there, put up a lot of points and was the same Jason we saw prior (to the injury).”

Nolf, who married Penn State women’s soccer player Maddie Elliston in 2018, said the injury did change his mindset a little bit.

“I was proud that I learned some things from the injury,” he said, “and I was able to come back with a different mindset – a more grateful mindset.”

He got off to slow starts in some of his early bouts this season, but he’s picked it up as the season has progressed.

“Guys like Nolf and Zain (Retherford), a lot of times that first period is a little slower.” Sanderson said. “They really start racking the points up in the second and third period. Guys wrestling Nolf are going to be a little bit more defensive. They know he’s going to come out and shoot and attack the whole time.”

Nolf, a three-time state champ at Kittanning who went 176-1, burst upon the college landscape in bulldozing fashion. After redshirting his first year, he finished second to Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez by criteria in the Big Ten finals and in the NCAA finals, 6-5.

He went 27-0 with 14 pins and eight technical falls as a redshirt sophomore, was named Big Ten Wrestler of the Year and blitzed the competition at the NCAAs, posting two technical falls, a pin and two major decisions, including a 14-6 win over Missouri’s Joey Lavalle in the finals.

“I think I’ve always had the right attitude and mindset,” Nolf said. “So not much has changed for me, but I have an older perspective now.”

During those early years, Nolf honed skills working out with Retherford. Some of their bouts against each other in the Lorenzo Complex wrestling room were epic. Retherford has graduated, but he’s still around in the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club to serve as a practice partner.

Now, as one of the grizzled veterans of the team, Nolf gets to impart his wrestling wisdom, technique and punishment on some of the younger guys on the team.

“I just tell them to enjoy it because it goes fast,” he said. “Just have a lot of fun while they’re here but make sure they’re working hard and never giving up on themselves.”

Nolf is part of a wrestling dynasty at Penn State. The Lions have won seven of the last eight NCAA team titles and continue to recruit some of the best high school wrestlers in the nation. How does the team maintain its edge over the competition?

“By staying consistent every day,” Nolf said. “We don’t do the wrong stuff off of the mat. I think that’s a big deal. We believe in ourselves.”

Nolf, who is 105-3 in his career and holds the program record for falls with 56, will look to claim his third NCAA title later in the season. He knows, though, it could all end quickly if he gets injured and can’t come back like last season.

“I’m just staying focused on what I want to accomplish,” Nolf said. “I’m not doing it for myself. I’m doing it for God, and I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve been given. I know that God’s there for me. It takes away my selfishness, and it helps me give gratitude as well.”