Penn State rolled to four straight NCAA Championships from 2011 to 2014, doing it with flair and a high-scoring lineup that held off Oklahoma State in 2013 and Minnesota in 2014. Post David Taylor and Ed Ruth, a duo that combined to win five national titles between, head coach Cael Sanderson and staff put Nico Megaludis, a three-time All-American, and talented Zain Retherford, an All-American as a true freshman, on redshirt during the 2014-15 campaign.
As the 2015-16 season hits its business end, Megaludis, Retherford, and a new crew of point-scoring Nittany Lions appear to be the team to beat again. They made a major statement at the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn., Jan. 1-2, with a 25-point margin of victory over preseason No. 1 Oklahoma State. Megaludis, Retherford, senior Morgan McIntosh, and redshirt-freshmen Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal all won their weight classes. And like the Taylor-Ruth squads, they did it in style.
“I think this team is comparable to some of those teams we’ve had,” Megaludis said, a 125-pounder. “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.
“We are all working toward March, toward getting back to where we want to be. I think we focus more on bonus points, not just about winning, but about going for majors, tech falls, pins.”
Nickal, from Texas, won perhaps the toughest weight class in Chattanooga, 174 pounds. The first-year starter beat top-seeded Brian Realbuto of Cornell, 14-7, in a semifinal match that had enough highlights for two or three matches. In a tournament with two-time NCAA champion Alex Dieringer of Oklahoma State, 2015 NCAA champion Gabe Dean of Cornell, and lightning quick three-time All-American Nahshon Garrett of Cornell, coaches voted Nickal the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler.
“I just wrestle as hard as I can every match,” said Nickal, now ranked No. 1 with McIntosh (197) for PSU. “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.”
Nolf, from Pennsylvania, was equally impressive during his run to the 157-pound trophy. He beat true freshman Joe Smith, son of Oklahoma State head coach John Smith, 7-3, in the finals after hammering four other opponents. Retherford might have been the best of the bunch, recording three technical falls, a pin, and a major decision on his way to 149-pound gold. Retherford, unbeaten this season like Nolf, Nickal, and McIntosh, won 17-1 in the finals.
“What (Penn State) is doing better than everybody right now is taking people from their feet to their backs,” said Lehigh head coach Pat Santoro, whose squad was a distant third in Chattanooga. “With the 4-point near fall, and the way they score points, it is not just about winning. You have to really go after bonus points in tournaments to stay with (PSU).”
The Nittany Lions were sixth at the 2015 NCAA Championships, a tournament won by Ohio State. When Division I’s best convene in New York City two months from now expect the field to be chasing Sanderson’s bunch once again.
Speaking of Buckeyes
The 2015 NCAA champions lost a significant piece to their puzzle when four-time champion Logan Stieber finished his career and Kyle Snyder decided to take an Olympic redshirt after shocking the wrestling world with a gold medal in freestyle at the 2015 World Championships. Hunter Stieber’s health was and is a concern for head coach Tom Ryan.
But the news out of Columbus over the last seven days has Snyder enrolling for the spring semester and joining the Buckeyes in February as a 285-pounder and Stieber expected to make one final run.
“Once I figured out it was possible for me not only to travel overseas twice and wrestle in international events and wrestle in the trainings camps, but I could also help the team and compete at heavyweight, and hopefully score enough points that we can win a second team title in a row, I decided that it was the best thing for me,” Snyder told USA Wrestling’s Richard Immel. “My goal of being an Olympic champion still hasn’t changed. I think these couple folkstyle matches that I’m going to wrestle are just going to help me sharpen my technique up for the Trials and then for the Olympic Games.” Snyder is expected back for the Feb. 5 dual against Penn State.
Stieber, a two-time All-American, battled through pain last March and inspired his teammates by qualifying for the NCAA meet where, with both elbows heavily bandaged, the 149-pounder made a go of it. After surgery on both elbows in the spring, the senior is expected to step on the mat soon. It will be just his seventh match in three years. All involved do not quite know what to expect, but if Stieber can return to his pre-injury form, Ohio State might just be in the mix again.
Hawks claim 53rd Midlands
Iowa won its third consecutive Midlands Championship last week with Thomas Gilman (125), Brandon Sorensen (149), and Nathan Burak (197) claiming titles in a 17-point victory over Nebraska. Rutgers, North Carolina State, and Rider rounded out the top five in the 53rd edition in Evanston, Ill.
“We’ve got to do a better job of scoring takedowns,” said Iowa head coach Tom Brands after the tournament. “We’ve got to score takedowns. Positive is that we had three in the finals and we went three for three, that’s important to me. Winning finals is important.”
Sorensen beat Northwestern’s Jason Tsirtsis with an overtime takedown in a battle of one versus two in the rankings. There should be a rematch this Sunday when the second-ranked Hawkeyes, who beat preseason No. 1 Oklahoma State to open the season, wrestle at Northwestern. Iowa wrestles at No. 10 Illinois (8-1) on Friday.
North Carolina State may have announced its return to DI prominence with dual victories over Minnesota and Oklahoma State before Christmas and a strong showing at the Midlands Championships. Thomas Gantt (157) and two-time NCAA champion Nick Gwiazdowski (285) each won titles. North Carolina had a good two days at the Southern Scuffle, finishing fifth, just one point behind fourth-place Cornell. Evan Henderson (149) and Ethan Ramos (174) advanced to the finals and Joey Ward (141) and John Mark Staudenmayer (157) each took third.
Both programs have had success in March; NC State finished seventh in 1993 and the Tar Heels were fifth in 1982, but the last quarter century has not seen a ton of success.
