UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State’s bus will roll up to Michigan State’s Breslin Center on Saturday morning, marking the beginning of championship season and the start of a busy weekend.
The Big Ten conference will have 80 qualifiers for NCAAs, plus any at-large bids. The Nittany Lions’ sights are set on a team title, qualifying one wrestler for NCAAs per weight class and of course bringing home some individual titles by the time Sunday's championships roll around at 3 p.m. (and air live on the Big Ten Network).
Penn State’s seeding for the tournament is as follows, while the entire bracket can be found here:
No. 1 seeds
• Zain Retherford (149 pounds)
• Mark Hall (174)
• Bo Nickal (184)
No. 2 seeds
• Nick Lee (141)
• Jason Nolf (157)
• Shakur Rasheed (197)
No. 3 seeds
• Vincenzo Joseph (165)
• Nick Nevills (heavyweight)
Corey Keener (133) is the N0. 6 seed while Carson Kuhn (125) is No. 14.
While the real prize is the one that’s up for grabs March 15-17 in Cleveland, Penn State hasn’t qualified all 10 wrestlers since 2013, a remarkable feat after they pushed nine through to NCAAs in 2016.
“Last year we didn’t get the team title (at Big Tens) and our goal is to go in there and win it,” Retherford said this week. “Our main goal is NCAAs and what happens there. This is a stepping stone and we want to go into everything wanting to win, but at the end of the day NCAAs are our main goal.”
1) NOLF A NO-GO OR NOT?
Jason Nolf already met the NCAA qualifying standards so he doesn’t need to wrestle this weekend to punch his ticket to Cleveland.
However, the reigning NCAA champ will be on the mat, according to Cael Sanderson, but whether or not that’s on the mat to take the medical forfeit or on the mat to compete remains murky. Nolf hasn’t wrestled since the Rutgers dual where he sustained a knee injury on Jan. 28.
Cael Sanderson with an injury update on Jason Nolf, who he said is ready to go for Big Tens. pic.twitter.com/Wr7SstLdAY
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) February 28, 2018
"He wouldn't wrestle if he wasn't cleared to go," Sanderson said this week. "I don't know if I can tell you that type of stuff, medical information, but he's cleared and ready to go."
When Nolf met with reporters later on that afternoon he said he was unaware that he’d been cleared. Penn State didn’t wrestle injured Nick Suriano last year as he took the medical forfeit as they wanted to give him more time to rest ahead of NCAAs.
Cael Sanderson said Jason Nolf will wrestle. Nolf’s response after getting taped up for practice: pic.twitter.com/r65K9EjfWJ
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) February 28, 2018
Sanderson said this situation will be different though. We’ll see if that's strategy or honesty.
“A month off was good for him to heal, but I know he’s been champing at the bit to get back so I’m excited for him to compete,” senior Zain Retherford said. “Should be fun.”
2) COULD RASHEED BE NEXT IN LINE FOR A CONFERENCE TITLE?
Yes. One would be hard pressed to find a more easy-going personality in the wrestling room than that of Shakur Rasheed, but with that cross-face cradle of his it’s very possible that Rasheed could storm his way to a title.
His brute strength and versatility – something he’s showcased at Penn State where they’ve tried him out at various weight classes ranging from 165 pounds to 197 during the career – should make him a fun tournament watch, too.
“I think he’s shown that he can compete with anybody,” Sanderson said this week. “I think there’s some very good wrestlers in the weight class, but I think Shakur’s planning on winning and he’s got a great chance at doing that.”
The "cradle master," as Sanderson called him, has frustrated numerous wrestling partners on the team up until this point, with many of them finding out the hard way just how strong he is. Heck, even Sanderson recalled driving six hours each way to watch Rasheed compete in high school, only for him to then pin his opponent in about seven seconds.
That’s just what he does.
“The first time I wrestled him this year he beat me down pretty good,” said Penn State's Mark Hall, the reigning NCAA champ at 174 pounds. “So then after, I kind of realized I got to get my head out of my butt and wrestle a lot smarter than what I did. It’s a lot better now, but that first time, he’s got a weird style. … He’s just really good at wrestling.”
And he’s a bit freakish with his strength too. Teammates are convinced his left forearm muscle is massive because of that cross-face cradle. Sometimes they too can’t believe how he’s able to control his body on and off the mat.
“His true freshman year I remember we went over to south campus, I didn’t really know him too well, and there’s this big fence right by the volleyball courts,” Retherford recalled. “We played volleyball together as a team, and he just had surgery on his one shoulder and he climbed it — he scaled the fence with one arm! It was impressive, it was like, ‘I can’t believe he just did that.’”
3) KUHN HOLDS KEY FOR NCAAs
Whether or not Penn State can produce 10 NCAA qualifiers – and thus have the best shot as repeating as NCAA champs -- will largely come down to the 125-pound weight class where Carson Kuhn, the No. 14 seed, will have the chance to push for a spot in Cleveland.
Kuhn, who revived his wrestling career by enrolling at Penn State in January because Boise State cut their program, said he’s unsure how many wins he would even need this weekend to get through. He didn’t want to think about it either.
“That’s not really something we dwell on,” Sanderson said. “I don’t think that’s something we need to talk to him about. His goal is to go and do the absolute best he can. It’s not to squeak by and barely qualify.”
Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello, Rutgers’ Nick Suriano, who was limited in February, and Iowa’s Spencer Lee – the likely favorite – will make life difficult in that bracket. Tomasello got the major decision against Kuhn last month in Happy Valley when Kuhn made his Penn State debut. That's where his tournament will start. Kuhn’s fight during the match impressed Sanderson, which at least gives the Kuhn something to work off of.
4) WHAT’S LEFT FOR RETHERFORD TO PROVE?
Most would say Retherford, who is aiming for his third Big Ten title to go along with two NCAA titles has more than proven himself as one of the best – if not the best – in the country.
As his remarkable collegiate career comes down to the final two competitions, Retherford is still hungry for more.
“I always look forward to this time of year and the postseason is just kind of the time to go out and see how all the work you put in throughout the year pays off,” he said this week. “Past experiences have been great and I’m looking forward to it this time around for sure.”
Still, with Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen the top competitor in the weight class and plenty of familiarity between the two as Retherford is 5-0 against Sorensen, Retherford isn't taking anything for granted.
“At this point we’ve wrestled each other so many times that we’re familiar with what each other is going to do," Retherford said. "Every match is a new match, but I think it’s a good thing to have in your mind just a guy who is kind of pushing you that way, but the main things I kind of think about in practice are how can I push myself and the things I want to add.”
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