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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | February 16, 2022

Leader of the Falls: How the nation’s top NCAA wrestlers work to dominate and pin their opponents

Miraculous turnaround ends with stunning pin in 2002 NCAA wrestling title match

Maryland’s King Sandoval has led the country in falls for the last four weeks, but the 133-pounder said this result has been nearly a decade in the making. 

FALL STANDINGS: Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4

“I’ve been wrestling ever since I was 6 years old, and people ask me if I’m always looking for a pin or if that’s all I’m looking for, and it’s really just a part of my wrestling style,” Sandoval told NCAA.com. “Throughout the years that I’ve been wrestling I’ve developed a skill set of moves that I’ve been trying to perfect especially in college now, and, over the time of development, they just transition into one another, and if the pin is there, I take it.” 

The pin, also known as a fall, is the most highly-rewarded result in college wrestling and occurs when “any part of both shoulders or part of both scapulae of either wrestler is held in contact with the mat for one second.” This outcome immediately ends a bout, with the winning wrestler earning six points for his team. 

Of Sandoval’s 14 wins, 12 have come by fall.

This kind of record puts Sandoval on pace with previous national pin leaders, and, he’s the top contender, at the moment, for the Schalles Award, the distinction bestowed upon the wrestler with the greatest number of pins at the end of the season. Former winners of this award in the last five years include NCAA finalist Jaydin Eierman, All-American Ben Darmstadt, three-time NCAA champion Bo Nickal and three-time NCAA champion Zain Retherford, all impressive company.

Retherford spoke with NCAA.com back in 2019 about the value of pins and the importance of embracing enthusiasm and gratitude in the process of fighting for wins. Sandoval has a similar approach. 

GRATITUDE: How a mindset of appreciation helped elevate Penn State greats Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal to success

"[I'm] just thinking about going out there and visualizing doing my moves and having fun with it," Sandoval said. "It’s a fight all the time, it’s going to be battle."

His fight and grittiness have paid off, as he's one of just five wrestlers to have exceeded 10 pins, including North Dakota State’s Owen Pentz, South Dakota State’s Tanner Cook, Bloomsburg’s Josh Mason, Binghamton’s Anthony Sobotker and Air Force’s Wyatt Hendrickson, but Sandoval said he's not tracking this statistic. Instead, he’s just focused on wrestling his match and looking for points where he can score them. 

The Maryland senior said his ability to translate his Greco-Roman skills onto the folkstyle mat, particularly his strength on his feet and his ability to hand fight, has enabled him to secure wins with such exciting style and flash, though earning these wins at the college level took time. 

Sandoval’s transition from a successful four-time state finalist and three-time champ in high school — and National Prep award winner for the most falls in the least time in 2018 — to a college leader has not been an easy one, and he’s navigated lineup battles, coaching changes, weight class moves and more. He started his varsity career with a 10-18 record at 133 pounds before posting an 0-3 result at 125 pounds last season. Up at 133 pounds this year though, Sandoval is over .500, and when he's is on, he’s really on. 

“There are always going to be bigger guys in the weight class, people cutting more weight, a lot of talented people, people with more experience, better technical areas, more technically sound than me, and that shouldn’t have to affect the way that I approach a match,” Sandoval said. “I’m always going to approach a match the same way. I’m just going to go out there and wrestle my best and do what I know.”

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In his first three matches of the season, Sandoval put all of his opponents on their backs, ending each of those bouts before the fifth minute. After a couple of losses to Garett Lautzenheiser, Brian Courtney and Micky Phillippi, Sandoval was back to his pinning ways, topping Deon Pleasant and Drake Doolittle with first-period falls. Two more pins over Jackson DiSario of Stanford and Tommy Maddox of Buffalo at the Southern Scuffle brought Sandoval up to seven falls on the year, but his most memorable and exciting result would come two weeks later. 

Facing off against Brendon Fenton of Kent State and Brayden Palmer of UT-Chattanooga at the Virginia Duals, Sandoval pinned them both in the same day, with the latter result being a notable ranked win that gave him added confidence heading into the Big Ten schedule.

