What makes a team dominant? Cael Sanderson gives his take on that and more ahead of NCAAs
Coming off its first Big Ten title in three years with a program-record 157 team points, the Penn State wrestling team is headed to Pittsburgh this week as heavy favorites to win their eighth national championship in nine years.
Between getting one last workout in before hitting the road to NCAAs, Penn State’s nine qualifiers took time to talk to the media at the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex about their preparation, expectations and more.
Here’s what each of them had to say:
133 pounds: Roman Bravo-Young
2018-19 record: 21-4
NCAA seed: No. 10
Roman Bravo-Young, a true freshman, had a confession to make Monday afternoon.
He acknowledged he was “scared to lose” at the Big Ten tournament, when he lost twice and finished fifth. And he’s intent on making sure that’s not the case again at NCAAs.
“I think I hold back a little bit,” he acknowledged. “But, now, there’s nothing to lose. Everything’s on the line, so I’m just going to go all out. Been training hard; I was really motivated taking fifth last week.”
Bravo-Young appeared tentative at times at Big Tens, giving up a stall point against Iowa’s Austin DeSanto in the consolation semifinals and flirting with at least one other stall point. But he’ll have an early chance to make amends at NCAAs.
As long as RBY wins his first-round match Thursday, he’ll almost certainly face DeSanto again in the second round. (DeSanto will square off against No. 26-seed Codi Russell from Appalachian State in the first.) And Bravo-Young said he’s already moved past his performance two weeks ago.
“It’s easy to move on,” he added. “It’s just wrestling. You got to go with a clear mindset. This is a whole new tournament, whole new crowd, and this is a much bigger stage. So just go out there, have fun, score points. Nothing to lose.”
141 pounds: Nick Lee
2018-19 record: 27-2
NCAA seed: No. 3
A year after getting pinned in the first round of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, sophomore Nick Lee thinks he’s a bit wiser this go-round.
“This year, I just know what to expect, what the crowd’s going to be like, kind of how guys are going to wrestle that first round,” he said. “I think guys wrestled pretty hard in that first round. Just knowing what you’re going to feel out there is important.”
After that first-round loss last year, Lee battled all the way back through seven matches to finish fifth — three places higher than his original seed. Lee has said throughout the season that, while he certainly doesn’t like to lose, he treats losses as a valuable opportunity to expose his weaknesses and get better.
For that keep-moving-past-losses mindset, Lee credits a certain experience he had as a youth wrestler back in southern Indiana. At about 5 or 6 years old, he got upset after losing a tournament match and started to cry.
“I think someone came over and said, ‘Stop crying, you have more matches.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not done wrestling? Nice,’” he recalled with a smile. “You’re there to wrestle, and if you lose a match, you’ve got more matches. So there’s good and bad to it.”
149 pounds: Brady Berge
2018-19 record: 18-3
NCAA seed: No. 12
Brady Berge, a redshirt freshman, knows exactly where he went wrong at Big Tens — and he’s going to make sure he doesn’t make the same mistake again.
Two weeks ago, Berge placed fifth in the conference tournament after a medical forfeit. He showed hesitation changing positions, and he’s worked on not stopping this time around.
“I was stopping a little bit at Big Tens, and they were beating me in positions because I stopped wrestling,” a healthy Berge said Monday. “And I’m going to change that, and I think the outcomes of the matches will change.”
Berge acknowledged his stopping wasn’t an isolated issue. Even before the season officially started, he said there was a bout where he committed the same mistake. “But I’m going to fix it in this coming weekend,” Berge added.
The Minnesota native said it was “a little nerve-wracking” competing at Big Tens. But, entering his first NCAA Championships, he’s trying to take a more relaxed approach.
“I just feel like I need to be myself,” he said. “And if I’m not myself, I’m not going to compete as well as I can.”
157 pounds: Jason Nolf
2018-19 record: 26-0
NCAA seed: No. 1
Jason Nolf has a longer list of accolades than just about any other college wrestler in the nation. But the senior two-time national champ has often deflected any talk of Penn State’s pin record and wrestling’s Heisman in the Hodge Trophy.
Why? Nolf offered a heartfelt reason Monday afternoon.
“I just think when you start to focus on external awards — if you look at why we wrestle, we don’t wrestle it to go out and win awards that other people make up,” he said. “We do it because we love wrestling, and we started wrestling because we love wrestling and we love what it offers.
“I think when you start to focus on the media and social media, it becomes a distraction and it’s going to take away your focus from what you’re really focused on — and that’s just going out there and hitting your moves and focusing on what you can do.”
Nolf has half-jokingly boasted about his prowess at Monopoly, dodgeball and video games. But never the Hodge nor the pin record. (He currently holds the school record at 59 total pins, with Bo Nickal right behind him at 56.)
“I’m not worried about that stuff,” Nolf said matter-of-factly.
165 pounds: Vincenzo Joseph
2018-19 record: 23-1
NCAA seed: No. 2
For the third year in a row, Vincenzo Joseph came home from Big Tens without an individual championship trophy.
The junior saw his perfect season snapped when he lost 9-3 to Iowa’s Alex Marinelli in the finals at Williams Arena on March 9. Yet losing at Big Tens has never stopped Joseph so far from going on to win the national title.
