The NCAA championships are just days away, and the Nittany Lions are champing at the bit to get on the mat and defend last season’s title.
Ahead of the three-day tournament in Cleveland — which starts noon Thursday — Penn State opened up the Lorezno Wrestling Complex on Monday and allowed each of their nine participating wrestlers to speak. Here’s what they had to say:
133 pounds: Corey Keener
The Central Michigan transfer is set to face a familiar opponent in the opening round of NCAAs — although he’s hoping for an unfamiliar result this time around.
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The unseeded Keener is set to take on No. 11-seed Dom Forys of Pitt, who beat him in the last two NCAA tournaments. Forys came out on top 10-2 last season and 12-6 the season before.
“I’m just going to go out and wrestle my match how I would with any other guy,” Keener said. “But it’s nice. I wrestled him before so, stylistically, I know what he’s going to do and how he’s going to wrestle. So I figure that’ll help prepare me for the match.”
141 pounds: Nick Lee
The shy true freshman was a man of few words Monday, but he did say that he planned to approach his first-ever appearance in the NCAA championships by staying loose.
His teammates have given the No. 8 seed lots of advice. And he’s learned to keep it simple.
“I’m just there to have fun and give my best effort,” he said.
149 pounds: Zain Retherford
It’s been more than 1,000 days since Retherford last lost a collegiate wrestling match. He’s the clear favorite to win the national title once again and become a three-time champ for Penn State.
But how did he land in Happy Valley anyway? The Pennsylvania native thought back to his recruitment and recalled how different the Nittany Lions’ approach was; that’s what won him over in the end.
“I guess my recruitment was different,” Retherford said. “I think the coaches were really goal-oriented. They were like, ‘How can we help you reach your goals?’ And other coaches were trying to sell me on the school, and Coach Cael (Sanderson) and the coaching staff were really focused on how we can achieve your goals as a person.”
157 pounds: Jason Nolf
The defending national champ is a No. 3 seed after winning two Big Ten tournament bouts and then medically forfeiting the rest of the way. But he said he feels 100 percent now — and confirmed it wasn’t his decision to stop wrestling at Big Tens.
“Yeah, I obviously wanted to wrestle the whole time, but the coaches made a decision to medical forfeit me, which is — they know best,” Nolf said. “So that was a good decision to keep me healthy and just to get ready to go for this tournament.”
165 pounds: Vincenzo Joseph
The sophomore just laughed when asked if he would change his preparation to NCAAs at all this season.
“No,” the defending national champ said, smiling. “After last year, I tried to keep it the same for the most part. I thought I wrestled pretty well at nationals last year.”
The No. 3 seed said the main difference this season is simply his confidence level. He didn’t expect to win nationals last season. This season?
“I kind of am,” he said. “And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I guess we’ll see.”
174 pounds: Mark Hall
Hall is a sophomore and a defending national champ. And, as if that wasn’t scary enough for opposing Big Ten wrestlers in his weight class, he said that he’s only going to get better.
Hall said he’s made a number of “all-around improvements” from last season. And he paid a lot more attention to his weight this year, as opposed to last season when he usually competed slightly underweight.
“Oh, that helps. For sure, helps,” Hall said about being heavier as a sophomore. “Walking out there with a big strong guy like I met the last day, knowing that I’m all of 175 — it’s a little bit different. ... Eating a lot healthier, putting on good weight.”
184 pounds: Bo Nickal
Nickal and the rest of the Nittany Lions have been adamant for much of the season that this team’s goal is a national championship. A conference title would’ve been a nice bonus, but it’s not what they’re after.
So, when Nickal was asked if losing the Big Ten championship to Ohio State would provide any further motivation, the junior’s response followed the same tone it has all year.
“Nah, I don’t think so,” he said. “People kind of know how the Big Ten works. There’s not very many teams, and it’s a lot different than NCAAs. So I don’t think you take the team scoring for the Big Ten tournament very seriously.”
197 pounds: Shakur Rasheed
Rasheed may have finished as the runner-up at the Big Ten championships, but he still wasn’t pleased with his performance. He said that he felt “tense” and bought into the chatter that he was supposed to be Penn State’s “bonus-point guy.”
He fell short of expectations, so he was trying to ease up this week and not worry about all that. He just wanted to have fun — which is easier said than done.
“Yeah,” Rasheed said, agreeing. “Nationals is what matters. Everything else does not compare to this. But then in a day, win or lose or whatever, nothing’s going to change. I’m still going to live my life; it doesn’t matter. So I’m focusing on that, and I’m just going to have fun.”
Rasheed paused several times throughout that explanation — in part because teammates, such as Joseph, kept making him laugh from the bleachers during the interviews. “Those guys are brutal,” one reporter jokingly told Rasheed.
“Just having fun,” Rasheed said.
285 pounds: Nick Nevills
In case you’ve noticed a change in Nevills the past few months, Nevills says you’re absolutely correct.
Around the beginning of the year, during the Southern Scuffle, the heavyweight tipped the scales at 275 pounds — but discovered he didn’t like that weight. His stamina wasn’t where it was before, and he couldn’t wrestle like he used to. So, he decided to change by working out even harder.
When he last weighed in, at the Big Ten tournament, he came in at 255 pounds — a 20-pound loss over three months.
“I just feel like I can move a little better,” Nevills said. “I feel a lot better going into the third period.”