The wrestling room at Kittanning High School doubled as Jason Nolf’s personal classroom.
Nolf put himself through daily 6 a.m. workouts there before school started and raced down to hit the mat during study halls. Many times he was the only wrestler waiting for his coach for preseason sessions. The extra training was part of his routine at school every day, feeding his insatiable desire to learn.
He studied different moves, practiced them thousands of times and never stopped asking questions.
“Jason is that once-in-a-coaching-lifetime experience,” said Brandon Newill, his coach at Kittanning. “Kids like him don’t come around very often because even if they are as talented as he has become, sometimes they lack the drive or sometimes there are other things pulling at their attention.”
Nolf is now considered a one-of-a-kind wrestler at Penn State, where he’s left fans in awe with his creativity on the mat — the product of his dedication to the sport and his ability to think differently than most people. Nolf set himself apart with his enthusiasm when he arrived at Penn State and developed into a national champion at 157 pounds last season. This year, the junior has been dominant, going 7-0 with a team-high seven pins heading into the Nittany Lions’ dual with Lehigh on Sunday.
“You don’t compare kids, but he’s unique in that you probably won’t see anybody like him any time soon,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “He’s special.”
His high school physics teacher offers similar glowing praise for her former student.
Deborah Snyder — who had Nolf in her classes three years in a row — said he treated his schoolwork like wrestling. She knew about his 6 a.m. workouts and learned he was also a perfectionist in the classroom. He took three physics classes with Snyder, including an independent study of physics using calculus to complete mechanical engineering projects and solve problems.
In his three years in Snyder’s classes, he earned the top grades to win the Physics Award.
“I can’t even explain his inner-drive,” Snyder said. “It’s just something that you don’t see very often. He really pushed himself. I can honestly say, he was just one of my favorite kids to be around. I loved his attitude. I loved his drive to be the best. It’s so rewarding to teach a kid like that.”
Nolf thrived in the classroom and in wrestling by turning everything into a competition.
Newill said Nolf’s training regimen — he sometimes worked out four times in one day — was “unheard of” for a high school kid. Nolf started every day training alone at 6 a.m. in the Kittanning wrestling room. He worked with two different clubs in addition to the high school team. When Newill first took the job at Kittanning, Nolf received one-on-one instruction from his new coach during preseason sessions. Newill showed Nolf why he would use certain moves in certain situations, sparking the young wrestler’s thought process.
Questions followed over the years — from asking about how to react to an opponent’s move to wondering about hand placement — as Nolf tried to learn everything he could.
Newill said Nolf became a “student of the sport.”
The reigning national champion takes the same approach in the Nittany Lions’ wrestling room — it’s how he comes up with different moves to try.
“I think just trying to be creative and just trying to learn from every single situation that I’m in in practice,” Nolf said. “It translates into my matches, so that I know what to do when I’m there.”
Newill first saw Nolf’s knack for improvisation on the mat during his junior year of high school. Right before his quarterfinal match in the state championships, Newill showed him how to utilize an arm drag against an opponent skilled at controlling wrists and arms. Nolf never practiced the move. He saw it once before he took the mat, then executed it perfectly. His coach could only laugh, stunned by what he just saw.
“You see that now,” Newill said. “People say he’s making up moves. There’s no such thing. You can’t make up a move, but you can develop a new way to move a body.”
Nolf didn’t waste any time putting on a show this year. In the team’s season-opening win over Army, he used what he called “the secret move” for his first pin. When asked in the post-match press conference if he had ever utilized that move before, he said it may have been the first time.
Those unique moves are the result of experimenting with different things in the wrestling room. That’s how he learns, how he continues to push himself in college. And he’s not afraid to try something new during matches.
“I don’t really think too much while I’m wrestling,” Nolf said. “I just kind of act.”
He’s been fun to watch for Sanderson, his teammates and Nittany Lions fans.
Snyder, his high school physics teacher, even recently re-subscribed to DirecTV, so she could watch him wrestle on the Big Ten Network. There’s only two years left to see her former student star on the national stage of his sport in college.
But like his high school coach and teacher at Kittanning still easily recall their days working with Nolf, his Penn State coach believes he’ll be part of conversations long after his Nittany Lion career ends.
“He’s going to be somebody that people will talk about, I would say, as long as college wrestling’s around,” Sanderson said.