“These guys are here to fight, they are here to battle, they are just as focused as you are,” Sandoval told NCAA.com when asked about his ranked competition. “In order to see success, especially in the development of my wrestling, I need to keep chipping away at what I know.” 

Pins against Gabe Vidlak, Noah Gochberg and Devon Britton have helped Sandoval hit the 12 pins mark, but he’d like to exceed that. Sandoval said he wants to make this season “something to remember” and continue to put Maryland wrestling on the map every time he takes the mat. 

The other pinners on this list, though, have similar goals. Josh Mason of Bloomsburg is the latest athlete to earn at least 10 pins, and his two falls over the weekend against Hunter Olson and Louis Newell helped him reach double digits. A consistent pinner throughout his career, Mason also held down a spot on the list of top athletes with the most falls back in 2020, and he’ll certainly be someone challenging to stay near the front of these standings. For now though, Sandoval leads a competitive pack that includes Pentz, Cook, Mason and Hendrickson. 

THROWBACK: Taking a look at who led the pin race back in 2020

Air Force’s sophomore heavyweight, Hendrickson, is one of just two ranked heavyweights other than Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson to remain undefeated on the year, and he wasted no time in establishing his record as someone looking for the fall this season. He's now racked up 11 Division I pins and counting and is pushing Sandoval for that No. 1 spot. 

Back in December, Hendrickson took down his first opponent of the year, Samuel DeSeriere, in the first period and put him on his back immediately. He then soared through the Southern Scuffle with pins over Peter Ming, Brayden Ray and Lewis Fernandez along with a major decision win against Brandon Metz and a tech fall over Zach Schrader. Those wins, Hendrickson said, renewed his belief in himself and assured him that he could put up big points against opponents all of the country.

"It was a great confidence booster to start the season," Hendrickson said. "It was a good thing for me. I was like 'if I can be dominant in this tournament, I can be dominant throughout the rest of this whole year,' so that's what I've been trying to do."

This dominance streak continued after the Scuffle, as Hendrickson crushed the competition at the David Lehman Open, pinning all five of his opponents in less than four minutes each.

Tyrell Gordon of Northern Iowa slowed down this heavyweight machine ever so slightly, holding Hendrickson to just a decision win, but the Falcon sophomore turned right around and pinned Sam Schulyer of Iowa State to reset his dominant momentum and flex his muscles against another ranked conference foe. Much like Sandoval, Hendrickson said he isn't always going out on the mat looking for the pin, but he finds ways to score by wrestling his match.

'What I'm able to do is reduce my nervousness and wrestle smart, and I can catch people when they are bamboozeled," Hendrickson said. "I don't start going crazy, I can stick to my guns, and I can go out there and wrestle the way I want to wrestle. I'm using skill, taking advantage of their weaknesses and pinpointing that for a quick 10, 15 seconds and putting them on their back."

Hendrickson's strength as a wrestler comes from his intellect and his ability to stay sharp in a match to find his positions. He's a student of wrestling and sports in general, someone who chooses to read books about mental toughness as a way to maximize his potential on the mat. In fact, Hendrickson said he recently read Mind Gym on the suggestion of his teammate Dylan Martinez, and he thinks fans will see a new wrestler on the mat this postseason — a wrestler who competes with fearlessness and knows how to push for wins at his pace.

In his first season with the Falcons, Hendrickson nearly put himself on the podium at the national tournament but dropped a tough 6-3 decision to Trent Hillger of Wisconsin in the Blood Round to just miss out on earning a trophy as a freshman. Now back with a strong sense of determination, Hendrickson is ready to fight for that elusive All-American honor. 

None of the top five pinners in the country have finished the year on the podium, though four of the six athletes who lead the country in technical falls — any match in which one wrestler earns a 15-point advantage over his opponent — have placed top eight at the NCAA tournament with one, Yianni Diakomihalis, winning his weight class outright in 2018 and 2019. Pinning an opponent requires a little more funk than just overpowering them, and Sandoval, Hendrickson and their fellow fall leaders have proven they have that unique skill. The big question is now how well they can translate that ability into a national legacy in March. 

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