“I’ve always said Pennsylvania is the best wrestling state,” Yatesboro native Jason Nolf said Tuesday.
Credence will be added to the Penn State junior’s words Sunday when intrastate rivals Penn State and Lehigh go head to head, for the 106th time in their combined history, in front of nearly 9,000 in Allentown’s PPL Center.
Out of the 20 probable starters for both teams, 14 — including four national champions — are from Pennsylvania.
The combination of the historic in-state rivalry, two national championship contending teams, the caliber of individual talent and the chance to watch local wrestlers compete on the big stage has made the annual Penn State vs. Lehigh dual a big draw across the state.
Data from Vividseats.com on Saturday revealed the cheapest price to get into the dual was $63, which was more expensive than the cost to get into either the Penguins or Flyers NHL games that day.
“Having success draws attention,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “Anytime there’s competition, it’s exciting for everybody. It should bring out the best in us, and it’s going to bring out the best in them. We expect their best.”
The statewide interest in the dual between the No. 1-ranked Nittany Lions and the No. 5-ranked Mountain Hawks has prompted both schools to look for bigger venues to host the annual matchup.
Last year’s dual sold out the Bryce Jordan Center with more than 15,000 in attendance, and Sunday’s match at the home of Lehigh Valley’s minor league hockey and arena football teams will be able to hold about 3,000 more fans than Lehigh’s Stabler Arena.
“When you look at the numbers, we’ve had the third, fourth or fifth largest dual meets ever,” Sanderson said. “Being able to sell out the BJC, especially with a team outside the Big Ten, speaks for itself.”
Although the interest in the Penn State vs. Lehigh match is broad, there’s no denying the effect it has on Pennsylvania youth wrestlers when they see someone like Zain Retherford, who grew up on a farm in Benton, dominate on the mat and have the type of success the reigning Hodge Trophy winner has had throughout his collegiate career.
The groups of youth wrestlers from throughout the state, walking around the concourse at last year’s BJC dual wearing jackets or sweatshirts with names of their high school or wrestling club were hard to miss.
Retherford himself said that as a youth wrestler, he looked forward every year to the Penn State vs. Lehigh dual.
“Pennsylvania is one of the toughest sates in the nation for wrestling, and you have two powerhouse teams wrestling each other,” he said. “I know when I was young, I wanted to come see that kind of stuff.”
Going from growing up watching Penn State vs. Lehigh matches to participating in them is something Lehigh coach Pat Santoro knows a thing or two about.
In his 10th season as head coach, the Bethlehem native said he’s always been a “Pennsylvania guy.”
“I was going to go to Penn State,” he said about his decision to wrestle for Pitt in college. “I changed my mind last minute and a lot of people don’t know that. I just have a lot of ties to Pennsylvania schools.”
Santoro said he believes the annual Penn State vs. Lehigh dual helps retain talented high school wrestlers in the state as they pursue their collegiate careers.
“I think Pa. is so rich in tradition with wrestling that you can actually stay home and wrestle and have a lot of really good options. I think kids just want to do that,” he said.
Pennsylvania has long been a hotbed for college wrestling recruiting, and those recruits are seeing success on the national stage.
In 2016, Pennsylvania led the country with 63 national qualifiers in the NCAA tournament. This year, Pennsylvania boasted five national finalists and four champions — in Penn State’s Nolf, Retherford, Vincenzo Joseph and Lehigh’s Darian Cruz, who beat his former elementary school foe Ethan Lizak, wrestling for Minnesota, for the title.
As teams like Penn State and Lehigh continue to have success on the national level, the NCAA has responded by selecting more eastern venues to host national tournaments, in what has long been a Midwest-dominated sport at the collegiate level.
The NCAA tournament came to New York City for the first time in 2016, and before that, 12 of the previous 13 national tournaments had been held at Midwest venues — the lone exception being Philadelphia in 2011, where Penn State won its first title under Sanderson.
This year’s tournament will be hosted in Cleveland, Ohio, followed by Pittsburgh in 2019.
As momentum for college wrestling is picking up on the East Coast, efforts to attract more fans, such as Rutgers vs. Maryland outside in a football stadium and the Air Force dual on an aircraft carrier, are increasing. But Sanderson said that ultimately, the success and growth of college wrestling depends more on the quality of the product.
“A lot of times, people come to a Penn State wrestling match for the first time and find out it’s a lot different than what they expected. It’s intense but it’s also fun, and they get hooked,” he said. “Any time you can give people the chance to get out there and see great wrestling is definitely a positive.”
And having this weekend’s dual at the PPL Center, which Santoro said sold 7,000 tickets in just three days, will give more people the chance to witness just that.
“A lot of people are excited about it, and there’s a lot of talk about it everywhere you go,” Santoro said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to go out and see some great wrestling.”
No. 1 Penn State (3-0) at No. 5 Lehigh (4-0)
When: 2 p.m., Sunday
Where: PPL Center, Allentown
Radio: ESPN Radio 1450
125: Devin Schnupp (1-5)
No. 5 Darian Cruz (6-0)
133: No. 18 Corey Keener (5-0)
No. 3 Scotty Parker (7-0)
141: Jered Cortez (7-0)
Luke Karam (5-2)
149: No. 1 Zain Retherford (7-0)
Jon Mele (2-3)
OR Cortlandt Schuyler (2-3)
157: No. 1 Jason Nolf (7-0)
Ian Brown (5-2)
165: No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph (3-0)
No. 15 Gordon Wolf (4-2)
OR Cole Walter (2-2)
174: No. 2 Mark Hall (8-0)
No. 5 Jordan Kutler (7-0)
184: No. 1 Bo Nickal (7-0)
No. 4 Ryan Preisch (6-0)
197: No. 11 Anthony Cassar (6-1)
OR Matt McCutcheon (4-2)
Jake Jakobsen (5-1)
OR Chris Weiler (2-2)
HWT: No. 3 Nick Nevills (8-0)
No. 14 Jordan Wood (5-1)
OR Christian Colucci (1-0)
Potential starters from Pa.
Devin Schnupp, Lititz
Corey Keener, Schuylkill Haven
Zain Retherford, Benton
Jason Nolf, Yatesboro
Vincenzo Joseph, Pittsburgh
Matt McCutcheon, Apollo
Darian Cruz, Allentown
Scotty Parker, Sellersville
Cortland Schuyler, Lancaster
Ian Brown, Hanover
Cole Walter, Millmont
Ryan Preisch, New Columbia
Jake Jakobsen, Sciota
Chris Weiler, Biglerville
Jordan Wood, Gilbertsville