Nittany Lions claim seventh wrestling title under Sanderson

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State's hopes of continuing a remarkable run of NCAA team titles came down to the wire, but in the end it was a familiar sight for the wrestling world as Cael Sanderson's Nittany Lions hoisted the team trophy.

"Hey, that's expected. That's what we do at Penn State," an amped-up Bo Nickal (184) told the crowd in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena after he pinned Ohio State's Myles Martin in the first period to secure his second NCAA title. With the pin came Penn State's team victory over the Buckeyes, marking the Nittany Lions' seventh team title in eight years.

"You come to Penn State, you win big matches, you win team titles," Nickal said.

Nickal screaming into the microphone in celebration after Sanderson lifted him up on the mat in front of the crowd of 19,776 was the ending to a season where Penn State -- the lone team to ever return five national champions -- started as the favorite and again lived up to the billing. The end result to the team race that left the usually stoic Sanderson overcome with emotion: Penn State 141.5, Ohio State 133.5.

"My mind is kind of mush right now. It's just about getting what we wanted to get out of this weekend and going and getting it. It's up to us, it's up to each individual," Sanderson said during the ESPN2 broadcast. In his nine seasons at Penn State, the Nittany Lions have seven NCAA team titles, 20 individual NCAA titles and five Big Ten crowns. "We're not afraid to lose. If we want to go win another national championship, if these guys want to go be an All-American, be a national champion, then they have to go and earn it. They have to go score points, and it's up to them to do it and they did it."

While Ohio State, winners of the Big Ten, headed into the finals with a 6-point lead, Penn State's Fab Five put on a show yet again, going 4-for-5 in the finals with victories from Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf, Vincenzo Joseph and Nickal. With five wrestlers in the finals for the second straight year and with the Buckeyes advancing just Martin and Olympian Kyle Snyder, who won his third straight title, Penn State's night still turned into a nail-biter of a team race as bonus point machines Retherford and Nolf were victorious but didn't pick up bonus points.

Penn State's work in the consolation round Saturday afternoon helped the Lions add valuable points in the team race. Shakur Rasheed (197) and Nick Nevills (285) both finished seventh to take home All-America honors, while true freshman Nick Lee (141) finished his first NCAA tournament in fifth place.

While that helped Penn State trim the deficit, it was when Quicken Loans Arena was transformed for the finals and Retherford took the mat that marked the beginning of a wild night for the Lions. But, it was also the final time that Penn State would roll out these same five wrestlers.

Retherford, the lone senior of the group, had been the catalyst the past two seasons, getting things rolling for the team while one after another NCAA champ would follow. It's a feat that perhaps will never again happen in college wrestling as five wrestlers from the same school jogged out, one after another, in the finals in back-to-back years. While Penn State didn't go 5-for-5 this year like they did last, for the past two years, that dominant stretch of champions has been Penn State's luxury and the envy of everyone else.

Retherford, the top seed at 149, faced an in-state showdown during his final collegiate match as he went up against 15-seed Ronnie Perry of Lock Haven. Perry was Lock Haven's first finalist in 21 years and, to his credit, kept Retherford reined in much better than most. Still, the Zain Train, as he's been known in Happy Valley, won 6-2, securing his third national title in as many years. The four-time All-American's three national titles ties him for most in program history with Ed Ruth.

"It was the last time I got to wear this singlet and the last time I got to represent this school, so I just have so much to be grateful for and that's what I was thinking about," Retherford told ESPN2.

The victory was Retherford's 94th straight win, a streak that dates to his first trip to NCAAs as a freshman. He became an All-American, and that would be the only year he didn't finish the season with a national title.

As he has done throughout his career, Retherford continued to set the tone for the rest of the night.

Nolf, overcoming the banged-up knee that forced him to miss the final month of the season, continued the Lions' run in the finals with a 6-2 victory over Hayden Hidlay of N.C. State. The win at 157 pounds, complete with two takedowns, an escape and more than a minute of riding time, marked Nolf's second NCAA title in as many years, and it was his third finish as an All-American.

With another year of eligibility remaining, the former Kittanning standout will have a chance to chase history and potentially join Retherford and Ruth in the record books next year.

Nolf won't be the only one chasing history next season. Vincenzo Joseph (165), last year's national champ and this year's No. 3 seed, faced nemesis Isaiah Martinez of Illinois. In what many expected to be the match of the night after Martinez beat Joseph two weekends ago for the Big Ten title and Joseph beat him last year in St. Louis in a stunner, Martinez looked spent.

Trying to become the first three-time NCAA champion in Illinois' history, the rematch of last year's national title match yielded the same winner as Joseph, a sophomore from Central Catholic in Pittsburgh, was a dominant 6-1 winner to claim his second NCAA crown.

Joseph, much like he did last year when he got the pin, took advantage of the early scramble, and this time it led to an opening takedown that set the tone. He added a two-point near fall, picked up a penalty point and added an escape to beat Martinez and end one of the top wrestling rivalries.

"He made me better every single day, and I'm sure he'd say the same thing in the practice room," Joseph told ESPN2 of their rivalry. "We both feel like we know each other's strengths and weaknesses pretty good, and it's so good for a wrestler to compete against someone like that who is so good."

The lone blemish on Penn State's otherwise-perfect night came at 174 pounds. Last year's champ, Mark Hall, whose emphatic win Friday night got him into the finals, was dethroned by top-seeded Zahid Valencia of Arizona State. Hall, a sophomore, beat Valencia last year at NCAAs, and while Sanderson said he was pleased with how Hall wrestled all weekend, that match -- an 8-2 loss and Hall's only loss of the season -- will likely be one that sticks with him forever.

But, by the end of the night and shortly after Nickal was lifted in the air in celebration by Sanderson, it was Hall who was the first wrestler out on the mat to congratulate his teammate. Without Penn State getting all five through to the finals, this team title that continues the Penn State wrestling dynasty wouldn't have happened.

And this particular team title gave Nickal quite a bit to talk about.


• Six of the NCAA finalists hailed from Pennsylvania. Former Franklin Regional High Schooler turned Iowa freshman, Spencer Lee, took home the national title at 125 pounds. All of the Pennsylvania ties certainly could make for quite the showing at next year's NCAA finals at PPG Paints Arena.

Imagine the crowd's response for Nolf and Joseph especially should they reach the finals yet again? One has to think Penn State wrestling fans will be out in full force with NCAAs happening just a few hours down the road.

• Former Nittany Lion Nick Suriano lost in the finals to Lee. Suriano became Rutgers' first NCAA finalist.

• In addition to the team title, four individual titles and eight All-Americans, the Nittany Lions left Cleveland with additional accolades. Retherford won the NCAA's Most Dominant Wrestler award for the third year in a row. Nickal, whose tournament was capped with the pin in the finals, was named the 2018 NCAA Championship's Outstanding Wrestler. Sanderson took home the NWCA Tournament Coach of the Year award.

• As is the case with most dynasties, there seemingly is always more coming in the pipeline. Keep in mind Penn State redshirted Brady Berge this year, and he won four state titles in Minnesota while losing just one match during his high school career -- which just happened to be an injury default. Penn State recruited him projecting that he'd wrestle at 149 pounds, thus making him a prime candidate to replace Retherford.

• The finishes for Rasheed (seventh) and Lee (fifth) are promising signs for the program moving forward as both made their tournament debuts. Now, getting wrestlers in at the lower weights will be the focal point, since the heart of the roster -- Nolf, Joseph, Hall and Nickal -- all have eligibility remaining. Add Lee, Rasheed and Nevills, and it leaves the Lions three weight classes to figure out.

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