Different wrestlers have different goals. Maybe it is about qualifying for the national tournament multiple times over a four-year career. Or being part of a team that finishes inside the top 10.
For freshmen, it’s often about finding a spot on the medal stand, finishing inside the top eight to earn All-America status as a first-year competitor.
And then there are the goals of Penn State rookies.
“I want to win four national titles,” said former Penn State star David Taylor during his freshman season in 2010-11. His teammate, Ed Ruth, echoed Taylor’s goals.
Neither won four, but the dynamic duo claimed five national titles and eight All-America medals combined while leading the Nittany Lions to four straight team championships from 2011 to 2014.
It may be déjà vu for wrestling coaches, fans, and followers of the sport as the country turns its attention to New York City’s Madison Square Garden this week for the 2016 NCAA Championships.
Two freshman for Penn State, 157-pounder Jason Nolf and 174-pounder Bo Nickal, enter their first NCAA Championships with plenty of hype surrounding their seasons to this point. Nickal, a native of Allen, Texas, has just one loss in 30 matches this season and is coming off an impressive performance at the Big Ten Championships. He is the top seed at 174 pounds. Nolf, from Yatesboro, Pennsylvania, also has just one loss, that coming to Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez, a national champion in 2015. Nolf is seeded third at 157 pounds.
“(The loss) still stings because I wanted to go undefeated and win four national titles and I still have that second goal in mind,” Nolf said Monday. “I can’t go undefeated anymore but I can win the rest of my matches.
“I think about that. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I have to wrestle the way I wrestle and I didn’t (against Martinez), and that’s what cost me.”
During the regular season Nolf gave Martinez his first career loss, a stunning pin in the Nittany Lions’ dual victory over the Illini.
“I think you’ll see an even higher level (from Nolf) which is kind of scary, I think,” said PSU head coach Cael Sanderson, one of just three four-time national champions at the Division I level. “A loss, certainly it stinks. No one likes to lose and it sucks, but I think it doesn’t hurt Nolf. He’ in great spirits and is confident and excited; his energy is very high.”
What perhaps separates Nolf and Nickal from the pack is their energy, their quest for not just wins but major decisions, technical falls, and pins. They may be freshmen in eligibility, but they wrestle like upperclassmen.
“I think the Big Tens was good and it just showed how mature these young kids are on our team and how they are ready for a competition like this,” said PSU 197-pounder Morgan McIntosh, himself undefeated and a top seed in his bracket. “They aren’t holding anything back or scared of anything. We all had fun at Big Tens and it was good for them to see a big event like that, it gives them good experience coming into the NCAA Tournament.”
“It is going to be pretty cool,” said the blonde-haired Nickal. “I don’t think I’ve wrestled on anything as big as ESPN or anything, so I am excited to get out there and perform and do my best.
“I am going to stick to the game plan, trust the coaches, trust my training and go out there and do what I love. It’s going to be a lot of fun so I am excited to get out there and wrestle.”
McIntosh is one of four seniors who started most of the year for the Nittany Lions ― Nico Megaludis is a three-time All-American at 125 pounds; Jordan Conaway was an All-American last season at 125 pounds during Megaludis’s redshirt season; and Matt McCutcheon was the man at 184 pounds. All agree that Nolf and Nickal are capable of winning national titles this weekend.
“You can’t be intimidated,” Megaludis, an NCAA finalist as a true freshman, said earlier this season. “And I think with the guys in our room, competition we have every day, that prepares you for March. To make our lineup is tough and to see what some of the freshmen have done (at PSU) it shows that age doesn’t matter.
“Jason (Nolf) and Bo (Nickal), those guys are fun to watch. And I think by the time we get to nationals they will be ready. We will all be ready.”
Penn State won an NCAA title in 1953, but over the next half-century the word “underachieve” might be adequate when describing the performance of a program housed in the nation’s hotbed for high-flying, talented wrestlers. Annually, wrestlers from the state of Pennsylvania earn more All-America honors than any other state. Sanderson, a native of Utah, has combined that Pennsylvania talent with the country’s best recruits. Many of them are good enough to make an impact immediately.
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“I think that is part of your job as a coach, always looking ahead for the future” said Sanderson, who has six Pennsylvanians in New York City this week. “We have a great team this year but we are very optimistic about the teams we are going to have next year and the year after, and the year after that. And we have some freshman right now that we can look to for leadership.”
Nickal, from football-crazy Texas, fits right in.
“I love these guys,” said Nickal after winning the Southern Scuffle. “The room is so much fun, competitive, but fun. This team likes to score points and I think that is important when you are trying to win championships. I love wrestling, and I love to score points in my matches.
“By the time we get to New York this team will be ready. When you have coaches like we have and a bunch of motivated guys … it is going to be fun.”
Two seasons ago, Zain Retherford was a freshman phenom, finishing third as a freshman at 141 pounds. He redshirted last season and enters this week unbeaten and as the top seed at 149 pounds.
“At Penn State you have to have big goals,” Retherford said. “If you don’t you are not going to be a part of this team. Jason (Nolf) and Bo Nickal, those guys, like the rest of us, have big plans.”
Four years of Taylor and Ruth were fun. Might the same be said four years from now in regards to Nolf and Nickal?