PITTSBURGH — Eight student-athletes competing at the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships this week have one thing in common: they have already reached the mountaintop, won on collegiate wresting’s biggest stage on a Saturday night.
Those eight, however, could not be any different on or off the mat.
Iowa’s Spencer Lee won the 125-pound title as a freshman last March. The Pennsylvanian enters his second NCAA meet seeded third and with an 18-3 record. Lee is the epitome of the style and grit of the Hawkeye black and gold that head coach Tom Brands promotes. From the opening whistle he is in your face, putting opponents on the defense. Wrestling lingo calls it “heavy hands” and Lee certainly fits in that category.
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Also winning as a rookie in 2018, Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis, enters this week unbeaten and as the top seed at 141 pounds. A very cerebral athlete, probably a requirement for an Ivy League student, Diakomihalis worked through a knee injury during the 2018 Championships. He beat two-time NCAA champion Dean Heil of Oklahoma State and Wyoming’s funky Bryce Meredith in Saturday night’s final. One gets the sense that a lot is going on inside his head as he seeks perfection on and off the mat.
“It’s been my whole life,” said the Rochester, N.Y., native who is a salty 61-1 for this career. “I started wrestling when I was six. I’m 19 now, so I’ve been wrestling more than I’ve been not wrestling, and I think it’s the pursuit of something greater. It’s the pursuit of being better than I was the day before and being better than – everything I do I just want to be great at the things that I take pride in.
“And there’s nothing I take more pride in than (wrestling). And therefore I pretty much have dedicated my life to it.”
Penn State’s dynamic duo of Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal could not be any different. Their results are very similar, going a combined 227-6 with 115 pins. Nolf, a square-jawed and intimidating master of creativity, seeks his third title this week. The 157-pounder is the all-time pins leader at a program filled with pinners and seems, at times, to make up moves in the middle of a match. He hails from Pennsylvania and will, a time or two or three, bring the crowd to its feet with something they may not have seen before.
Nickal, a senior like Nolf, calls Texas home. His blond hair is easy to identify – he’s added a little green for this week. The problem with the two-time NCAA champ is that fans don’t always get an opportunity to see him because a blink, a check of the cell phone, a brief look at the brackets, anything that takes eyes off the mat, means they might miss one of his lightning-quick cradles for a pin. Nickal enters his final collegiate tournament three pins behind Nolf.
Both met with the media on Wednesday and most assume both will win gold.
“I don’t really think I have to overcome that assumption, but I’m not focused on what others are saying and what other people think,” Nolf said. “I’m focusing on my first match and I take it one at a time. I think when you start thinking about what other people think it becomes a distraction. And I don’t think anybody deserves anything. I think you have to go earn it. And that’s what I’m looking forward to do.”
“I think Jason is special,” Sanderson said. “You can tell just by the look in his eye. He’s very confident. And the bigger the match, the better he wrestles. I think especially midway, kind of late into his high school career you could just kind of see that he was separating himself and a lot of that is his desire, his work ethic, his drive. It’s just him wanting to be the best and believing that he can be that.”
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A third Nittany Lion, Vincenzo Joseph, is halfway to elite status. Only four individuals – Pat Smith, Cael Sanderson, Kyle Dake, and Logan Stieber – have won four Division I titles in wrestling. Joseph’s inside trip against Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez in the 2017 NCAA finals is in the same class as Nickal’s dramatic pin last March. At the Big Ten Championships two weekends ago, Joseph fell to Iowa’s Alex Marinelli. This week’s tournament is in Joseph’s backyard. His technique is solid and he has the horsepower to back it up.
The last two NCAA kings at 174 pounds could meet again this Saturday. Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia is the third seed, while PSU’s Mark Hall, the champion as a freshman in 2017, is unbeaten and the top seed. In last season’s final, Valencia, a Californian, looked smooth, strong, and unbeatable in beating Hall, a very tricky athlete who has a niche for finding ways to win close matches. The contrast in body types is evident, Hall, from Minnesota, depending on a better-than-average duck-under, and Valencia equally dangerous with his leg attacks. Neither has an identifiable weakness. Hall has won 96 of his 99 career matches, while Valencia is 89-4.
Perhaps the best athlete of the bunch is Ohio State’s Myles Martin, a senior who won an NCAA title as a freshman in 2016. The New Jersey product is a three-time finalist suffering the agony of defeat at the hands of Nickal last March. A classic, straight-forward wrestler, Martin is almost unstoppable on his feet once he finds his groove. He has been, by far, the best 184-pounder this season and enters this week unbeaten and as the top seed.
“I’m going to just keep it simple,” said the Buckeye who is 118-16 for his career. “Nothing really changes. I’m just treating it like any other match, any other tournament.”
Any of the above mentioned student-athletes are worthy of the Hodge Trophy, given annually to the top collegiate wrestler. Plenty assume it belongs to either Nolf or Nickal.
“What are you talking about? The Hodge Trophy?” Nickal joked. “I’ve heard of that, I think. But, no, I don’t think that there’s any, like, friendly competition. We’re just both out there trying to do our best. Me at least. I don't know about (Nolf).”
Nolf, in his sometimes robotic manner, simply laughed.
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Winning wrestling matches is the common theme among this group. What makes them special, however, is their willingness to learn, to get better, to improve on a daily basis.
“The difficult part is actually getting better,” Diakomihalis said. “And finding the little things that you’re doing wrong and being very self-critical. And I think it’s something I just enjoy, I don’t know why, I just really enjoy analyzing what I do and thinking about what I do and trying to get better results for myself.”
The opening session of the 2019 Championships hits the mats at noon on Thursday. Don’t blink or you might miss one of their matches.