The recent success of the Penn State Nittany Lion wrestling team has been well documented, particularly in the past five years with the accomplishments of several two-time national champions and four three-time national champions in Ed Ruth, Jason Nolf, Bo Nickal and Zain Retherford.
But those stars are just several of the many champions who have come through this program. We decided to look at what would happen if Penn State could build a dream lineup today with any ten athletes from history. Who would wrestle at each of the modern ten weight classes if all Penn State athletes were in their prime? Would Vincenzo Joseph beat out David Taylor for the starting spot at 165 pounds?
PENN STATE WRESTLING: Nittany Lions win 2019 NCAA Title
I'm certainly not the first person to work through this exercise, and many Penn State wrestling fans may disagree with my opinions on the best athlete at each weight. But before you argue, these are the criteria I used to select the all-time lineup.
First, this is an NCAA list, so NCAA titles are the first criteria considered in all-time lineup. Conference championship are great, and there is certainly a long list of athletes with impressive conference accomplishments, but this list is focused on success at the national tournament. Wrestling well under the bright lights of the big stage in March puts names in history books, and thus, championship performances were weighted the heaviest in creating this list.
Second, only one athlete could be assigned to each weight. In any traditional dual meet, just ten guys take the mat for any given team, so the same rules applied to the all-time lineup.
Lastly, modern weights were used for the lineup. While some athletes would need to cut weight or put on a few pounds to fit the modern lineup, we took some creative liberties and put these athletes at the weight class the most closely aligned with the modern division. These rules certainly put some limitations on who qualifies for the all-time lineup, but these qualifications are the only way to justify each decision.
The Nittany Lion wrestling program is full of talent dating back to the first national champ in 1935, and if you put Penn State's best ten athletes on the mat together in their prime, could any team in history top this all-star squad? Maybe, maybe not, but these are the ten guys who we would chose to be in the lineup for that ultimate showdown.
125 pounds: Jeff Prescott
Seven different lightweight national champions have come through the Penn State program, but only one of those champions captured two NCAA titles, and as we mentioned earlier, this list is all about those NCAA tournament wins.
Jeff Prescott stands alone in the Nittany Lion record books as the only lightweight athlete to win the national tournament twice, and he did so as a 118-pounder in 1991 and 1992; Prescott was also the first Penn State athlete to earn Most Outstanding Wrestler honors at the NCAA championships when he received the accolade in 1991. In addition to his championship trophies, Prescott also earned All-American honors in 1990 and is now an inducted member of the EWL Hall of Fame.
PENN STATE SCHEDULE: Breaking down every upcoming dual in the 2019-2020 season
Other lightweight national champions for the Nittany Lions include John Fritz at 126 pounds in 1975, Carl DeStefanis at 118 pounds in 1984, Jim Martin at 126 pounds in 1988, Sanshiro Abe at 126 pounds in 1996, Jeremey Hunter at 125 pounds in 2000 and Nico Megaludis at 125 pounds in 2016.
133 pounds: Scott Lynch
John Johnston and Scott Lynch both earned a national title at a weight class equivalent to the modern 133-pound division with Johnston winning his title in 1957 at 130 pounds and Lynch finishing on top at 134 pounds in 1984.
Either of these athletes would be excellent representatives for the Nittany Lions in an all-time lineup, but one will have to take the starting spot. Johnston ended his career at as a three-time EIWA champion and a two-time NCAA All-American, finishing third and first in his two trips to the podium. Lynch has a similar resume that includes two conference titles and three All-American honors.
"These guys dream about winning NCAA championships when they're five years old." -- Cael Sanderson on his wrestlers pic.twitter.com/RkHUZVb2UI— NCAA Wrestling (@NCAAWrestling) March 19, 2016
In this debate, we'll have to give the top spot in Lynch. Johnston took home gold in the conference tournament one more time that Lynch, but Lynch picked up a extra All-American honor, and it's all about wrestling at NCAAs, and Lynch has the extra All-American honor. Lynch finished sixth, fourth and first in his three NCAA appearances as a Nittany Lion after transferring from Navy his freshman year, and even though he would have to drop one pound to make weight at 133, Lynch is the NCAA.com's choice for Penn State's all-time starter at this weight.
141 pounds: John Hughes
The 141-pound weight class creates another problem for Penn State's all-time lineup, as two wrestlers have each one a title, similar resumes and would be great choices as the best Penn State wrestler at this weight. Larry Fornicola won his NCAA title in 1955, wrestling at 137 pounds, so he'd have to jump four pounds, while John Hughes, who won his title at 142 pounds 40 years later, would need to cut one pound.
Hughes graduated as a three-time All-American with a first, second and seventh place finishes during his career, and he also won the 1995 conference tournament and the 1994 Pan American Games. Fornicola's only All-American honor came the year he won his title, so while his championship win is impressive and deserves recognition, 141 belongs to John Hughes.
