PITTSBURGH — Penn State’s wrestling program continued its dominance over the weekend, outdistancing the field by 41 points at the 2019 NCAA Championships. It marked the eighth time in nine seasons the Nittany Lions claimed top honors under head coach Cael Sanderson.
It also marked the end a dominant four seasons for two seniors – Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal. Both won their third individual titles on Saturday night, Nolf (31-0) beating Nebraska’s Tyler Berger in the 157-pound final and Nickal (30-0) taking care of Ohio State’s Kollin Moore for 197-pound gold. Nolf and Nickal combined to win 237 of their 243 collegiate matches.
“I think they’re both just all in,” said Sanderson, whose squad also crowned heavyweight Anthony Cassar and had two others drop finals bouts. “They do everything right. I think that pays off in big moments like this. They can relax and just know that they’re ready and know that they've done everything to prepare for the moment. And there’s a certain calmness that comes with being prepared.
“Obviously just incredible competitors, two of the best to ever step on a college mat. I believe that 100 percent.”
PENN STATE WINS: Final team scores
Nickal had three pins, a major decision and a 5-1 win over Moore in the final.
“It’s really been blessing after blessing,” said Nickal, a native of Texas. “Since the first time I stepped foot on campus it’s been incredible. And there’s so many people that have just put so much time and effort and energy into me; and my coaches, my trainers and countless others. And I’m incredibly grateful for it.
“And being able to go through it with a guy like Jason Nolf is something that’s amazing and a true blessing. And that’s a guy I know I can count on, and I know we’re going to be friends for a long time to come.”
Nolf had two technical falls, a 43-second pin, a narrow 3-2 in the semifinals, and a dominant 10-2 major decision in his finals bout. He leads as the Nittany Lions’ all-time pins leader with 60.
“I think I just found a lot of wisdom through my coaches that I can’t even begin to make a list of all the things I've learned,” Nolf said. “But I’m definitely blessed, and I’m looking forward to having an impact on others’ lives as well and to share my faith with others.”
PSU totaled a tournament-high seven All-Americans. Two, Mark Hall and Vincenzo Joseph, lost finals bouts, Hall falling to rival Zahid Valencia of Arizona State in the 174-pound final, and Joseph running into rising star Mekhi Lewis, a redshirt-freshman for Virginia Tech, in the 165-pound title bout. Valencia (31-2) beat Hall in the 2018 final; Hall was a champion in 2017 as a freshman. Joseph entered his third NCAA tournament as a two-time champ. Sophomore 141-pounder Nick Lee was fifth and rookie 133-pounder Roman Bravo-Young was eighth in a very tough bracket.
Cassar (30-1) capped his senior season by besting talented rookie Gable Steveson of Minnesota in the semifinals and top-seeded Derek White of Oklahoma State in the finals. The Nittany Lions return four of the seven medalists – Cassar could be a fifth after possibly receiving an extra year due to injury-filled career.
“I think you just have to believe in what you’re doing,” said Sanderson, who took over in Happy Valley in 2011. “I think we believe that we’re going to be successful and win. And I think we’re not satisfied right now. And you lay in bed at night, each one of these tournaments thinking these are things we can do better, and things we need to maybe reinforce or – that’s a great thing about a national tournament and facing great competition like we did is that it really reinforces things that we can improve on.”
For Valencia, a junior, it was sweet revenge against Hall after a regular-season loss in a dual meet. Twenty-four hours earlier Valencia dominated Missouri’s Daniel Lewis in the semifinals; Lewis pinned Valencia during the regular season.
“I think I felt a little bit what he’s feeling right now,” said the man from ASU. “Being No. 1 is tough. You have a huge target on your back, even though sometimes I like to say that I don’t. (Hall) doesn’t, he just relaxes. But it does eventually wear on you.
“I could see it before I even stepped on the mat that he was worried, he was scared, because he’s wrestling, he’s been wrestling all week to not lose; I’ve been wrestling to win. So being offensive in the sport of wrestling over defensive is going to win pretty much every time.”
There was nothing defensive about Mehki Lewis, who entered the week as the No. 8 seed at 165 pounds. The Junior World champion in freestyle showed his athleticism late in beating Iowa’s unbeaten Alex Marinelli in the quarterfinals, then picking up a win against No. 4 Evan Wick of Wisconsin in the semifinals. The final was not much of a match as Lewis hammered the reigning champ, 7-1.
