UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Minutes before he would raise both fists over his head, hopping around a well-lit wrestling mat with all eyes on him inside a thunderous Rec Hall, Jimmy Lawson paced intensely in the shadows.
His head tilted downward, the Penn State heavyweight brooded back and forth in the far corner. His massive headphones blasted music into his ears -- sonic focus that not only pumped him up, but helped drown out any questions he had about his own abilities to this point.
Lawson, who had wrestled in just one dual and one open tournament this season after a knee injury cut him down last winter and forced him to sit out summer workouts, squashed any remaining doubt he may have had in himself once he emerged from the darkness.
The Penn State senior sent a crowd of more than 6,352 into a frenzy with a 5-3 sudden victory win against Virginia Tech's No. 6-ranked Ty Walz on Friday. It also clinched the dual for the No. 5 Nittany Lions (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten), who beat gritty Virginia Tech 20-15.
"My goal is to win the national championship and for me, this is the first step," Lawson said. "It's been a while since I had a rush like that, a feeling like that. Up until this point I was kind of doubting myself. This summer I got a chance to reflect and think about what I really wanted and that match was definitely what I needed to make my dream come to a realization."
But first, Lawson had to come to terms with the fact that it wasn't over when the final regulation buzzer sounded.
Although Lawson earned the first takedown and carried a 3-1 lead into the final minute of regulation, Walz battled back, caught Lawson off balance, lifted him off the mat and took him down to tie the bout with just seven seconds left. Lawson appeared to pop up for what would've been the winning escape with less than a second left but an official review determined otherwise.
Your morning viddy breakfast! Catch Cael, Jordan, Jimmy L. and Garett in the post-dual presser! Watch!! http://t.co/Ngu5uNW02o #PSUwr— Patrick Donghia (@pennstatepat) December 20, 2014
"You're not always going to finish the match in regulation," Lawson said. "You've got to prepare for overtime. So regardless of what happened, my mindset was still the same -- win the match and do whatever I had to to win the match."
He did just that, gaining control of Walz's right leg, yanking him in and pouncing on the left one to secure the winning takedown with just over 18 seconds left in overtime. Lawson skipped across the mat, pumping his fists. Walz, still on his knees, used his to pound the mat.
"There's such a fine line between winning and losing," Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. "One takedown decides the dual meet."
It was much closer than what the Nittany Lions have been used to over the last four and a quarter seasons.
The No. 9 Hokies (4-1) notched 15 takedowns to Penn State's 16 and Virginia Tech grapplers won four of 10 bouts with wins at 141, 149, 174 and 184 pounds. But with Lawson's points added to those earned by Jordan Conaway (125), Jimmy Gulibon (133), Cody Law (157), Morgan McIntosh (197) were just enough. Penn State freshman Garett Hammond's bonus points at 165 pounds sure helped, too.
Hammond took Chris Moon down three times and added eight nearfall points to post a 17-2 technical fall to break a 9-9 tie after intermission.
"Getting a tech fall against a tough opponent, that made a huge difference starting us off those last five matches," Sanderson said.
Conaway started off the first five in what has become his trademark, come-from-behind fashion against a highly ranked opponent.
The Penn State junior, ranked No. 10 at his weight, met No. 5 Joey Dance at 125 and gave up the opening takedown. But Conaway didn't wait until the third period to get his offense going. He notched a slick takedown in the second period and ran the fifth-ranked Hokie to his back with 10 seconds to go in the second period of their opening bout. The flurry was enough to put Conaway ahead for good in a 7-5 win.
Fifth-ranked Gulibon beat No. 19 Kevin Norstrem 9-4 and Law beat David Wesley 10-4 at 157 to pull Penn State even after Michael Waters was pinned at 141 by No. 3 Devin Carter in 1:56 and No. 13 Zack Beitz (149) lost a decision.
After No. 2 Matt Brown dropped an 8-6 decision in sudden victory to freshman No. 9 Zach Epperly, Rec Hall went quiet. Austin Gabel further hushed the packed old venue when he put the Hokies ahead 15-14 with a 5-3 win against Matt McCutcheon at 184.
Fourth-ranked McIntosh regained the lead for Penn State with a 5-0 win against Jared Haught immediately thereafter.
"Overall I think VT is a good team," Sanderson said. "I think they wrestled hard. I'm not real happy with the way we wrestled but when the whole team doesn't wrestle great, that's usually the coaching and not one guy who didn't look good, just the overall energy level wasn't really good today. That's something I have to look at."
Lawson was up to the final challenge, however.
"It took him a really long time to get back," Sanderson said. "Sometimes that has to do with your attitude and are you down on yourself or not? You try to help him but you have to figure it out. Do they want it or not?"