After weeks of speculation and confusion from Rec Hall over whether Penn State junior Jason Nolf would be healthy enough to wrestle at the Big Ten tournament, wrestling fans got their answer.
Nolf jogged onto the green and white mat at Michigan State’s Jack Breslin Student Event Center Saturday afternoon, sporting a black brace on his right leg, spanning from mid-thigh to just above his ankle.
The bulky brace did not seem to hinder the reigning Big Ten and national champ at 157 pounds, as he pinned Michigan State’s Jake Tucker in 2:33 to mark his return with a win.
There were slight signs that Nolf was wrestling with more caution than usual in his match against Minnesota’s Jake Short in the next round. He opted for less risky moves on a couple of occasions. But overall, Nolf looked his old self, coming away with the 15-2 major decision.
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The junior was injured against Rutgers’ John Van Brill on Jan. 28, and sat out the remainder of the season, casting doubt upon Penn State’s chances at its seventh national title in eight years. Nolf’s performance in the first two matches helped restore some confidence in the Nittany Lion faithful.
Despite winning those two matches comfortably, Nolf medically forfeited out of the tournament ahead of his semifinal bout against Michigan’s Alec Pantaleo, citing precautionary reasons. Nolf beat Pantaleo 6-4 earlier this season.
“I wanted him to get enough matches that he knows he can win the national championship,” coach Cael Sanderson said. “I just didn’t think it was worthwhile (to continue). You guys saw him wrestle. Even in that second match, he started heating up as the match went along ... that’s good. He felt good, he wanted to wrestle.”
As a medical forfeit does not count as a loss, Nolf finished his Big Ten tournament with a 2-0 record and secured an automatic spot in the NCAA tournament.
Iowa’s Michael Kemerer, who was the favorite to win the field without Nolf, lost his semifinal bout to Ohio State’s Micah Jordan, further complicating things for the NCAA seeding committee. Nolf missed his shot at Jordan earlier this season as the injury kept him sidelined when the Buckeyes visited Rec Hall in February. Jordan and Pantaleo will face each other in the finals on Sunday.
Now with that question cleared up, an even larger one remains.
Will Nolf be healthy enough to contend for the national title in two weeks in Cleveland?
The best thing about postseason tournaments is that no amount of number crunching or research can ever predict exactly what’s going to happen. There’s bound to be upsets, and Saturday was no exception.
One of the most exciting upsets of the day saw Michigan’s No. 7 Logan Massa knock off Iowa’s undefeated freshman, No. 2 Alex Marinelli.
After a couple of controversial calls against Marinelli had the Hawkeye fans riled up, Massa scored the first takedown in the second period. The Wolverine looked to have the match locked up when Marinelli took him down off the mat late in the third. The call was reviewed, and the tying takedown awarded with just 20 second to go. Massa got the takedown in sudden victory to seal the deal.
To put an exclamation point on the win, Massa turned toward Iowa coach Tom Brands, locked eyes, raised his arms above his shoulders and flexed.
“All he wants to do is push and wrestle hard, and when I get him moving around, I know I’m better in every position than him and I’ll score in those scrambles every time,” Massa told Trackwrestling.
Massa wasn’t Michigan’s only upset as No. 3 Myles Amine knocked off Ohio State’s No. 2 Bo Jordan to set up a 174-pound final with Penn State’s Mark Hall.
But Ohio State had a couple of big upsets themselves, as Micah Jordan took out No. 1 Kemerer and No. 3 Nathan Tomasello avenged his regular season loss to Iowa freshman No. 2 Spencer Lee with a 2-1 decision.
Penn State freshman Nick Lee was the victim of another one of the night’s biggest upsets, when he was stunned by former PIAA champ No. 3 Mike Carr of Illinois.
“Nick had a tough loss. Making some little mistakes but things that are easy to correct,” Sanderson said. “Effort’s always good.”
A few other notable upsets included No. 6 Christian Brunner of Purdue over No. 3 Cash Wilcke of Iowa, Minnesota’s No. 9 Steve Bleise over Michigan’s No. 8 Malik Amine and unseeded Vince Turk of Iowa over No. 8 Eli Stickley of Wisconsin.
Home field advantage?
The Spartans might not have fared too well wrestling in their home arena, sitting at last in the team race with only 8.5 points and only one wrestler still alive in the consolation bracket, but it was a different story for the wrestlers from nearby University of Michigan.
Led by big upsets from Massa and Amine, the Wolverines ended their day with four wrestlers in the finals and two wrestling for third.
Michigan sits third in the team race with 100 points, just behind Penn State’s 124 and Ohio State’s 137.5.
No. 1 Stevan Micic, No. 3 Pantaleo, No. 3 Myles Amine and No. 1 Adam Coon will all compete for Big Ten championship titles on Sunday.