UNIVERSITY PARK — Zain Retherford’s head will tilt upward and he’ll watch as Penn State’s third-straight NCAA championship banner is raised to the Rec Hall rafters on Sunday.
He’s hoping he’ll have a hand in earning the team its fourth straight title this season.
So far, the true freshman has made a pretty good case for an extended stay in No. 1 Penn State’s lineup at 141 pounds.
In the first two dual-meet bouts of his collegiate career Retherford outscored his opponents 22-7 and earned a major decision. Overall, he’s 7-0 with two majors, a technical fall and two pins. Those totals could increase on Saturday as Penn State hosts Lock Haven at Rec hall where Retherford will likely face sophomore Dan Neff who is 7-2 on the season.
“Zain is a very solid individual, very grounded and humble as far as knowing what he needs to do to get better. But also just tough as nails. Very, very tough in all positions,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “He’s just going to get better with each match. He’s scoring points, points are coming easier and easier for him. He’s a guy I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with him over his career.”
Retherford is still taking everything in. Although he arrived on campus over the summer, he still isn’t used to the fanfare that comes with wrestling for Penn State. His first dual-meet bout was televised to a national audience and fans who trekked to Lawrenceville, N.J. or Bethlehem for the team’s first two duals blew Retherford away.
He’s never been asked to sign as many autographs.
“Seeing all these little kids come up to you after the match, the fanbase is just amazing, honestly,” Retherford said.
He’s looking at his current experiences with some added perspective. Two years ago, Retherford was banned from competing during his junior year of high school after the PIAA determined he transferred from Line Mountain to Benton for athletic purposes.
While Retherford’s camp denied that was the only reason, he and those close to him couldn’t get the decision overturned. So Retherford sat out. Instead of wrestling in duals or tournaments with his Benton teammates, Retherford helped coach them from matside or helped them warm up and cut weight.
When they went to tournaments, Retherford hit up a clinic. In the offseason, Retherford traveled to Azerbaijan and won a gold medal at 63 kilograms in the FILA Cadet World Championships.
“Taking my junior year off gave me a lot of respect for the sport and just opportunities in general,” Retherford said. “I had an opportunity taken away from me my junior year. It made me real grateful for the opportunities I do have and it made me a lot more appreciative of the sport. A lot more hungry for every time I compete.”
Ed Ruth is in a similar situation to what Retherford faced his junior season. Ruth is banned from competing until at least Dec. 12. In the meantime, Ruth traveled with the team last weekend in order to help them prepare.
Retherford sought his help right away.
“Starting off at Rider, I got off the bus, wrestled with Ed to lose some weight,” Retherford said. “He’s a real exciting guy. He’s a lot bigger than me obviously but he’s fun to wrestle.”
Penn State (2-0) thumped Lock Haven 42-3 last season. Lock Haven (2-2) fell 23-12 against Rider on Friday.