Penn St. takes it all again

CLEVELAND — There have been many magical moments in the history of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, but what Bo Nickal did Saturday night in Quicken Loans Arena may move to the top of the list.

Nickal pulled off a dramatic pin of Ohio State’s Myles Martin to win his second consecutive title and clinch the team title for Penn State in what was a tight team race with the Buckeyes.

The Nittany Lions crowned four champions, added a runner-up and three other All-Americans for 141.5 team points and their third straight national championship and seventh in the past eight years. Ohio State crowned one champion, had a runner-up and six other All-Americans to accumulate 133.5 points.

“We had some guys put on some incredible performances and they get a card that says National Champion, and that feels great,” associate head coach Cody Sanderson said.

“For a moment it was extremely exciting. We were jumping around hugging each other and then 10 seconds later I come running down the hallway and there’s Mark walking through and he has to go up there and stand on the second-place stand. Second place is an incredible feat, but that’s not what he was here to do. So, you feel for him.”

Zain Retherford (149), Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165) and Nickal (184) all won titles. Mark Hall (174) was runner-up at 174. Nick Lee (141) took fifth and Shakur Rasheed (197) and Nick Nevills (285) both took seventh.

The crowning, clinching moment came at 184. Myles Martin threw Nickal to his back and looked like he might stick him. Nickal had other plans.

“I really didn’t have to think. I’ve been doing that move for a really long time. I try it a lot in practice, just messing around and play wrestling with guys and stuff like that. So it’s a position that I’m comfortable in. And I knew what I was doing. I didn’t have to think too much about it,” Nickal said.

“Looking back at it initially he knocked me down to my hip. So, I just didn’t really have a solid, like, balance. My feet weren’t like flat under me. I wasn’t able to keep my base underneath me. But when I came back, I had my feet solid on the mat, that way I could drive off them. I wasn’t really thinking like bail in that position. I was just thinking get my hips back underneath me.”

Even as those tenuous seconds ticked by, assistant coach Casey Cunningham didn’t panic.

“Not really. Bo is super dangerous in there. I was nervous for a second, but I knew he adjusted. That’s Bo Nickal for you,” he said.

Nickal flipped Martin to his back, locked in a leg and went to chest to chest and got the fall in 2:29. Nickal’s celebration was unusually demonstrative. He jumped into the arms of all three coaches and then spiked his headgear before shaking Martin’s hand.

“I was definitely super excited. It’s a crazy moment. So, the interview is straight after. You don’t have time to cool down or anything,” he said. “Still everything I said is true: You go to Penn State to win titles as an individual and as a team. That’s what we do. And that’s what we trained for. And we have the best coaches in the country, best facilities, best fans. And best wrestling, easily.”

Now a three-time All-American, three-time finalist and two-time champion, Nickal improved his career record to 90-3.

Penn State and Ohio State duplicated a feat done only one time previously in NCAA history — two teams crowning eight All-Americans in the same tournament. The only other time it happened was in 1982 when Iowa and Iowa State pulled it off.

Retherford built a lead he would never cede with two first-period takedowns to take a 4-1 lead into the second over Lock Haven’s Ronnie Perry. He then escaped to start the second but could not penetrate Perry’s defenses. Then, in the third Perry took bottom and escaped but again, neither wrestler could mount an offense. Retherford added another point on 1:45 of riding time for the 6-2 final.

“This year, the only difference was I knew that was the last time I was going to wear the singlet. I said it before, but just kind of making the most of this opportunity. Just as nervous as I was the first time doing this. That doesn’t go away. I think it was definitely fun and it’s kind of sad this is the last time I’m wearing this,” Retherford said.

“I felt a lot of emotions today for sure. I know my heart was racing all last night and pretty much all today. So, I took a walk in the sun and went and saw the lake a little bit, just to get my mind off of things. But definitely emotions are going and you gotta kind of relax. That’s what makes this tournament different.”

Perry was the first No. 15 seed to advance to an NCAA final. He was looking to become Lock Haven’s 10th all-time champion and the first since Cary Kolat in 1997.

Retherford will graduate as the 10th four-time All-American in Penn State history, having finished fifth and first three times. He ended his career with a 94-match winning streak, the longest in program history, and a 126-3 career record.

Retherford has 18 NCAA tournament wins as a Nittany Lion, tied for second all-time at Penn State. He now has 125 career wins, seventh all-time, and is the school’s 10th four-time All-American.

Nolf followed the same script as Retherford, scoring two takedowns in the first period to lead 4-1 into the second on North Carolina State’s Hayden Hidlay, the Lewistown native. The first was a single that Nolf had to work for. The second was a slick snap-by that used Hidlay’s momentum against him.

“On the second one he slicked me pretty good. I’ll be the first to admit that,” Hidlay said. “I kind of fell on my face for a second.”

Nolf admitted he had to adjust his style since his knee injury.

“I just wanted to protect my knee, not put myself in any bad situations to be out longer. Just finding opportunities to score. A couple of times I felt him reach in and post it and got the leg. And the other time I kind of passed his elbow by and got the leg. So, I was just waiting for those opportunities,” Nolf said.

“So a little bit different than my normal style, instead of going and getting it I have to be a little bit more patient so I don’t get myself in those situations. But I think I did a really good job this week.”

Nolf added a second-period escape and then ceded an escape in the third. He added a point for 1:31 in riding time for the 6-2 final.

Now a three-time All-American and two-time champion, Nolf improved his career record to 86-3.

Joseph took down Illinois two-time champion Isaiah Martinez in the final for the second year in a row, but this year it was less dramatic, more surgical.

Joseph hit an inside trip for a takedown in the first and then tilted Martinez for two more. Martinez escaped to start the second but Joseph was awarded a penalty point when Martinez head butted him. Joseph added a third-period escape for the win.

A two-time champion, Joseph’s career record stands at 41-6.

Hall, the defending champion, lost in a rematch with Arizona State’s Zahid Valencial, who hall beat, 4-3, in last year’s semifinals. This year, Valencia dominated on his feet, scoring three takedowns in a dominating 8-2 win.

A two-time All-American and two-time finalist, Hall’s career record is now 63-4.

Now a three-time All-American, three-time finalist and two-time champion, Nickal improved his career record to 90-3.

In addition to the five finalists, Penn State brought home three more All-Americans. Freshman Nick Lee finished fifth at 141 pounds, junior Shakur Rasheed finished seventh at 197 and junior Nick Nevills finished seventh at 285. It was the first All-America honor for Lee and Shakur, the second for Nevills after he finished fifth in 2017.

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