“I think he’s OK with being at his best at the nationals,” head coach Cael Sanderson said. “And I think that’s kind of the plan, and his plan.”
Even though he’s done it twice before, the Pittsburgh native said putting a heartbreaking loss behind you in less than two weeks isn’t easy.
“It’s not easy to sit here and think, ‘Oh, Big Tens, it’s over with, on to another tournament,’ and just forget about it and pretend it didn’t happen, because it did happen and it’s in the back of my mind,” Joseph said. “It motivates me a little bit, but it helps me understand, too, that wrestling’s just a sport.”
He added: “Of course I hate losing, no one likes to lose. But at the end of the day, it’s just a sport and you have the rest of your life.”
174 pounds: Mark Hall
2018-19 record: 26-0
NCAA seed: No. 1
This may be Mark Hall’s third trip to NCAAs, but the Minnesota native said he’s more excited than he’s ever been — and for good reason.
He’s in the zone right now.
“I feel like I’m wrestling the best of my career right now,” he said. “I just feel like these last couple matches, events, I brought my best wrestling. So I’m just excited to keep it going.”
Hall hasn’t lost since last year’s NCAA finals match, in an 8-2 decision against Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia. He beat Valencia in a rematch this season, 4-0, in December. And Hall has now won 63 of his last 64 bouts.
This season, Hall started to say he’s bringing the same approach to the national tournament. But then he stopped himself — because that wouldn’t be entirely true.
“In years past, I think I just really tried to relax these last couple weeks,” he said. “But, this one, I’ve just got all this pent-up match energy. I really am ready to go; I’m really excited for this tournament.”
184 pounds: Shakur Rasheed
2018-19 record: 18-0
NCAA seed: No. 2
Shakur Rasheed said everything that Penn State fans wanted to hear Monday.
Although he’s still planning on wearing his bulky knee brace for nationals, he was able to practice Monday. Compare that to last year, when he didn’t get a single practice in between Big Tens and NCAAs.
“I’m already ahead of last year,” Rasheed added.
Rasheed medically forfeited in the Big Ten finals two weeks ago for “precautionary” reasons, according to coach Cael Sanderson. And, somewhat ironically, the No. 1 seed on the opposite end of Rasheed’s NCAA bracket just so happens to be Ohio State’s Myles Martin, whom Rasheed would’ve faced in the Big Ten finals if he didn’t forfeit.
But Rasheed wasn’t about to think about a potential matchup there, and he doesn’t feel as if he has anything to prove against Martin. He just plans to stick to his strengths, not get ahead of himself and be a “scoring machine.”
“I got four matches to get to the finals, and that dude got four matches to get to the finals,” Rasheed said. “He’s a great competitor, and I think that’d be a fun match. But the Big Ten isn’t my — I’d love to win a Big Ten title, but nationals is what matters.”
Rasheed added, regarding NCAAs: “I’m going to leave it all out there and hope the result comes in my favor, which I 100 percent believe it will.”
197 pounds: Bo Nickal
2018-19 record: 25-0
NCAA seed: No. 1
Bo Nickal has been looking forward to the NCAA tournament all season long, and now that it’s finally here, he says he’s ready to go.
But, he said, his senior season might’ve gone by a little quicker than he would have liked.
“I feel like this season has gone by faster than any of the years before,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy how fast it went, honestly.”
The NCAA tournament is certainly nothing new for Nickal, as a two-time champ and three-time finalist. Headed there for the fourth time, Nickal said the excitement never fades.
“You only get to wrestle in the national tournament four times, if you’re lucky. This will be my fourth time, and that’s it,” he said. “I just want to make the most of it, and regardless of whether I’ve (already) wrestled the guys or not, I hope that I can go out there and focus on giving 100 percent of my effort and just enjoying it, because at the end of the day, that’s all I can ask of myself.”
285 pounds: Anthony Cassar
2018-19 record: 25-1
NCAA seed: No. 2
Anthony Cassar pulled off the biggest win of the Big Ten Wrestling Championships last week when he took out freshman phenom Gable Steveson, of Minnesota.
But having lost earlier in the season to Big 12 champ Derek White, of Oklahoma State, the seeding committee gave Cassar the No. 2 seed. That means Cassar will now likely have to face Steveson again in the semifinals before getting the chance to take on White in the finals.
None of that, however, fazes the Rocky Hill, N.J., senior.
“Personally I would like to wrestle them both just to leave no doubt that I’m the best heavyweight in the nation,” he said. “With these seedings, it looks like that may happen, so I’m grateful for that. If it doesn’t, I just want to be the champ ether way; so I don’t really care what happens.”
Despite being a fifth-year senior, between injuries and losing his starting role last season, this is Cassar’s first round in the postseason. After coming away with the Big Ten title, he’s not off to a bad start.
In fact, Cassar said the win over Steveson helped boost his confidence.
“Yeah, definitely just get that postseason started off strong, and I’m ready to go,” he said. “That was an awesome experience, awesome crowd, and it was good to get postseason tournament feel. So I’m ready to go.”