“Getting these guys to believe that they compete at a high level is part of it,” said NCSU head coach Pat Popolizio following his team’s win over the Cowboys in Stillwater. “The program has had success in the past, so it is nothing new for North Carolina State to be competitive.”
“I think we are getting more respect,” said Gwiazdowkski, a winner of 71 straight matches. “We have a good team, but until you do it against the better teams like Oklahoma State and Minnesota you fly under the radar.”
The Wolfpack (11-0) are ranked third in the latest USA Today/NWCA Coaches Poll. UNC (6-1) is No. 15. The two meet Jan. 25.
• No. 20 Pittsburgh was originally scheduled to attend the Midlands Championships in Evanston, Ill., but, due to weather conditions, changed its plans and suited up at last Tuesday’s Lock Haven Classic a little closer to home. The Panthers had a pair of champions ― Dom Forys (133) and Mikey Racciato (141) ― and edged Indiana by 6.5 points to win the team title.
• Tom Minkel, in his 25th year at Michigan State, announced this season would be his last running the program. Since 1930 there have only been four Spartan coaches ― Fendley Collins (1930-62, Grady Peninger (1963-86), Phil Parker (1987-91), and Minkel (1991-2016). Longtime MSU assistant Roger Chandler is next in line in East Lansing.
• The 184-pound final at the Southern Scuffle was a rematch of the 2015 NCAA final between Cornell’s Gabe Dean and Lehigh’s Nate Brown won by Dean. On Jan. 2, Dean beat Brown, 7-3, to claim his third Scuffle title and solidify is No. 1 ranking.
• Oklahoma State senior 165-pounder Alex Dieringer also won his third Scuffle title and moved his win streak to 64 straight. Illinois 157-pounder Isaiah Martinez is off to a 50-0 start for his career.
• Lehigh had three 157-pounders finish among the top eight at the Scuffle: freshman Ian Brown (3rd), All-American Mitch Minotti (4th), Drew Longo (8th).
• No. 13 Michigan did not take its starters to the Scuffle. But a future starter, true freshman Logan Massa, certainly turned a few heads. The 165-pounder who finished among the top eight at the U.S. Senior Nationals/Olympic Trials qualifier in Las Vegas in December, advanced to the finals where he dropped a 7-3 match to Dieringer, the top-ranked man in the country.
• No. 5 Virginia Tech leads the contingent at the Virginia Duals, this Friday and Saturday in Hampton.
Division I Power Rankings #1
1 ― Penn State: Cael Sanderson’s high-flying Nittany Lions are back after taking sixth in 2015. Might Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal, both redshirt freshmen, be the next superstars? Zain Retherford is only a sophomore and seniors Nico Megaludis and Morgan McIntosh are pretty salty. This Penn State squad, if they wrestle like they did in Chattanooga, will be tough to beat in March.
2 ― Oklahoma State: Sure the Cowboys dropped a dual in Iowa City in mid-November and were surprised by North Carolina State in Gallagher-Iba Arena. But this team has tournament power with Alex Dieringer and Dean Heil, plus three other All-Americans. Two questions Stillwater? Will Joe Smith, an uber-talented freshman 157-pounder join the mix and will rookie 133-pounder Kaid Brock, who pinned 2015 NCAA champion Cody Brewer, return after an injury in the Scuffle final?
3 ― Iowa: The Hawkeyes’ chances depend on Cory Clark, injured at the Midlands. Thomas Gilman, Brandon Sorensen, and Nathan Burak will contend for the big stage in March. Questions in Iowa City? Can Alex Meyer and Sam Brooks make some noise when it counts? The second-ranked Hawkeyes (8-0) wrestle at No. 10 Illinois this Friday and at No. 9 Nebraska on Jan. 24.
4 ― Lehigh: Pat Santoro had another good team. The Mountain Hawks lost a November dual to Nebraska, but have won five straight including a 30-7 whipping of Oklahoma in Norman. LU showed its tournament strength at the Scuffle, reaching the century mark and taking third. There is some depth and the EIWA powers always show up in March.
5 ― Missouri: Another year, another good Missouri team. 2014 NCAA champion J’Den Cox and All-American Lavion Mayes lead another strong dual team that is 5-0 with a win over Ohio State. The Tigers host No. 14 Cornell this Sunday and have a big dual meet at Oklahoma State on Jan. 22. Question around Columbia? Can Missouri put it together at the end and make a run at No. 1?
6 ― North Carolina State: The Wolfpack had a solid first semester, beating Minnesota and Oklahoma State and performing well at the Midlands. When you have a star like Nick Gwiazdowski, plus the solid trio of Kevin Jack, Thomas Gantt, and Max Rohskopf, you have a chance against anybody in a dual meet. The ACC has five teams inside the top 20 and Pat Popolizio’s group may be the best.
7 ― Virginia Tech: The Hokies were good against Penn State back in November and have plenty of firepower with Vegas champ Ty Walz, plus Joey Dance, Nick Brascetta, and Zach Epperly. They wrestle an ACC-heavy schedule the next two months and, like Missouri, will have to wrestle better in the postseason if they are to contend with the traditional powers. Tech was a program-best eighth at the NCAAs in 2014 and 10th in 2015 and 2013.
8 ― Ohio State: Time will tell with the 2015 NCAA champions. Getting All-World Kyle Snyder back will help bolster a lineup that already includes 2015 champion Nathan Tomasello, outstanding rookie Micah Jordan, and rising star Bo Jordan. The Buckeyes finally got over the hump after knocking on the door the last decade. OSU meets Nebraska on Jan. 17 and faces Penn State the first weekend in February. There is a long time and a lot of matches between now and Madison Square Garden.
Knocking on the door
Nebraska, Rutgers, Michigan, Illinois, Cornell, North Carolina