VIRGINIA TECH WRESTLING: Mehki Lewis makes Hokie history as the first wrestling national champion
“Everybody, other than my teammates, family and coaches and fans, thought I was the underdog,” said Lewis, Virginia Tech’s first NCAA champion in wrestling. “I didn’t think I was the underdog. I just thought people didn’t get the chance to see me wrestle at a big stage, like, folkstyle, because they only saw freestyle. And I just felt like I was prepared and ready to win a national title.”
Rutgers also entered the 2019 meet without a national title on the mat, but two, 133-pounder Nick Suriano and 149-pounder Anthony Ashnault, each finished at the top of the medal stand. Suriano’s wild overtime win over Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix will be talked about for a long time.
After a bruising seven minutes of hand-fighting the two brawlers went to sudden victory where neither man could score in the first extra minute. In the 30-second tiebreakers things got out of hand as a Fix escape gave him a 2-1 advantage. The second 30-second session saw Fix, the top seed, throw in both legs to attempt to ride out the mini-period. But the official ruled a stalemate with :08 showing; seconds later Suriano escaped and the two headed to another sudden victory one-minute period where Suriano (29-3) scored a controversial takedown to win 4-2. Oklahoma State coaches felt the Scarlet Knight junior grabbed Fix’s headgear, but after a video-review Suriano’s takedown stood and the program had its first NCAA champion.
“Speechless,” said the New Jersey native. “I just didn’t quit. I didn’t quit through this whole journey. And it came down to not quitting this last match. I was going to quit. I was this close. I was thinking about it. He rolled me like that. And like I got out. I made sure I was going to get out.
RUTGERS WRESTLING: Nick Suriano and Anthony Ashnault bring two national titles home to Jersey
“I looked in his eyes, and I said, ‘I’m going to take him down. And I took him down, and he was getting away with stalling the whole match. And all due respect to John Smith and the Okie State staff, they’re legends. They did what they did. But they’ve been working the refs they were doing it the whole match the match at the RAC at Rutgers, and I deserved that too.”
In another wild meeting during the regular season, Fix won a controversial overtime bout that took over 30 minutes to complete due to multiple video reviews and everything under the sun.
“He’s a world-class competitor,” Suriano said of Fix. “He’s legit. Daton Fix, we’ve had our battles. We’ve had our words, and they go the same way. He’s so stingy on his defense and it’s hard for me to open up on him. He’s very tricky. He’s very … he’s an advance man. He’s elite.”
Iowa’s Spencer Lee (23-3) returned to his 2018 NCAA form, rolling to the 125-pound crown. A much-anticipated rematch with Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera never materialized as Virginia’s Jack Mueller dominated Rivera in the semifinals Friday. Lee avenged a regular season loss to Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni in his semifinal bout. Lee, a native of Pennsylvania, led a Hawkeye squad that finished fourth with 76 points. Iowa’s six All-Americans were second to PSU.
NCAA TOURNAMENT INFO: How the NCAA wrestling tournament works
Second place Ohio State pushed three to the finals, but failed to crown a champion. Senior Joey McKenna suffered a heartbreaking loss to Cornell’s talented Yianni Diakomihalis at 141 pounds. It was the Cornell sophomore’s second title and improved his career record to 66-1. The Buckeyes’ Micah Jordan fell to Ashnault (32-0) in the 149-pound final, with Moore running into Nickal for a third time this season. Senior Myles Martin, a champion for Ohio State back in 2016 as a freshman, capped his four All-America career with a third place medal. The top seed entered the week unbeaten and seeded No. 1 at 184 pounds, but dropped a one-point loss to Cornell’s Max Dean in the semifinals.
"Remember why you started...Think about that little 8-year-old kid that said, 'I want to be a national champ someday'."— NCAA (@NCAA) March 24, 2019
Two-time NCAA champ Yianni Diakomihalis of Cornell writes a letter to the next generation of college wrestlers. pic.twitter.com/GCDcYK4dzy
Northern Iowa’s Drew Foster (28-5) became his program’s first NCAA champion since Tony Davis in 2000. Foster, the sixth seed, beat Dean, 6-4, in the title bout Saturday night.
“A lot of belief, not only self-belief, coach believing, university believing, teammates, my family members,” said the senior. “The whole community believing. When you’ve got that kind of backing, it’s hard not … it’s hard to get beat when you’ve got that.”
Oklahoma State, like Ohio State, had five All-Americans and finished 12 ½ points behind the Buckeyes. Michigan (62 ½), Missouri (62), Cornell (59 ½), Minnesota (53 ½), Rutgers (51 ½), and Nebraska (51) rounded out the top 10. Iowa State totaled two points in 2018; the Cyclones totaled 32 and finished 16th in Pittsburgh.
The 2020 NCAA Championships are set for Minneapolis.