NCAA Wrestling: Dance lessons helping Penn State wrestling in competition
Frank Molinaro shimmied his arms to-and-fro, his legs hopping in time to Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo.”
His gray Penn State wrestling sweatshirt, drooping from sweat, swung in rhythm to the tune.
Then thuds replaced beats, and Molinaro returned to planting large men on their backs.
A few feet away, Zain Retherford looked on at his sometime sparring partner. At that moment, the 149-pounders — one a former NCAA champion and the other a championship hopeful — shared more than just a dominating resume in common.
Off the mat, each could bust a move.
In each of his 24 wins, the unbeaten Retherford has unleashed a bricolage-like repertoire. The “single-leg,” the “half-nelson” and “the cradle” make up just a few of his greatest hits.
But even with only a few matches remaining on the schedule, one move still eludes him.
“The Cha-Cha,” Retherford said. “It’s the quick feet.”
Retherford is one of several Nittany Lion athletes to show their skills on the dance floor. Short of recreating “Footloose,” athletes from a number of the varsity teams have raised roofs beside banners in their time wearing blue and white. The weekend of the Penn State Interfraternity/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, for instance, has produced memorable performances from teams in the past, including last year’s 80s-inspired Pep Rally victory by the men’s hockey team.
For Retherford, his goals — at least on the dance floor — are more modest. He began his forays into organized dance this semester as part of a ballroom dance class. So far, he’s learned the Rumba, the Two-Step and the challenging Cha-Cha.
“We’re getting there,” Retherford said.
Retherford’s coach, Cael Sanderson, has lauded his wrist control and fast hands besides his footwork. He’s put each to use in class. When he’s cradled his partners’ hands, he’s usually not recognized as being the No. 1 wrestler in the nation. But he remembers one instance where he was identified for his prowess on the mat and not the ballroom floor.
“There was one girl who came up to me in class and said she was at the match the other day,” Retherford said. “She said ‘Are you the guy who wrestled?’ So that was pretty cool that a student recognized me.”
Back on the mat, another partner has kept in step with Retherford.
Jason Nolf, who has been dueling with Retherford for the season points title, said he has learned a lot from his bouts with the 149-pounder. But on the tessellated tiles, Nolf doesn’t defer at all to his practice partner.
“I would say I’m the dance competition champion,” Nolf said. “I think [Retherford’s class] is going to keep him on my tail, but I’m going to have to step it up a notch.”
Competition, fierce on the mat already, can reach new levels when the pair trade their black wrestling boots for high tops and tennis shoes. Strategies and key moves are kept hidden from opponents. Like wrestling, a loose tactic can give away a win.
“I don’t know what it’s called — I don’t know if I’m going to give it away,” Nolf said of his secret move. “It’s original.”
Nolf confirmed it wasn’t the Nae Nae or the Dab.
Bo Nickal, having a sterling season of his own, said the Nolf-Retherford duo were two of the better dancers on the team. With Retherford’s experience from class, Nickal said he’s picked up tips while the team was traveling. But he’ll leave the ultimate title for “best dancer on the team” for the pair to fight over.
“We might need to have a dance-off,” Nickal said. “Nolf and Zain are pretty good.”
The friendly competition fuels them. The team has kept the atmosphere during practices loose, even while being ranked No. 1 and eyeing a seventh national title. The NCAA championships, held this year in Madison Square Garden, begin March 17.
Some of the team’s members have danced together. In December, the group dressed up as elves in the spirit of the holidays. Trading their wrestling sweatshirts for festive, de rigueur holiday sweaters, they mugged for a photo as Mariah Carey belted out the soundtrack to the team’s new Christmas cards.
But the title of “best dancer on the team” may not belong to the All-American (in wrestling). Freshman Francisco Bisono takes the honor, Retherford said.
“He choreographs his dances,” Retherford said.
For senior Morgan McIntosh, the younger wrestlers have added a joie de vivre to the team that has made his last year memorable, he said.
“We joke around, we’re always messing around and don’t take everything too seriously,” McIntosh said. “And I think that’s what makes us really enjoy it — especially this hard part of the season where we’re really traveling a lot and competing every weekend. It’s a fun atmosphere.”
This article was from Pennsylvania State University / Daily Collegian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.