Penn State coach Cael Sanderson doesn’t want to live in the past.
In his eyes, the Big Ten tournament happened. The Nittany Lions didn’t win. And it’s time to move on. It’s time to eye the ultimate prize at the NCAA Wrestling Championships, which run from Thursday to Saturday in St. Louis, Mo.
“The Big Ten tournament is different than the national tournament, which is different from the dual meets,” Sanderson said during Monday’s media day. “I don’t think we wrestled terribly at the Big Ten. We could’ve wrestled better at a couple weights.
“We want to win the national championship. That’s the goal; that’s the big picture.”
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So what if Ohio State had six Big Ten tournament finalists to Penn State’s three? What does it matter if only Zain Retherford (149 pounds) and Jason Nolf (157) won the conference title? No matter what happened two weeks ago, this team said its runner-up status at the Big Tens wouldn’t stop them from finishing first on the national stage.
“I think our team has a chance to do something special this weekend,” junior Matt McCutcheon said.
But to avoid another disappointment, and to find success at nationals, bonus points will be key for the Nittany Lions.
Last season, five of Penn State’s nine qualified wrestlers reached the finals at nationals — and all five collected bonus-point wins at some point. This season, there are some parallels as the Nittany Lions once again technically boast nine qualified wrestlers. But instead of consistent forces like David Taylor, Ed Ruth and Nico Megaludis, Penn State has to rely on a few wild cards — such as freshmen Mark Hall (174) and Vincenzo Joseph (165) — while finding a way to make up for the absence of Nick Suriano (125), who won’t wrestle due to an injury.
“The team has, to fight for every point,” Sanderson said. “We have guys who can score bonus points. They just have to be looking for it. We have guys who have to win big matches. Bonus points are huge, but big wins in the quarters and semifinals are bigger.”
Penn State has at least three wrestlers who can consistently pick up those bonus points. Retherford gave the team an extra boost in 20 of his 23 wins this season — in 16 pins, three technical falls and one major decision. Bo Nickal (184) had just four matches where he didn’t score any bonus points, one of which was his lone loss in the Big Ten semifinals to Ohio State’s Myles Martin. And Nolf, well, he’s come up empty in just two matches, both to Iowa’s Michael Kemerer.
And he’s still disappointed.
“I could have gotten more bonus points in the finals,” Nolf said, referring to his 8-2 decision over Kemerer in the Big Ten finals. “I don’t know if I pinned everybody else, but I’m looking to pin everyone. Until I do that, I’m not really satisfied.”
But it’s not those “hammers,” those consistent veteran forces, that fans of the Blue and White should wonder about. It’s the freshmen who carry the question marks. After all, this is their first trip to the NCAAs.
Joseph has nine bonus-point victories, and two of his four losses came against Illinois’ two-time NCAA champ Isaiah Martinez. And Hall showed he can wrestle with anyone when he had Ohio State’s Bo Jordan, the Big Ten’s No. 1, on the ropes.
“He’s a gamer,” Sanderson said, referring to Hall. “And this is the big game. His goal is to win the nationals — and to win as a freshman.”
That’s the kind of mentality these Nittany Lions need moving forward. Sanderson knows there’s no room to look backward, so this team is looking forward — to potentially adding another national title to the trophy case.
Where: Scottrade Center, St. Louis, Mo.
TV: Night sessions ESPN (17); Morning sessions ESPNU (272)
Radio: 1390 WRSC-AM