ST. LOUIS — Penn State’s NCAA wrestling tournament began with a major loss. The Nittany Lions did almost nothing but win after that.
Two days after learning one of their most explosive wrestlers wouldn’t be able to compete due to an injury, the Nittany Lions pulled away from the field to clinch the team title before the finals even began. Then, they went 5 for 5 in individual championship matches as three vaunted veterans were joined by two freshmen atop their respective championship podiums on Saturday night.
Zain Retherford (149 pounds), Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (184) all won titles to lead the Nittany Lions to their sixth team championship in seven years and seventh overall.
“I don’t think I even have words to describe that,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “It was unbelievable. I’m so happy for those guys. They wrestled amazing. They did it.”
They did it without 125-pounder Nick Suriano who withdrew from the tournament a day before it began with an ankle injury. There was plenty of firepower left in the lineup, however, as Penn State won 35 of 41 combined matches and earned bonus points — critical to the team race — in 21 bouts. The Nittany Lions finished with 146.5 team points. Ohio State was second with 110 and Oklahoma State third with 103.
Most of those bonus points came from Retherford, Nolf and Nickal who dominated their divisions for seven technical falls, five pins and a major decision.
Joseph picked up the last bonus point win when he shocked two-time champion Isaiah Martinez to spoil the Illinois wrestler’s shot at a third-straight title. The two locked up chest-to-chest and Martinez tried to trip Joseph to the mat. Joseph got the leverage, however, and flattened Martinez for a pin in 5:26.
“He’s a phenomenal wrestler,” Joseph said. “He’s a bully on the mat. And this time I was definitely ready for that. I was coming right back at him.”
Nickal, the runner-up last season at 174 pounds, also broke up an opponent’s run at a third title when he outlasted Cornell’s Gabe Dean 4-3.
Retherford pulled away from Missouri’s Lavion Mayes 18-2, Nolf overpowered Missouri’s Joey Lavallee 14-6 and Mark Hall became just the 17th true freshman NCAA champion with a 5-2 win over Ohio State’s Bo Jordan.
Two reigning Olympic medalists capped perfect seasons with finals wins. Missouri’s J’den Cox, who won bronze in Rio, won his third championship with an 8-2 win over Minnesota’s Brett Pfarr in the 197-pound championship and Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder, a gold medalist, beat Wisconsin’s Connor Medbery 6-3 for his second straight title.
Cox became Missouri’s first three-time champion and collapsed to the mat to contemplate the accomplishment before the referee raised his hand. He wants to play football and continue wrestling internationally.
“I hope to become a stepping stone for someone else to come through and break that,” Cox said. “I want somebody else to come through and win four. I want someone to come through and do unimaginable things and things which I could only dream of or I couldn’t even dream of, and I want to watch that.
Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil (141) won a second championship with a 6-3 win over Virginia’s George DiCamillo. Heil used first- and third-period takedowns and some crafty defense to frustrate DiCamillo.
Lehigh’s Darian Cruz (125) pulled away from Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak with a big third period. The shorter Cruz chose neutral in the third period to steer clear of Lizak’s riding abilities and struck with two takedowns to win 6-3.
Iowa’s Cory Clark (133) won his first title in his final collegiate bout. Clark gutted through a shoulder injury that forced him to miss multiple matches earlier this season to snag a go-ahead takedown with 1:20 to go. He then held Gross down and held on for a 4-3 win.
“Did I ever think it was going to get done? I thought if it wouldn’t have got done it would have been a disaster because that was my goal as a senior in high school,” Clark said. “And each year I didn’t accomplish that it hurt me inside. So to get it done this year is incredible. It means a lot.”