149 pounds: Zain Retherford
At 149 pounds, only one Penn State athlete has won more than one title, and he accomplished that feat in style, picking up two Hodge Trophies along the way and becoming one of the most decorated collegiate athletes in program history.
That wrestler, of course, is Zain Retherford, a member of the 2019 Senior World Team and a three-time national champion for the Nittany Lions from 2016-2018. Retherford finished fifth in the NCAA championships his freshman year but earned the top spot on the podium in his last three years. He solidified himself as the starter at this weight in our all-time lineup because of his college success, but the other option for 149 pounds is certainly a formidable opponent.
A member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, Molinaro was a four-time All-American and one-time NCAA champion during his career with the Blue and White, finishing eighth, fifth, second and first respectively at the national tournament from 2009-2012. Molinaro is certainly qualified to be part of the all-time lineup, but he can't compete with Retherford's three titles.
Retherford also took down Molinaro in the 2019 World Team Trials at 65kg, further solidifying himself as one of the best wrestlers in Penn State history to compete at this weight. Though Retherford has yet to make an Olympic team and will vie for his spot on the 2020 team in April, his future is bright and his accomplishments as a student-athlete earned him the right to make this all-time lineup for the Nittany Lions.
In an interview with NCAA.com last year, Retherford reflected on his experience as a Nittany Lion and emphasized that the culture of scoring points and being dominant at Penn State enabled him to achieve his highest potential as a wrestler. This sentiment is no doubt shared by his teammates and likely the second-best representative at 149 pounds, Frank Molinaro.
157 pounds: Jason Nolf
Nolf, next topic. The 2019 Penn State graduate is in a tier by himself at 157 pounds with three NCAA titles, four All-American honors and more career pins than anyone else in the program. Nolf put on a show in his final season as a Nittany Lion with an undefeated recored and a highlight reel full of wild moves.
He's the clear choice at 157 pounds and will compete for a spot on the 2020 U.S. Olympic team in April in a stacked weight class.
Nolf finished his college career with at 134-4 record with bonus points in over 80% of his matches. The Nittany Lion champ was a bonus points machine, and head coach Cael Sanderson noted at the 2019 NCAA tournament, that Nolf's confidence and passion for competing have helped him separate himself as one of the greats in the sport.
"I think Jason is special," Sanderson said. "You can tell just by the look in his eye. He's very confident. And the bigger the match, the better he wrestles."
165 pounds: David Taylor
The 165-pound weight class might be the most difficult weight to choose an all-time lineup athlete, with three wrestlers owning two NCAA titles each and one of those athletes chasing his third championship this year.
Andy Matter, who wrestled for Penn State from 1969-1972, became the first two-time national champion in program history and lost just two matches his entire college career. He set a winning standard for the Nittany Lions with a .917 winning percentage at the NCAA championships and a .967 overall winning percentage.
Matter is just one four Penn State athletes to end his career without a single dual meet loss, but this is where things become complicated in the all-time lineup choice.
One of the other three athletes to accomplish this feat and also claim two national titles? None other than the Magic Man, David Taylor. A 165-pound standout for the Nittany Lions from 2009-2014, Taylor picked up national titles during his sophomore and senior campaigns and won the Hodge Trophy in both years. Taylor was also a 2018 World Team member and World Champion and will be competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team this April.
So does Taylor or Matter earn the starting spot? That would be an easier question if there wasn't also a third candidate to consider.
Current Penn State wrestler Vincenzo Joseph deserves a place in this conversation too after winning NCAA titles during his freshman and sophomore years with the Nittany Lions. Joseph also made the NCAA finals last year before dropping to freshman Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech.
Though he has not yet won the Hodge Trophy, which puts him at a disadvantage against Taylor, Joseph does have the possibility to win a third title. He is also a three-time All-American, which puts him ahead of Matter and narrows the choice to Taylor vs. Joseph. Taylor has an edge over Joseph with his four conference titles, considering Joseph has yet to pick up his first, but as we established in the beginning, this all-time lineup is first and foremost based on NCAA tournament finishes.
Can Vincenzo Jospeh win a third title and take over as the best athlete ever to wear the Blue and White at 165 pounds? Alum and fellow all-time Penn State great Kerry Mccoy thinks yes, but the road won't be easy.
"He’s already there as one of the all-time greats just being a three-time finalist, but for him to win a third title and really cement [himself] in that upper epsilon of wrestling in general, not just Penn State people...it’s a pretty good opportunity," McCoy told NCAA.com.
The only fair way to finalize this list in October of 2019 is to give Taylor the edge, for now. The two national titles, two Hodge Trophies, four NCAA finals appearances and four conference titles are impressive, but if Joseph can finish his career as a three-time champ, we reserve the right to swap him in as the all-time best 165-pounder at the end of the season.
