UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s rare to see Nico Megaludis without a busted lip or swollen cheek or black eye or cut forehead or any combination of those superficial ailments nowadays.
At least Jody Strittmatter can’t remember a time in the past six years when he’s seen his former pupil without some type of wrestling battle scar.
“He is a warrior,” Strittmatter said of Penn State’s 125-pounder who used to wrestle for Strittmatter’s Young Guns Wrestling Club. “He’s not afraid to get his head in there and bang heads and he’s a tough kid. The awesome thing about him is he’s the perfect example of what you want a wrestler to be, the hustle, the effort, the toughness.”
On Tuesday, Penn State’s starting 125-pounder stood outside the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex with a bluish, slightly split bottom lip. Megaludis really couldn’t pinpoint what caused it and he’s not going to worry about it. He figures to incur a few more scuffs in his next bout — a rematch of last season’s 125-pound NCAA championship between the Penn State junior and reigning champion Illinois’ Jesse Delgado when the No. 11 Fighting Illini dual No. 1 Penn State in Rec Hall at 7 p.m.
Delgado won that bout 7-4 to send Megaludis to his second-straight runner-up finish and a long offseason.
“That’s something that I’ve been waiting for since March,” Megaludis said. “I just want to set the tone for the next few matches that I’ll wrestle him. I just want to set the tone now and make a statement.”
Megaludis has seemingly tried to do that with every bout he’s wrestled this season. He’s 19-2 so far and is on pace to finish with a team-best 67 takedowns. His previous high was 57 in his freshman season. Most of his offense has come in the first period where he trails only standout David Taylor’s 24 opening-period takedowns with 16.
Taylor has wrestled one more bout as Indiana forfeited to Megaludis earlier this season.
Megaludis’ prowess for aggressive starts has led Sanderson to abandon choosing different starting weights on the road. Meanwhle, he counts on coaches visiting Rec Hall to do the same in order to allow Megaludis to begin the dual at a breakneck pace.
“Knowing that he’s going to start the dual for us every time, it doesn’t get much better than that just as far as attitude and style and hustle and everything that he does,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson said he can’t remember a time when Megaludis hasn’t jogged back to the center of the mat after a reset.
Former Penn State 125-pounder and current Nittany Lion Wrestling Club member Mark McKnight was often in a similar position during his collegiate career as former coach Troy Sunderland’s lead-off grappler. But McKnight, who’s spent the last few years wrestling on the international circuit while using Penn State as his training base, said Megaludis is unlike most wrestlers he’s ever faced in terms of his competitive streak and conditioning.
McKnight, a Pan American Games champion and former NCAA All-American, sees it first hand during training sessions with Megaludis.
“I know for me, when I’m partnering up with Nico that I’ve got to make sure I’m awake and ready,” McKnight said. “Because one thing you can expect out of him is he’s going to bring it every day. That’s something that I’ve realized.”
While McKnight and Megaludis partner up once or twice a week, Megaludis also seeks out former NCAA champion and Olympic qualifier Franklin Gomez — also an NLWC member — who is also slightly bigger. Both McKnight and Gomez employ similar styles to Delgado who likes to keep his distance before closing the gap and attacking with startling quickness.
According to Megaludis, Gomez’s power and quick bursts are good simulations of Delgado’s abilities while McKnight’s funky, frenetic style has given the more traditional Megaludis valuable experience against the funky, flexible Delgado.
Recently, Megaludis has used practice sessions with McKnight and Gomez to dial in his close-quarters offense. They’ve trained with Megaludis’ looming rematch with Delgado in mind. Afterall, it was Megaludis’ inability to finish off shots that led to his NCAA finals loss in March.
Then, Megaludis landed the the first three shots but Delgado was able to force a stalemate on the first and scramble out of the second. Delgado funked out of Megaludis’ third takedown attempt and cradled the Penn State grappler up for a five-point move with less than a minute to go.
“I always think about it,” Megaludis said. “If I get irritated or discouraged because that happened when I think about it I just think about how good it’s going to feel when I win.”
McKnight said he’s noticed Megaludis’ confidence hasn’t waned despite two straight NCAA title losses. But he believes Megaludis is more humble than he was when he arrived at Penn State in 2011 after a stellar career at Franklin Regional.
“I think those are just little reminders and Nico definitely lives by that,” McKnight said. “Because he’s always doing something extra at the end of practice, just doing little things to get to what he wants to accomplish. He wants to be a national champion. He’s doing the little things that will get him there.”
That includes workouts over break with his old club coach Strittmatter.
Strittmatter began working with Megaludis during the latter’s freshman year of high school. Now, Megaludis drops in from time to time in the Franklin Regional room and spends time talking to some of the younger wrestlers.
During his break from school over the holidays, Megaludis worked out with Strittmatter to prepare for the Southern Scuffle. He also took the time to answer questions on weight training and nutrition for current Young Guns who peppered him for tips.
“He’s an example of what they want to be like,” Strittmatter said. “It’s not just talking about some kid you don’t know. This is a kid that came through the same elementary, junior high, high school program as a lot of the kids did or are coming through Young Guns. A lot of kids see him work out and see his intensity. I think it’s special for the young kids.”
Around the same time at a youth tournament, Strittmatter said he overheard a few parents of Young Guns wrestlers talking during a match that had gone into the ultimate ride out period. Soon, the conversation turned to Megaludis who, after a grueling bout as a youngster, won in the same period with a late escape.
The conversation took Strittmatter back to when he first learned of Megaludis. Even then, before Megaludis was in high school, Strittmatter took note of his non-stop motor. Strittmatter knows he’ll see it against Delgado on Friday night.
“That hustle has taken him to a new level,” Strittmatter said.
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson