PITTSBURGH — If this year’s 2019 NCAA wrestling championship showcased anything, it’s the depth of talent at the collegiate level. Three-hundred thirty athletes put their souls on the mat for three days to battle for the sport's ultimate honor, and 10 walked out of PPG Arena as champions. Two of those champions, however, left a legacy in the sport together that will be hard to match.
Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal of Penn State won a combined six national titles and appeared in a combined eight national finals. They’ve battled all year for the Hodge Trophy, and they’ve elevated Penn State to four national team titles. The Nolf-Nickal duo has a compiled a resume of combined team and individual championship honors that is ten long.
College wrestling fans will miss their wild moves and dominating performances, but before we envision a 2020 NCAA tournament without Nickal and Nolf, let’s take a look at what has helped them achieve their success as student-athletes in Penn State singlets.
In 2018, Nickal took the mat against Ohio State’s Myles Martin in his third national final. The 184-pounder wanted a another title, but so did his opponent, the 2016 champ. With the team title on the line, Nickal found himself rolling around on his back, under Martin’s control early in the first period. He was in trouble. Or not. Nickal flipped around to pin Martin, clinching the championship for Penn State and sending the Nittany Lion fans into a frenzy. His famous quote “I’ve been doing that move since I was six” made its way into every wrestling story about that tournament. The quote became a go-to line for his teammates, and it was 100-percent true.
In preparing for this final match ever as a student-athlete, Nickal said he went back to those early years and watched film from his childhood wrestling days. He watched himself pull off moves like that against his opponents, and he watched himself battle. These videos could have made him emotional in his last tournament, but all he felt was gratitude.
“I’ve come a long way and there are so many people that have put energy and time into me,” Nickal said after his semifinal win. “My parents and my coaches at Penn State have lugged me around the country since I was little, and I feel incredibly grateful for the people in my life and the things wrestling has allowed me to do and places it’s taken me.”
It’s easy to be grateful walking into PPG Paints Arena, but it’s harder to maintain that gratitude through five matches, three days and a national final. This is a tough tournament, and 310 wrestlers failed to reach that national finals stage. Nerves would be normal. But Nolf and Nickal aren’t normal.
Nolf completed his successful collegiate career with a win over Tyler Berger of Nebraska 10-2 in major decision fashion. The senior Nittany Lion topped Berger in the Penn State-Nebraska dual and then picked up another win over the Cornhusker in the Big Ten tournament. He completed the trifecta with his national championship and left the mat a champion again, only to comment, in Nolf-style, about how the team is the reason for much of his success.
"That's definitely a blessing to be part of such a great team. Sometimes you can take it for granted and kind of expect that it's going to happen," Nolf said. "But at the beginning, at the end of the day, you've got to go work hard for it, and everybody individually has to do their part. I'm definitely blessed to be around people that have such a clear mind and know exactly what they want. And they're willing to sacrifice maybe some other things that other people are doing in order to get it. Our team is just full of a bunch of great guys and definitely blessed."
Teammate Nickal picked up his third and final NCAA championship in the 197-pound weight class with a win over No. 2 Kollin Moore 5-1. Like Nolf, he too defeated his opponent at the Big Ten tournament and earlier in the Nebraska-Penn State dual.
These two men are champions, and their results and their mentality accentuate this reality.
Confidence and gratitude has helped shape these wrestlers, and speaking specifically about Nolf, head coach Cael Sanderson praised the competitiveness and intensity of his senior.
“I think Jason is special. You can tell just by the look in his eye,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “He's very confident. And the bigger the match, the better he wrestles. But, yeah, I think especially midway, kind of late into his high school career you could just kind of see that he was separating himself and a lot of that is his desire, his work ethic, his drive. It's just him wanting to be the best and believing that he can be that.”
The two wrestlers have also been pinning machines, leading the country in falls and challenging each other for Most Outstanding Wrestler Honors and the Hodge Trophy. Nolf picked up the Big Ten Most Outstanding Wrestler honor at the conference tournament, a distinction he shared with Iowa's Alex Marinelli. Nickal picked up Most Dominant Wrestler honors at the national tournament.
Heading into NCAA championship, Nolf led the country in pins by three heading into the tournament. But before Saturday evening's session, Nickal had cut that lead down to one. Neither athlete earned a pin in their final bout, but they still went out as dominant champions. They've been bonus-point machines all year, and in an interview earlier this year, former teammate and two-time national champion Zain Retherford said it's been Penn State's culture of gratitude (there's that word again) that helps create this success.
"Enthusiasm and gratitude are two qualities that stand out to me about Penn State wrestling," Retherford told NCAA.com in February. "At the NCAA tournament, we get to test our abilities and will power on the nation's largest stage. The culture is focused on being excited to compete hard."
After all, Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf have been looking forward to competing on this stage since they were six.
And while they will never wrestle in a Penn State singlet again, their legacy will always remain.
NCAA TOURNAMENT INFO: How the NCAA wrestling tournament works