Although he's repeatedly declined to talk about his legacy as a collegiate wrestler, it's getting increasingly difficult to ignore what Zain Retherford has accomplished.
On Tuesday, the Penn State senior was named the WIN Magazine/Culture House Dan Hodge Trophy winner as the nation's top collegiate wrestler for the second consecutive year.
With the honor, Retherford joins David Taylor as the only two Nittany Lions to be multiple Hodge Trophy winners, and he becomes the first in Penn State history to do so in back-to-back years. Only former Missouri wrestler Ben Askren and Nittany Lions' coach Cael Sanderson can say they've won the Hodge in consecutive seasons.
He edged out teammate Bo Nickal as well as Arizona State's Zahid Valencia and South Dakota State's Seth Gross for this year's trophy.
Retherford had said earlier in the season that although winning another Hodge, the equivalent to football's Heisman, would be "cool," it wasn't something he dedicated much thought to.
"It's out of my control, really," he said before his last home dual. "The only thing I can control is my effort each match. And I think a few years ago I had done that — put too much emphasis on the Hodge and other things — and I started wrestling worse as a result. So it's kind of in the back of your mind and you know those things kind of happen if you're approaching the sport the right way."
As a three-time national champ with a career record of 126-3 and now as a two-time Hodge winner, it appears Retherford has been approaching the sport the right way.
And wrestling fans agree, as Retherford captured the fan vote, which automatically gave him two first-place votes. In all, he captured 35 of the 48 first-place votes. Nickal came in second with six first-place votes.
“To win the award that symbolizes dominance in college wrestling two years in a row means a lot to me. It’s awesome,” Retherford said on Tuesday. “Coming into college my first year, I really wasn’t that dominant. I would ride just to ride and would squeak out a few wins. Throughout wrestling at Penn State, I learned to look for more points and expand matches a little bit.”
Named for Hodge, a three-time national champ from Oklahoma who never gave up a takedown and pinned 36 of 46 opponents, the Hodge Trophy awards the nation's most dominant collegiate wrestler.
Criteria used by the formal group of past winners, media and retired coaches to determine the Hodge winner includes record, number of pins, dominance on the mat, quality of competition, past credentials, sportsmanship/citizenship and heart.
The Hodge criteria, when applied beyond this past season to Retherford's entire collegiate career, helps put into perspective his dominance in college wrestling.
Although Retherford himself doesn't like to think too much about his legacy or dwell on his past accomplishments, the numbers speak for themselves.
Although Retherford was one of only three NCAA Division I wrestlers to finish their 2017-18 seasons undefeated, the true extent of Retherford's domination can be seen through his overall career record.
The four-time All-American finished his career with a 126-3 record — including a perfect 59-0 in duals — along with three undefeated seasons, three Big Ten titles and three NCAA championships. His last loss came as a freshman in the 2014 NCAA consolation semifinals to Edinboro’s Mitchell Port, a Bellefonte native. Since then, he's won 94 straight bouts.
The 94 consecutive wins ties Retherford with legendary wrestler and coach Dan Gable for the third-longest winning streak in college wrestling history, according to unofficial stats compiled by longtime sportswriter Jason Bryant, topped only by four-time national champions Pat Smith of Oklahoma State (98) and the undefeated Sanderson of Iowa State (159).
Retherford passed current Maryland coach and fellow Hodge winner Kerry McCoy's 88 straight wins at the Big Ten tournament in the beginning of March to own Penn State's individual winning streak record.
"He's a monster; he's much better than I was," McCoy told the CDT at Big Tens. "I mean, the way he's dominating through these past couple years, making the world team, all that stuff, he's just doing all the stuff he set out to do. The difference for him is that he bonus points his way through it.
“I won 88 straight matches, but I might have had 30, 40, 50 bonus-point wins, but he's in the high 70s. So not only is he winning, but he's winning in a dominant fashion — and that's awesome for wrestling."
Number of pins and dominance on the mat
As the winner of the past three NCAA Most Dominant Wrestler Awards, Retherford's numbers leave little doubt about his dominance on the wrestling mat.
This year, Retherford earned an average of 5.19 out of six points per match, with 17 pins, five technical falls and four major decisions.
The next closest to Retherford in the NCAA’s Most Dominant Wrestler standings was Nickal, with an average of 4.81 team points per match.
After his true freshman season, only Ken Theobold of Rutgers, B.J. Clagon of Rider, Anthony Collica of Oklahoma State, Brandon Sorensen of Iowa, Troy Heilmann of North Carolina and Ronnie Perry of Lock Haven were able to hold Retherford to a decision.
The closest Retherford had come to getting beat was last January against Sorensen at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, when he was pushed into sudden victory overtime and eked out a 9-8 decision.
Though the next time the two met, in the NCAA semifinals, Retherford put him on his back. It's that pin that Retherford says was his favorite of his career.
With a fall over Maryland's Alfred Bannister in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Retherford tied Taylor and Josh Moore for Penn State's all-time pin record with 53.
"I think as far as the way Zain wrestles, I’d say he’s aggressive and he’s not afraid to put his opponents in some pain in order to get the fall," Moore said. "I think he’s kinda hard-nosed and just aggressive, and just trying to work really hard to get pins. I think a lot of times, people would rather get pinned than be in pain."
Quality of competition/best matches
For someone who had been highly favored to win almost every match, you have to go way back in his career to find a big win.
The one that stands out, even more than his three national championships, was his upset win as a true freshman over eventual four-time NCAA champ Logan Stieber of Ohio State. As Retherford secured the final takedown in sudden victory to knock off the No. 1 wrestler in the country, the home crowd erupted into cheers applause so loud it shook the rafters of Rec Hall.
Since then, Retherford has made even his big matches look easy, defeating Sorensen by major decision in the 2016 NCAA finals and earning a tech fall over Missouri's Lavion Mayes in the 2017 finals. Lock Haven's Perry gave Retherford his closest finals bout, holding him to a 6-2 decision.
This season, Retherford tallied seven wins over top-10 opponents: Northwestern's Ryan Deakin, Ohio State's Ke-Shawn (twice), Sorensen (twice,) Oklahoma State's Boo Lewallen and Heilmann. Perry made the finals as the No. 15 seed.
Sportsmanship and heart
Although this category can't be as objectively measured as pins and dominance, speaking with Retherford's teamates and coaches leaves little doubt about his dedication to the sport and the effect he has on those around him.
From his days as a scrawny, undersized youth wrestler who drove 70 miles with his parents every summer to Ken Chertow's training camp in Boalsburg, to a three-time national champion, Retherford's coaches and teammates have all praised his "laser-like focus" and leadership.
"He’s just got a really intense focus," Chertow said. "He's clean liven and just very respectful and humble, and yeah, I felt that he would do great things as he progressed."
Nittany Lion teammate Nick Nevills said he tries to jump into Retherford's group whenever he can while doing circuits, because Retherford's work ethic inspires Nevills to push himself harder. Freshman Nick Lee said that with Retherford as his training partner, he's been learning from "the best," and has improved in all areas, especially with conditioning
"I wish I would have had more time with him as a teammate," sophomore Mark Hall said. "He's just a really hard worker and he's tough mentally, physically. He's just someone you want to put yourself around."
Lauren Muthler: 814-231-4646, @lmuth1259