CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – For four consecutive seasons Penn State brought high-performance sports cars to wrestling tournaments far and wide. With bonus-point machines Ed Ruth and David Taylor leading the way, head coach Cael Sanderson’s team was simply just better than everybody else. Oklahoma State put its best on the mat and came up just short two seasons ago. Over the last two days at the 2016 Southern Scuffle, the Cowboys again made a run at Penn State and again came up short.
The new version of Big Ten powerhouse Penn State showed why it is again the team to beat in March with an electrifying performance inside the McKenzie Arena. PSU opened the final session with a 12 ½ point lead and totaled 183 points to outdistance the Cowboys by 25 points by the time wrestling was through. The distance between second and third was 53 ½ points where Lehigh finished. Cornell and North Carolina rounded out the top five.
It is Sanderson and Co.’s sixth straight Scuffle title.
“I think this team is comparable to some of those teams we’ve had,” said 125-pound champion Nico Megaludis, one of five champions for PSU.
“You look at our guys and they score points; it’s a fun team and great to be a part of. It’s fun to watch for everybody.”
The Nittany Lions crowned Megaludis, Zain Retherford (149), Jason Nolf (157), Bo Nickal (174), and Morgan McIntosh (197). Jordan Conaway (133) lost in the finals.
In a tournament where Oklahoma State’s Alex Dieringer and Cornell’s Gabe Dean each claimed their third Scuffle titles, Cornell senior Nahshon Garrett rolled through his bracket, and a few other worthy performances garnered plenty of attention it was redshirt-freshman Nickal who earned Outstanding Wrestler honors.
Nickal (17-0), from Allen, Texas, won perhaps the toughest bracket, a bracket where the top two seeds wrestled for fifth and sixth. Nickal beat North Carolina’s Ethan Ramos in the final after beating Cornell’s Brian Realbuto in the semifinals, 14-7.
“I just wrestle as hard as I can every match,” Nickal said. “I am grateful for the coaches that voted for me in a tournament like this.
“It’s awesome to be a part of this program right now. Everybody works really hard and it’s fun to be a part of it. We really work on putting people on their backs, chain wrestling going from feet to back.”
Megaludis kicked things off with an 8-1 win over OSU’s Eddie Klimara Saturday night. Retherford, a sophomore, had a pin, three technical falls and a major decision on his way to the 149-pound trophy. He beat North Carolina’s Evan Henderson, 17-1, in the finals.
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An anticipated matchup at 157 saw Nolf beat OSU true freshman Joe Smith, who lost to Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez in the Reno TOC final. Nolf (15-0) scored a first period takedown with Smith responding in the third with one of his own. However, a Smith attempt late with the score 4-3 produced a Nolf counter and a 7-3 victory.
Nickal rolled and PSU’s night finished in style as McIntosh beat Minnesota’s Brett Pfarr in the 197-pound title match.
“(Penn State) … that is just a really good team,” said OSU head coach John Smith, whose squad finished second for the third time behind PSU in four Scuffle appearances. “(Jason) Nolf, (Bo) Nickal, (Zain) Retherford, those guys are young but they wrestle with confidence. The way they wrestle, they lead that team. And you have a couple of veterans that have been with the program.
“I can’t be disappointed with the way my team wrestled. There are obviously some things we can do better and we did lose some tough matches that I felt like we should have toughed out a win. I like what I saw and we saw what Penn State has up close.”
The Cowboys were led, as usual, by Dieringer (16-0), who won his third straight Scuffle title. The 165-pound senior moved his win streak to 64 with a dominating two days that included three pins, a technical fall, a major decision, and a finals victory over Michigan rookie Logan Massa, who was coming off a successful run at the Senior U.S. Nationals in freestyle.
“It feels good to win three (Scuffles),” Dieringer said. “My first time here wasn’t so good, but that was a long time ago. I wasn’t as good as I need to be, but to win this tough tournament three times feels really good. I didn’t open up in a couple of my matches like I need too.
“We have to get better. Penn State scores points. They score bonus points. We have to work hard to improve. We are working on it, and we have to keep focusing on scoring bonus points.”
OSU had three champions. Dean Heil won a tight overtime tiebreaker match with Stanford rookie Joey McKenna at 141 pounds. McKenna was hit for dropping to the leg twice in one of the 30-second tiebreakers and Heil (15-0) rode out the next 30-second session. Heavyweight Austin Marsden won his second Scuffle title, beating Appalachian State’s Denzel Dejournett, 4-0.
The 184-pound final was a rematch of the 2015 NCAA finals where Cornell’s Dean beat Lehigh’s Nate Brown. On Saturday, Dean (21-0), just a junior and 2015 NCAA champion who beat Ruth two seasons ago at the Scuffle, won his third Scuffle title at 184 pounds with an 8-2 victory over Brown. The 184-pound title tilt was also the only finals match that did not include either Penn State or Oklahoma State.
Cornell also crowned Garrett at 133 pounds. The dominating win over Conaway gave Garrett his second title and improved his season record to 23-0 overall.
The semifinal round earlier in the day included plenty of fireworks.
After dodging OSU’s Chandler Rogers in the quarterfinals, the top-seeded Realbuto could not stop Nickal in the match of the tournament. High-level scrambles filled the first period, but Nickal eventually took control and won 14-7 to move to the final. Four-point near falls certainly make the Texan happy.
“That is something you learn at an early age, something we work on constantly,” Nickell said. “With the new 4-point call, it can give you big points in a hurry.”
Nickel’s win at 174 came not long after another PSU first-year starter, Nolf, flattened Lehigh’s Mitch Minotti in the 157-pound semifinals. Nolf’s win came 10 minutes after Retherford dominated Drexel’s Matt Cimato at 149 pounds. The semifinal round opened with a Megaludis major decision and a McIntosh pin at 197 pounds. Conaway threw in a last-second takedown to beat Virginia’s George DiCamillo in his semifinal bout.
OSU, ranked seventh entering the tournament, did not have a bad semifinal round, pushing five into the final. Kyle Crutchmer, the second seed at 174 pounds, suffered a tough 6-4 loss to Ramos, while rookie 133-pounder Kaid Brock was injured in the first period of an anticipated matchup with Garrett and had to default out of the tournament.
Lehigh head coach Pat Santoro, as coaches tend to be, had mixed feelings about his team’s performance. What he did like was his team’s depth.
“Some weights we have incredible depth, a couple of others we have one guy,” Santoro said. “It’s all about March and we have some work to do over the next couple of months. We have to get better and wrestle at a higher level than we did this weekend, although it will be hard to do. We had a good tournament, scoring over 100 points in this field.”
Darian Cruz was fifth at 125 pounds; Ian Brown and Mitch Minotti were third and fourth, respectively, at 157; rookie Ryan Preisch was fourth at 165; and John Bolich sixth at 197 pounds to go with Brown’s finals appearance.
The Penn State train rolls into Indiana next weekend with duals against Purdue and Indiana.