Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said during Wednesday’s press conference that everyone would see how his team would respond to the loss of Nick Suriano.
It was like a sleeping bear was awakened.
The Nittany Lions moved five into the finals and took a strong grip on the team race. They lead the field with 121 points, 31.5 points ahead of current runner-up Ohio State. It is very similar to last season’s tournament — where they cliniched the team title before the championship matches were wrestled.
Zain Retherford (149 pounds), Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (184) all reached the finals of their respective weight classes.
“Overall, we’ve been loose. I think maybe our freshmen were a little tight, but they also had tough matches,” Sanderson said. “Vincenzo had a tough match every match of the tournament. Mark Hall had a tough match all the way through the tournament. We have two freshmen in the finals. That’s what it takes. And they did a great job.”
Nick Nevills (285) clinched a spot on the podium, but Jimmy Gulibon (141) and Matt McCutcheon (197) each came up one win short.
Joseph and Hall used gutsy performances to secure their finals’ spots in their NCAA debuts.
Joseph led Michigan’s Logan Massa 2-1 late in the third period. Massa went to get the winning takedown with his upper body. Joseph countered with his own upper-body strength and planted Massa to the mat in a 4-2 win. Joseph will now get a third shot this season at Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez.
“I feel pretty good right now,” the redshirt freshman said. “I feel like I wrestled tough so far. Another big match (Saturday night), but looking forward to it.”
Hall was in a similar situation as Joseph. Hall led the top seed in Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia 3-2.
It came after a takedown was waived off for Valencia, but a penalty point was awarded to Hall for Valencia grabbing the headgear. Valencia went for a takedown with an upper-body tie-up and Hall countered, stuck Valencia on the mat and held on to win 5-4. Hall gets a rematch with Ohio State’s Bo Jordan.
“I’m just happy to be here. This is an awesome tournament,” the true freshman said. “I remember watching it when I was a kid. Heck, my junior year in high school, two years ago, I was here watching the big rounds. Penn State is doing really well. We’re having a lot of fun. We’re 5 for 5 in the finals, so I think that’s the most important thing to us.”
In the back hallway of the Scottrade Center, Retherford rushed to get his clothes back on saying, “I just want to keep sweating.”
Retherford said that with good reason, as he kept his domination on the field rolling by pinning Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen in 2:37 to reach the finals. He will take on Missouri’s Lavion Mayes.
“I felt I had a secure lock on it. I felt like I had his chin,” Retherford said. “I just had a position where I was looking for back points or getting the fall. As soon as I adjusted, I heard the ref say, ‘30 seconds.’ I was like, ‘I think I have enough time to do it.’”
Nolf took on a Big Ten foe in Nebraska’s Tyler Berger in the semifinals. Nolf had no problems with the Cornhuskers’ wrestler as he cruised to a 13-5 major decision.
Nickal took on Iowa’s Sammy Brooks in the semifinals. Just like he did in Iowa, Nickal took Brooks to his back and pinned him in 1:01. He wasn’t surprised with the results.
“I’m always looking for the fall, looking and trying to score some bonus points for my team,” he said. “But I just go out there and wrestle, and that’s the way it went.”
Nickal takes on Cornell’s Gabe Dean in a matchup of the country’s top-2 wrestlers all season.
Nevills wrestled his way back to the consolation semifinals by topping Pittsburgh’s Ryan Solomon 2-0 and Minnesota’s Michael Kroells. He will face Virginia Tech’s Ty Walz.
McCutcheon fell into the consolation round after suffering a quarterfinals loss. He fell to Nebraska’s Aaron Studebaker 13-2 and was eliminated.
Gulibon tallied a late takedown in the first period to hold a 3-2 lead over North Carolina State’s Kevin Jack. Jack responded with a takedown of his own in the third period and fought off a heart-filled effort of Gulibon for the 6-4 win.
Gulibon finished his Penn State career as a one-time All-American in 2015 at 133 pounds.