174 pounds: Ed Ruth
From 2010-2014, Ed Ruth was one of many dominant players in a Penn State lineup that also included two-time champion David Taylor and Quentin Wright, and had it not been for the recent success of Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf, Ruth's era in the Blue and White might be seen as the greatest of all time.
A three-time NCAA champion, Ruth re-wrote the Penn State record books during his career as a 174 pounder, become the first athlete in program history to claim three individual national titles and losing just three matches his entire college career. Ruth also won four Big Ten titles and stayed undefeated against conference foes for the entirety of his Penn State wrestling tenure. Two of Ruth's titles came at 184, but we'll keep him down at 174 to make room from Quentin Wright at 184 and Bo Nickal at 197.
THE BEST OF THE BEST: 10 all-time dream college wrestling matchups at every weight
Glenn Pritzlaff and Matt Brown each have titles at 174 pounds as well, with Pritzlaff's coming in 1999 and Brown's coming from just four years ago in 2015. We also can't forget about Mark Hall, a three-time finalist who will be chasing his second title this year at 174 pounds after winning the weight his freshman year in 2017. If Hall earns a second title, he'll be the second-best athlete ever at State College in this weight, behind three-time champion Ruth.
184 pounds: Quentin Wright
Just two athletes have won national titles at 184 pounds or a comparable weight in Penn State history: Quentin Wright and Bo Nickal. The latter's title at 197 allows him to bump up in the all-time lineup, creating a space for four-time All-American and two-time national champion Wright at 184 pounds.
Wright came to Penn State in 2009 from Wingate, Pennsylvania and made an immediate impact on the program as a true freshman. He finished second at the Big Ten Tournament in his Nittany Lion postseason debut and went on to earn sixth at the national tournament.
Following a successful redshirt season during the 2009-2010 season, Wright came back to the mat under the guidance of new head coach Cael Sanderson and raced to his first national title at 184. He also picked up his first Big Ten title and won Outstanding Wrestling honors at the tournament as a result of his dominant performance.
Wright finished second at NCAAs his junior year but went undefeated as a senior to reclaim gold in his final season as a Nittany Lion at both the conference and national tournaments. Wright's success on the mat no doubt makes him a great option to lead Penn State at 184 pounds in the all-time lineup.
197 pounds: Bo Nickal
Penn State graduated one of the program greats in 2019 when three-time NCAA champion and Hodge Trophy winner Bo Nickal finished his career, but Nickal's legacy will live on in the record books.
After earning his first two titles at 184, with the second one coming in dramatic fashion against Myles Martin in 2018, Nickal jumped up to 197 pounds and ran through the weight class to earn 18 pins plus a bonus point average of 90%. Though he could hold down the all-time spot at 184 or 197 pounds, his position at 197 pounds opens the door for Quentin Wright, a two-time national champion, at 184.
The two guys left on the bench at 197 are Phil Davis and Hud Samson, who won titles at 197 in 2008 and 91 pounds in 1953, respectively.
Davis was a four-time All-American who has since gone on to compete in MMA, which Nickal also mentioned as an interest after his wrestling career concludes.
Samson, for his part, was part of Penn State's first national championship team. Davis and Samson had great careers in the Blue and White, but for the all-time athlete at this weight, Nickal has that one pinned down.
285 pounds: Kerry McCoy
Kerry McCoy came to Penn State with the intention of winning a national title and chasing Olympic success, and he achieved both of those goals during his career with the Nittany Lions from 1993-1997.
After an up-and-down freshman year where he posted a 19-17 record, McCoy went on a run, winning the 1994 conference and national title as a sophomore with an undefeated record.He added a runner-up finish his junior season and closed his college career out on top in 1997 with another undefeated season, conference title and a national championship. His dominant performance and character on the mat in that final season earned McCoy the Hodge Trophy, an honor widely regarded as the Heisman Trophy of wrestling.
“It was a pretty humbling experience knowing that of all of the people that were wrestling that year and all of the successful accolades that people had that I was able to come away with that award," McCoy told NCAA.com when asked about winning the Hodge Trophy in 1997. "It wasn’t just about the best wrestlers record-wise, there were other characteristics that played into it.”
In addition to his three All-American honors and two NCAA titles, McCoy also earned a spot on the 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams, finishing fifth and seventh. Only two other Penn State heavyweights have won an NCAA title in Penn State history: Bill Oberly, who took the top spot in 1955, and Anthony Cassar, who captured the title in 2019.
Cassar's still writing his story as a Penn State champion, and he'll compete for both his second title and a spot on the 2020 Olympic team this spring. For now, though, McCoy's two titles and Olympic experience make him the easy choice at heavyweight.
BACK TO THE HISTORY BOOKS: These college wrestling head coaches had the best NCAA wrestling careers