CLEVELAND, Ohio – It was a moment that will lead highlight reels for NCAA Wrestling Championships for the next 100 years and beyond.
With three days of battles between frontrunners Penn State and Ohio State reaching its peak, old rivals Bo Nickal and Myles Martin took the mat to decide the 184-pound weight class. Martin, a senior for Ohio State, beat Nickal in an NCAA final two seasons ago; Nickal, a junior and national champion in 2017, owned wins over Martin twice this season. A Buckeye win and the team title would come down to Martin’s teammate Kyle Snyder, an Olympic champion.
Quicken Loans Arena’s record wrestling crowd was ready to explode. Martin started strong, attacking Nickal time and again over the first two minutes. The deciding attack saw Nickal go to his back and appear to be in trouble. But a small adjustment and the high-flying Texan flipped Martin to his back with a “high-flyer” and when the official slapped the mat the arena went wild. Nickal’s pin clinched his second individual title and Penn State’s seventh in eight years.
It was a magical moment in the history of collegiate wrestling.
“I’ve been doing that move for a really long time,” said Nickal, one of four champions for PSU. “I try it a lot in practice, just messing around and play wrestling with guys and stuff like that. So it’s a position that I’m comfortable in. And I knew what I was doing. I didn’t have to think too much about it.”
For Penn State and head coach Cael Sanderson it marked another monumental March run. Ohio State wrestled the Big Ten title away from State College and brought a powerful team to Cleveland. The Buckeyes led early and regained the lead after a strong Saturday morning in consolations. With two finalists, head coach Tom Ryan’s bunch made a move with six additional All-Americans. And when rising star Zahid Valencia, a sophomore for Arizona State, took down 2017 champion Mark Hall in the 174-pound final Saturday night, Buckeye fans’ energy rose significantly.
Then Nickal’s dramatics ended any hope.
“I’m obviously very proud of these guys,” said Sanderson’s whose team totaled 141 ½ points to edge Ohio State by eight. “I think they put forth a tremendous effort throughout the whole year. And a great day today, great day yesterday. And just proud of them and happy for them, more than anything.”
Both squads had missed opportunities.
“We can look at a lot of matches that happened this weekend. The Ke-Shawn Hayes quarterfinal was huge,” Ryan said. “If Ke-Shawn Hayes gets that reversal … We can look back at points everywhere. The bottom line is it wasn’t enough.”
Iowa was a distant third with Michigan and North Carolina State tied for fourth in the 88th NCAA Championship. As always, there were plenty of storylines.
Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder finished what should be considered one of the best collegiate careers in the history of the sport, all while winning Olympic gold in 2016 and a pair of World Championships. A four-time finalist and three-time champion, Snyder beat Michigan’s Adam Coon in his final match.
“The greatest of all time,” Ryan said. “This is a guy that was doing double duty. He was overseas winning World championships while also winning national championships. Unheard of. There has not been a wrestler like him in my opinion at this point in his career.”
“I’ll look back at my career at Ohio State and just be thankful for not what I was able to achieve, but all the moments and camaraderie and experience I’ve had with my teammates and coaches and my improvement as a wrestler and as a man and my faith especially, all that’s grown so much,” Snyder said. “So that’s what I look back on.”
PSU’s Zain Retherford beat Lock Haven’s Ronnie Perry for 149-pound gold. It marked the senior’s 94th straight win and third national title.
Retherford’s teammate, junior Jason Nolf, was injured late during the regular season. His health was in question after wrestling just two bouts at the Big Ten Championships, then defaulting out of the tournament to finish sixth. In Cleveland, the 157-pounder rolled to his second title, beating North Carolina State rookie Hayden Hidlay in the finals.
Relive the weekend...the chronicle, visual, in words, in video...step by step...every moment, every Lion wrestling...It's what we do.— Penn State WRESTLING (@pennstateWREST) March 18, 2018
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The third PSU title winner, sophomore Vincenzo Joseph, beat Illinois senior Isaiah Martinez in the 165 final for a second straight year. In 2017, Joseph pinned Martinez; on Saturday night it was a dominant decision. Martinez finished a brilliant career that included four trips to the NCAA finals and just three career losses. He was a champion in 2015 and 2016.
Iowa’s solid tournament included a massive performance from true freshman 125-pounder Spencer Lee. A Junior World champion in freestyle, Lee rolled to the final where he beat Rutgers’ talented Nick Suriano.
Lee was one of two true freshmen to win a title. Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis trailed Wyoming’s Bryce Meredith in the third period, but countered a shot and locked up a slick cradle to secure the necessary points for victory. It marked the first time since 1947 that two true freshman won championships.
South Dakota State totaled three All-Americans and crowned junior 133-pounder Seth Gross. A runner-up in 2017, Gross beat second-seeded Stevan Micic of Michigan in the title bout.
Senior Michael Macchiavello led a strong North Carolina State team, winning the 197-pound title in dramatic fashion with a late takedown to beat Virginia Tech senior Jared Haught. Head coach Pat Popolizio’s group also got an unexpected performance from 133-pound rookie Tariq Wilson, who took our fourth-seeded Kaid Brock in the quarterfinals, then wrestled all the way to the third place match. Wilson entered the week unseeded.
Along with Wilson as a big fan favorite was Kent State 197-pounder Kyle Conel. He wrestled a pigtail match on Thursday morning and was the only entry to win three bouts on the first day. In Friday’s quarterfinals, Conel tossed top-seeded Kolin Moore to his back for a first period pin. On Saturday morning, Conel, after falling in the semifinals to Macchiavello on Friday night, beat Moore a second time to finish third.
Oklahoma State, with 34 NCAA team titles, finished tied for 13th, the second lowest in head coach John Smith’s 27 seasons. Fellow Big 12 members Iowa State and Oklahoma, who have a combined 15 NCAA titles between them, finished 45th and 56th, respectively, both program lows. The 12 Big 12 programs combined for 11 All-Americans, seven of them between OSU and South Dakota State.
Quicken Loans Arena broke NCAA records for attendance. The six-session total of 113,743 is No. 1 all-time and the 19,776 for Saturday night’s final round also set a new standard. The 2019 Championships are set for Pittsburgh, Penn.