The Big Ten tournament is just days away, and Penn State wrestling is intent on making a statement before moving on to nationals.
Ahead of that two-day affair, the Nittany Lions opened up Lorenzo Wrestling Complex to the media Wednesday and allowed nine of their 10 starters to address reporters. (Shakur Rasheed was not made available.) What are their mindsets heading into this weekend, and what did they have to say?
Here are the highlights from every Penn State wrestler:
125 pounds: Carson Kuhn
Kuhn has battled quite a bit to make it to this point of his collegiate career.
There’s been injuries, the elimination of the wrestling program at Boise State, delays in his transfer to Penn State — but, Kuhn said, those obstacles are finally gone. And, for the first time in a long time, he feels pretty good.
“My body feels good, and that hasn’t been the case for a lot of my career,” he said. “But it feels good now.”
He’ll need at least two wins in the Big Ten tournament to move on to nationals. So a healthy Kuhn is a definite plus for the Nittany Lions.
133 pounds: Corey Keener
The Central Michigan transfer may be 1-6 against wrestlers ranked within the top 40 this season, but he said he’s still feeling “very confident” about the Big Ten tournament.
After all, he fell to No. 14 Scott DelVecchio of Rutgers in a close 6-2 bout and lost a nail-biter to No. 8 Luke Pletcher of Ohio State 5-4. He’s shown he can hang in with some elite opponents, and he’s been learning about his weaknesses this season while coach Cael Sanderson has tried to shore them up.
“It seems I’ve worked a little bit on hand-fighting and closing the gap and getting the ties that I like to get, rather than holding in ties that my opponent might like,” Keener said. “We focused after Minnesota and Rutgers about getting better on bottom. That’s huge in close matches, so really focused there the past month or so. I think I made some good adjustments.”
141 pounds: Nick Lee
As a true freshman, Lee will experience the Big Ten tournament for the first time this weekend.
Luckily for him, he’s been learning from the best.
Lee spends a lot of practice time rolling around on the mat with Zain Retherford, who’s seeking his third individual conference title.
“He’s one of the best in the world, so there’s a lot I can learn from him,” Lee said.
In particular, Lee said wrestling with Retherford has helped him improve his conditioning. For Retherford’s part, he’s particularly looking forward to watching the young grappler compete this weekend.
“Nick Lee’s a great kid,” he said. “I think he brings a great attitude. He has fun with it and is pretty lighthearted, but when he steps on the mat, it’s go time.”
149 pounds: Zain Retherford
The two-time national champ and reigning Hodge Trophy winner has a long list of accolades — he’s just two falls away from setting the all-time Penn State pins record — so what does he think about the Big Ten tournament?
After all, a national championship is the ultimate goal. So does this weekend’s tourney ultimately matter?
“Last year we didn’t get the team title and our goal was to go in there and win it,” he said. “But I think the main goal is NCAAs and what happens there. I think this is a stepping stone. But we want to go into everything wanting to win — but, at the end of the day, NCAAs is our main goal.”
Retherford also keeps his Big Ten trophies somewhere in his bedroom, “but I don’t really like displaying trophies or anything. There’s always something new to strive for.”
157 pounds: Jason Nolf
There still isn’t 100 percent certainty on whether Nolf will actually wrestle Saturday.
Sanderson may have said Nolf will wrestle, but Nolf appeared to potentially contradict his coach about a half-hour later Wednesday. When asked how long he’s known he’ll be able to compete in the tournament, Nolf said, “I didn’t know that was happening yet either.”
We won’t know for sure until Saturday what’s really going on here. But teammates said Nolf has been eager to get out on the mat.
“I know he’s a competitor, so I know he’s hungry to get out there,” Retherford said. “I know a month off was good for him, he got to heal, but I know he’s been champing at the bit to get back.”
165 pounds: Vincenzo Joseph
Joseph has taken his fair share of criticism and Twitter insults since twice missing the inside trip, getting head-locked and put on his back — against Iowa’s Alex Marinelli and then Buffalo’s Noah Grover.
When FloWrestling tweeted out the missed trip, Joseph jokingly responded, “*deletes social media.” But Joseph said Wednesday he’s not about to abandon that move at the Big Ten tournament.
“I think it’s kind of funny; I’m really not too worried about it,” he said. “I’m still going to do what I do and, if I can go upper-body, I’m going to. I’m not going to stop doing it because I lost twice out of however-many-times there.
“After the Buffalo match, I kind of sat there and thought about it for a minute. And I was mad because the match didn’t really go the way I wanted to. ... And I just thought about it — and I’m not going to change what I’m doing.”
174 pounds: Mark Hall
After losing in overtime to Ohio State’s Bo Jordan in the finals of last year’s Big Ten tournament, Hall hasn’t looked back.
The sophomore has gone undefeated since that loss, including two wins over Jordan — one being for the 2017 national championship.
Going into his second conference tournament, Hall said he’s made adjustments since last year and hopes to come out with the win.
“Last year, I think I just let a few things get to me, and it really got me tired in the finals,” he said. “So it’s just making sure I’m wrestling smart throughout, and not putting too much pressure on myself. Just staying smart and having fun.”
184 pounds: Bo Nickal
Despite having wrestled twice before at the Big Ten tournament, Nickal said he still experiences nerves.
“It’s an important tournament, and I want to do my best,” he said. “And I think that if you want to do your best at something, you’re going to get a little bit nervous about it, no matter what it is.”
Nickal, who will be seeking his second conference title after coming up short last year in the semifinals, said he’s developed a mindset to help manage those nerves.
“I’m more so just focused on doing my best and giving a 100 percent effort, rather than focusing on the result,” he said.
197 pounds: Shakur Rasheed
After a monthslong battle with teammate Anthony Cassar for the starting spot at 197, Rasheed was named last week as the wrestler to represent the Nittany Lions in the postseason.
And now that the decision is final, Sanderson said Rasheed is ready and focused on making some noise.
“I think he believed that he was going to be the guy; I think he’s very confident,” Sanderson said. “I think as soon as he sort of figured out how to wrestle the weight class, and went to the (Southern) Scuffle and had the success that he’s had, he’s really been wrestling well.”
As for Cassar, Sanderson said the decision has been tough for the sophomore, but he’s still staying ready and conditioning in case something were to happen and he’d be called up.
“He’s had a great mentality, as tough as it is — and he’s been hurt the past two years and it hasn’t fazed him,” Sanderson said. “So something like this, it’s painful and it’s tough, but Cassar’s a team player and he understands.”
Heavyweight: Nick Nevills
Nevills will wade into a loaded weight class Saturday, as he prepares to take on some of the nation’s top heavyweight wrestlers.
Sitting on top of the field are No. 1 Adam Coon of Michigan and No. 2 Kyle Snyder of Ohio State, both considered locks for the conference and national tournament finals.
But Nevills, who earned the No. 3 pre-seed, isn’t letting any of that faze him in his effort to capture a title in one of only four tournaments he’s ever wrestled in that he says he hasn’t won.
“The Big Ten tournament is pretty dang tough and it’s one of those things where I think anybody could win it; at any weight class, you have four or five guys deep,” he said. “So it’s pretty exciting, and I’m really looking forward to wrestling in it.”