PITTSBURGH— The spotlights. The "Welcome to the Jungle" music. The focus. It's all here at the 2019 NCAA wrestling tournament, and it's everything these wrestlers imagined.
For 13 athletes at this national tournament in Pittsburgh, it's the first and the last time they will ever compete in this environment. These seniors, and their attendance at this tournament, is a testament to their resiliency, determination and grit.
Buffalo brought two first-time seniors to the event in Alex Smythe and Brett Perry, while Rider, North Carolina State, West Virginia, Brown, Columbia, Clarion, Binghamton, Utah Valley, Air Force and Penn State also produced first-time NCAA-qualifying seniors.
TRACK LIVE RESULTS: Live results and team scores for the 2019 championships
Eleven of the 13 seniors from those teams ended their NCAA runs at the end of the Friday morning session. They soaked in the tournament, earned the right to call themselves national qualifiers, but still failed to advance.
The two who remained, Anthony Cassar of Penn State and Ian Butterbrodt of Brown, faced different situations in their fourth session of the national championship. Cassar had not lost a match in his first three bouts, and he secured a ticket to the national semifinals, securing his All-American honor. Butterbrodt, on the other hand, had to face the Blood Round. The Blood Round is perhaps the most intense, emotional, stress-inducing scenario in college wrestling. A win locks up All-American honors, and a loss sends an athlete home. In his first and final appearance in this legendary session, the senior couldn't find the magic. He dropped a major decision to Amar Dhesi of Oklahoma State in his final match as a college wrestler. Butterbrodt's career ended at the national tournament, a dream for many athletes, but an All-American honor would have put the cherry on top of a solid career in the Brown University singlet
The story of the tournament, however, lies in the one first-time senior moving on to Saturday's session. Cassar, the determined senior Nittany Lion who has battled to earn his spot in the starting lineup for the last several years, finally earned his bid at heavyweight to move two-time All-American Nick Nevills out of the lineup. Cassar has made the most of first time on the Big Stage, and he's not done yet. Head coach Cael Sanderson praised Cassar, while also acknowledging that his spot forced out a great wrestler from the Penn State lineup.
"Nick Nevills is two-time All-American, great wrestler," Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson said Wednesday at his press conference. "We have a ton of confidence in him. If he was in the tournament I think he could do really well. But Cassar moved up and earned that spot. And that's wrestling. You get a chance to earn it."
That's just the depth that Penn State has. And Cassar is happy to be a part of it.
NCAA TOURNAMENT INFO: How the NCAA wrestling tournament works
Cassar's reign of terror began when he took that starting spot, but he solidified himself as one of the most dangerous men in the weight class when he upset undefeated then-No. 1 Gable Steveson at the Big Ten tournament. Cassar started his national tournament off with a bang as well. In fact, he rolled through the first four sessions of the tournament as if he'd been here before. The only thing is, he hasn't.
Unlike the other 12 first-time seniors, Cassar survived Day 2 after taking down Antonio Pelusi of Franklin & Marshall in the morning session on Thursday and then picking up a second win against Tate Orndoff to advance to Thursday's session. He then beat Trent Hillger Friday morning and booked a spot in the national finals with another win over Steveson. He'll face Oklahoma State's Derek White in Sunday's final. It's a moment Cassar has been preparing for for years.
"I always envisioned me with my hands up, kneeling on the ground, pointing up to God as a national champion," Cassar said post-match. "We'll see if I can finish it tomorrow."
The semifinal win was huge for Cassar. From backup to national finalist, Cassar has already written the most incredible senior comeback story of the year.
The Penn State senior is one of seven Penn State wrestlers still alive in this year's championship bracket and one of five finalists. The Nittany Lions lead the team race and will aim to pick up their eighth title in nine years. Cassar, for the first time in his career, will be a part of that national championship experience. And he's the only first-time senior left that can say that.