UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Anthony Cassar took a lap around the mat, energizing the crowd with each lift of his arms, but also trying to figure out what in the world just happened.
"I don't know what I was doing. I was going crazy," Cassar said. "I've had a lot of ups and downs over the past few years and I envisioned wrestling like that and celebrating like that after a match in Rec Hall since I got here. It's kind of the culmination of a lot of hard work and ups and downs and it all kind of just came out at once."
And down goes No. 1 Kollin Moore at the hands of Anthony Cassar. What a moment for Cassar. Lions up 19-15. pic.twitter.com/KKplg3XJ7M
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) February 4, 2018
The Rec Hall sell-out crowd of a season-high 6,699 was at a loss for words too, bobbing up and down to the music as Zombie Nation blared and Penn State's once-slim chance at upending the No. 2 Buckeyes looked like it was coming to fruition. This was the type of momentum shift the Nittany Lions needed to swing the dual.
On paper it wasn't even a given that Cassar, a redshirt sophomore, would be on the mat for the match at 197 pounds. He said he found out a couple days ago he'd get the nod over teammate Shakur Rasheed, two wrestlers who Cael Sanderson believes could both be All-America honorees.
It was far less likely that Cassar would then upend top-ranked Kollin Moore to the tune of 6-3 to help the Nittany Lions climb out from an early 10-0 deficit and ultimately down the Buckeyes 19-18 to claim at least a share of the Big Ten Wrestling Dual Meet Championship. Penn State won four of five bouts in the second half to pull off the victory.
"These guys knew they were going to have to step it up and we were going to have to have a big match or two and Cassar and these guys -- everyone in the Ohio State lineup is really good," Sanderson said. "They're tough in every weight class. Just a great match. Win or lose, tomorrow is coming and we're going to keep improving."
It's not often the top-ranked Nittany Lions (12-0, 8-0) enter a match as an underdog, but this was, as Sanderson noted, a bit of a strange week. With a knee injury to NCAA champion Jason Nolf putting a damper on the entire week, the Lions needed a top-notch effort from everyone -- and then an upset from Cassar and a prayer from Nick Nevills who had to hang on against Kyle Snyder, the top wrestler in the world, to not drop a major decision. Nevills did just enough in his loss to help the Lions win their 43rd straight dual.
Cheering a loss was a unique sight as Nevills lost the 15-10 decision, but in doing so Rec Hall let out a howl, knowing all too well that the final score was the one fans drove from all ends of the state to watch, the type of showing that had people dishing out $200 on the secondary market for standing-room only tickets. Billed as the dual of the year -- and potentially the biggest ever in Rec Hall -- it did not disappoint.
It was expected that the Lions, outmatched in the first two weight classes, would fall behind early and then need to rely on their horses -- those like two-time NCAA champion Zain Retherford and fellow NCAA champs Mark Hall, Vincenzo Joseph and Bo Nickal -- to give the Lions a shot to make up for the deficit. When what many believed would be the deciding match of the night -- one that Penn State freshman 141-pounder Nick Lee dropped to Joey McKenna -- the need for a comeback rested on the Lions' old reliables.
And boy, did they deliver.
Retherford, who was taken down twice, said he wasn't trying to push for bonus points. He stayed the course and got the 20-4 technical fall.
"I try not to (push for bonus points) because then I find if I let the crowd or external factors or whatever get in my mind then I won't wrestle the way I want to wrestle," he said. "I just treat it like every other match and the best thing I can do is get a pin for the team. So that's what I'm trying to do."
And for Penn State, treating it like every other match usually means Joseph, Hall and Nickal follow up with their own fireworks. With a 12-3 major from Joseph over former Pitt wrestler Te'shan Campbell, a 6-3 victory for Hall against No. 3 Bo Jordan and a 10-2 major decision for Nickal over No. 2 Myles Martin, the Lions laid the foundation for a comeback that Cassar cashed in on.
So yes, even with Nolf looking on from the side on crutches, the Lions still ended the night by putting on new T-shirts celebrating their first post-season honor. Should Penn State win next Saturday night in the Bryce Jordan Center against Iowa, the Lions would win the Big Ten dual title outright.
Until then, Cassar has one heck of a memory in Rec Hall that he and the 6,000-plus fans in the stands won't soon forget either.
"We've got a lot of confidence in Anthony so I don't think we were shocked by that," Sanderson said. "Cassar is a great wrestler. Big match and he got it done."
— Penn State On BTN (@PennStateOnBTN) February 4, 2018
KUHN MAKES PENN STATE DEBUT
Carson Kuhn came to Penn State last month to experience moments like this. With the crowd on their feet at the start of the night, the Lions' 125-pounder and Boise State transfer got the nod ahead of Devin Schupp. Kuhn had to pass multiple transfer requirements and ultimately win the spot before Sanderson would give him the go-ahead.
"We knew he was going to get tired, especially going out there in that atmosphere, right," Sanderson said. "That would take a toll on anybody, but I thought he went out there and showed some of his potential. It was a great dual. Ohio State has a really great team and we'll see them again here shortly."
Kuhn was thrust out there against No. 4 Nathan Tomasello, a move that Sanderson said spoke to the senior's competitiveness. While Tomasello majored Kuhn 21-12, Sanderson saw some promise at a weight class that's been in need of relief this season.
"He could've gone to an open tournament this weekend. Edinboro had an open tournament that he could've gone to this weekend to get some matches some other way in his preparation, but he wanted to wrestle," Sanderson said. "I think that takes some courage and shows you what kind of competitor he is."
• Jason Nolf is expected to miss the rest of the duals this season as he continues recovering from a knee injury sustained last Sunday against Rutgers. As the Lions gathered on the mat for introductions the NCAA champion hobbled out on crutches to be with the team, much to the delight of the crowd. This was the first Nolf was spotted since last weekend and the crowd -- one that was already on edge headed into the night -- let out a load ovation once Nolf arrived.
James Franklin is in the building tonight. Crowd goes wild as Jason Nolf comes on the mat on crutches. pic.twitter.com/GeN2pmN5dk
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) February 4, 2018
Sanderson said Nolf is ahead of schedule and, while he is on crutches, the coach said that he is still putting weight on that injured knee.
"He fully expects to be ready to roll here soon," Sanderson said.
• Bo Pipher got the nod over Luke Gardner, taking the spot that needed to be filled after Nolf's injury and as expected, it didn't matter much who the Lions put out there against No. 5 Micah Jordan. Jordan posted a 24-9 technical fall at the 6:06 mark, which put Penn State down 15-5.
• Injured 197 pounder Matt McCutcheon had his right arm in a sling during the dual. McCutcheon has been hurt since the Southern Scuffle, which gave the spot to Rasheed, who has since likely been overtaken for the time being at least by Cassar.
"We'll talk about that as the time comes, but Cassar just beat the No. 1-ranked guy in the country," Sanderson said.
• James Franklin was in attendance again this week, sitting right next to the mat alongside athletic director Sandy Barbour. Penn State also had signee PJ Mustipher in attendance as well as five-star early enrollee Micah Parsons and linebacker enrollee Jesse Luketa.
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