It was a historical NCAA tournament — and an unforgettable Saturday night — for the Penn State wrestling team.
Not only did the Nittany Lions clinch their sixth national championship in seven years, even after most doubted them when Nick Suriano (125 pounds) was forced to pull out due to an injury. Not only did five wrestlers reach the finals, surpassing expectations.
But, after all wrestling was completed, Penn State had five individual champions crowned. It tied a record for most NCAA championships with the 1986 and 1997 Iowa teams and the 2005 Oklahoma State.
Zain Retherford (149), Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (184) all won their championship matches.
“It was incredible,” Nittany Lions coach Cael Sanderson told ESPN. “I don’t have the words to describe it. These guys wrestled amazing. They are the ones making it fun. That was a lot of fun tonight.”
None were more impressive than what Joseph and Nickal achieved. Each took out two-time NCAA champions to capture their crowns.
Trailing 6-5 early in the third period, Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez tried to go upper body with Joseph. Martinez went for the throw, but the redshirt freshman used his patented inside trip to flatten Martinez to the mat in 5:25.
“He’s a phenomenal wrestler. He’s a bully on the mat,” Joseph said. “And this time I was definitely ready for that. I was coming right back at him. I’m just very thankful to be here right now. I want to thank my coaches, my family and my teammates.”
Nickal, who earned the award for the most pins in the shortest amount of time, took on Cornell’s Gabe Dean in the marquee matchup.
Dean tallied the match’s first takedown with a nice single leg. Nickal quickly escaped and scored the next three points. He fended off several Dean attempts in the third for the 4-3 victory.
Hall became just the 17th true freshman to claim an NCAA title. He overpowered Ohio State’s Bo Jordan for the crown.
Hall used a three-point second period and got another takedown late while avoiding his second stall call for the 5-2 win.
“It’s a tough tournament,” the true freshman said. “The important thing, just have fun. I told myself over and over as soon as the negative thought came into my mind, I replaced it with Jesus loves you, NCAA champion, over and over.”
Retherford kept his domination rolling in his finals match with Missouri’s Lavion Mayes.
Mayes picked up the first points with a takedown 28 seconds in — and that was all he scored.
Retherford, who was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament, used three sets of four near-fall points in the third period in scoring 18 unanswered points for the 18-2 win. It was his second consecutive NCAA title. It was Retherford’s 63rd straight victory spanning back to his fifth-place victory in 2013 — his true freshman year at 141 pounds.
“Yep,” Retherford said about being taken down first. “I’ve been taken down before. I was feeling kind of nervous a little bit, but more excited nervous. So that’s the signal it’s ‘go time.’ It’s national finals, ‘Let’s go.’ So, yeah, just focusing on keep scoring after that point, doesn’t matter.”
Nolf controlled his match with the Tigers’ Joey LaVallee from start to finish.
He tallied a takedown in the first and second periods but he ratcheted it up in the third period with four takedowns in a 14-6 major-decision win.
“Pretty excited as you can tell by my face,” Nolf said. “I’m more of a mellow, stoic kind of guy. But I was really excited scoring a lot of points out there. I still think I could have scored more. But that would just keep me ready for next year. And I’m really looking forward to watching my other teammates wrestle.”
Nick Nevills wrestled back to finish fifth with a 4-3 sudden-victory win over Duke’s Jacob Kasper at 285 pounds. Kasper knocked Nevills into the consolation bracket with a 3-1 win in the quarterfinals on Friday morning. Nevills dropped into the fifth-place match with a 5-3 loss to Virginia Tech’s Ty Walz on Saturday morning.
Penn State finished the tournament with 146.5 points — a new school record. Ohio State finished second 36.5 points behind and Oklahoma State finished third with 103 points.
“This is a great team,” Sanderson said. “Surinao getting hurt, he’s a guy who we felt had a legit chance at winning a national championship as well. This was our best dual season ever just in how we competed, and we were on the road.
“When you have a great dual season like that, you want to finish it off with a national championship, so I’m glad things worked out for us.”