This weekend, all eyes will be on Rec Hall for what has been dubbed on social media as the “Super Bowl” of college wrestling.
Penn State and Ohio State, which are ranked at Nos. 1 and 2, depending on the poll, will face off to determine which school has the best dual meet team in the country.
Excitement about the match has even reached the actual Super Bowl in Minneapolis, where Eagles’ offensive lineman and Penn State alum Stefen Wisniewski chimed in on Saturday’s showdown.
“I’ll be picking Penn State for sure,” Wisniewski, who wrestled in high school for Pittsburgh Central Catholic, told the Mat Talk Online podcast during Super Bowl media week on Wednesday.
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The demand for tickets inside the 6,500-seat Rec Hall has spiked prices for the few remaining seats into the hundreds.
“It’s a real rivalry,” Ohio State coach Tom Ryan told the media on Wednesday. “This is a little kid’s dream, right? This is bases loaded, World Series, bottom of the ninth, this is a lot of fun.”
It’s not hard to see why this dual meet has drummed up so much anticipation. With the exclusion of reigning national champ No. 1 Jason Nolf, whom coaches said will be sidelined for the rest of the dual season after suffering an apparent knee injury against Rutgers on Sunday, the dual is set to feature seven NCAA champs, five No. 1-ranked wrestlers, and 17 ranked in the top 20. With dual season winding down, Saturday’s match could have huge implications on seedings for the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
But despite all the hype and excitement surrounding the dual, things were running business as usual for the Penn State wrestling team inside Rec Hall on Wednesday.
“I think with this team, pretty much everywhere we go we have a great crowd and they’re ready to wrestle,” head coach Cael Sanderson said. “I mean last week at Rutgers they had their largest crowd ever, and their kids came out to scrap. It’s nothing new. It’s a big match, and we’ll have another big match next week against Iowa.”
When asked what he was excited about this week, reigning national champ at 165 pounds Vincenzo Joseph coyly rattled off: having an extra day before wrestling, only having to wrestle one match and not having to travel.
“You know, I had class all week and practice all week, so it’s just another weekend,” true freshman Nick Lee said. “Obviously it’s a big dual but we’re going to try to wrestle our best.”
Sanderson said he tries to encourage his wrestlers not to pay attention to social media and to tune out outside noise regarding the match.
But even though he deleted all his social media accounts three years ago when he committed to Penn State, junior Shakur Rasheed said he can still feel the buzz surrounding the match on campus, as people try to hit him up for tickets.
“Yeah, it’s crazy. People are in a line trying to get into this match,” he said. “Everybody’s excited. We’ve got everybody coming out — for Iowa, too; that match is going to be crazy too. But we gotta take it one day at a time.”
Rasheed, should he get the start Saturday, will be taking on the nation’s No. 1 wrestler at 197 pounds, Kollin Moore. But to prepare for the match, Rasheed said he doesn’t watch any film or really pay any attention at all to studying how Moore wrestles — he’s just concerned about how he wrestles.
“I’m going to do what I do regardless,” he said.
And what Rasheed does has been well documented — locking up the cross-face cradle, bringing his opponent’s knees to his chin and turning him on his back.
“That’s the plan,” Rasheed said with a grin. “But I’m ready for a full match, whatever it takes.”
Ohio State’s heavyweight Kyle Snyder, fresh off becoming the first U.S. man to win back-to-back Yarygin titles in freestyle wrestling (just a little something to add to his two world titles, Olympic gold medal and two NCAA championships) has repeatedly said there’s nothing he’s looking forward to more than the opportunity to beat Penn State.
“I’m excited. The individuals on the team, I’m good friends with, I’m good friends with Nolf, (Zain) Retherford, (Bo) Nickal, (Nick) Nevills, I’ve trained with those guys, Mark Hall, so it has nothing to do with the individuals, but just the team itself,” he said at Ohio State’s media availability on Wednesday. “It’s something about when you put them all together and they wear a Penn State singlet, I just want to destroy them — probably because they’re good.”
Snyder and his Buckeyes will have their shot to take down the Nittany Lions on Saturday, but unlike the Super Bowl, the winner of this match will not have the final say.
The two teams will meet again March 3-4 at the Big Ten championships and March 15-17 at the NCAA tournament, where the national champion will be determined.
So sticking to sports metaphors, Saturday will just be be Game 1 of the World Series.