‘I wake up as a national champion,’ Cassar says after winning first title
For the fourth straight year — and the eighth time in nine seasons — Penn State is the NCAA wrestling champion.
Much like four years ago when the streak began in New York, the Nittany Lions had the title secured Saturday morning — before the finals took place. The way the finals finished was somewhat similar.
Penn State had three of its five finalists lock up NCAA individual titles in Jason Nolf (157 pounds), Bo Nickal (197) and Anthony Cassar (285) on Saturday evening.
“I’ll just say we’re very happy and proud of this team,” coach Cael Sanderson said. “Some great competition individually and team-wise. Being able to win a national championship is very special and something that we’re excited about. We’re also excited about the future and happy that our seniors got to go out on top.”
The Nittany Lions finished with 137.5 points, which was nine points shy of the all-time mark for the program at 146.5 points. Ohio State was the runner-up with 96.5 points.
Here’s a look at how all seven Penn State All-Americans finished Saturday at the NCAA Championships:
133 Pounds: Roman Bravo-Young (No. 10 seed)
Tournament record: 4-3
Recap: Bravo-Young knew what he was in for when he took on Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak (No. 6 seed) for seventh place.
“I knew it was going to be hard to get out of bottom,” RBY said. “I’m beat up. My body is hurt. It was my seventh match. I’m exhausted.”
Lizak has a nickname of “The Backpack” because of his strong ride game. The Golden Gopher put it on display, amassing 2:57 in riding time in an 8-5 decision over RBY.
Still, Bravo-Young came out strong by scoring the first points of the match with a takedown 27 seconds into the first period. Once Lizak got an escape and a takedown, that’s when it changed. RBY’s only other points in the match were a reversal and a stall point in the 8-5 decision. For the true freshman, finishing eighth and experiencing the NCAA Championships for the first time is now a motivating factor.
“A lot of people doubted me because I’m still young,” he said. “Some people don’t think I have the strength. I proved a lot of people wrong, but that’s not where I want to be. I’m going to win this in a couple of years or next year, that’s my goal. I know I can do that after being here.”
141 Pounds: Nick Lee (No. 3 seed)
Tournament record: 4-2
Recap: Lee had to wrestle two matches during the fifth session earlier Saturday.
He took on Minnesota’s Mitch McKee (No. 7 seed) for fifth place. The pair wrestled for third in the Big Ten Championships two weeks ago. At that time, Lee earned a 12-4 major decision.
Saturday, Lee came away with more bonus points against McKee. The sophomore tallied two quick takedowns on McKee in the first period to hold a 4-1 advantage.
Lee was in the down position to begin the second period, and hit a reversal 10 seconds into the period. It was over for McKee at that point because Lee caught McKee in a headlock and pinned him in 3:22. Lee finished fifth for the second straight year.
“I’m not where I want to be,” Lee said. “Obviously, I want to be a national champ, so it’s pretty clear. I did some things better and some things not as well. I just have to improve from now until next year.”
His day began against Oklahoma’s Dom Demas (No. 9 seed). The day didn’t start well either.
Demas came out and rattled off five takedowns on Lee. Lee tried to make a late flurry to recover, but the hole was too deep to overcome. Demas knocked Lee into the fifth-place match with a 13-9 decision. A Lee win would’ve allowed him to finish as high as third.
157 Pounds: Jason Nolf (No. 1 seed)
Tournament record: 5-0
Recap: Nolf has made it a habit of beating Nebraska’s Tyler Berger. The pair have squared off five times in their collegiate careers.
Nolf made it 6-for-6 with all but one of those six victories coming with bonus points. And Saturday night was not the exception.
The senior left no doubt who the true champion was in a 10-2 major decision over Berger, who took to social media in January to call out Nolf.
“Not as good as four-time national champ, but I’ll take it,” said Nolf, when asked what it was like to be called a three-time champ. “Look, coming into college, I think everybody wants to be a four-time national champ. I was definitely willing to work for it and sacrifice. But after the first year, my goal was to be a three-time national champ, and that’s what I am.”
Nolf came out on fire, snapping off three takedowns and collecting two near-fall points — all in the first period. The senior nearly had Berger pinned in the first period but led 8-2. In the second period, Berger rode Nolf for most of it, but Nolf managed to escape.
Nolf returned the favor of riding Berger out for the entire third period and the win.
“I think that everybody should wrestle every match the same,” Nolf said. “I don’t know if it’s adrenaline, but when I get on the big stage I think I do a lot better and I just compete at a higher level. I give the same effort and attitude; I just compete better.”
165 Pounds: Vincenzo Joseph (No. 2 seed)
Tournament record: 4-1
Recap: Joseph had to relive some history in his finals match against Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, but the roles were reversed.
Two years ago, Joseph, who was a redshirt freshman at the time, defeated the two-time defending NCAA champion in Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez. This time around, Joseph was the two-time defending NCAA champ, and Lewis pulled off the upset in a 7-1 domination.
The duo felt each other out in the first period with Joseph taking multiple shots, but Lewis flashed some hips like Joseph. In the second period, Joseph brought his head a little too close to his knees. Lewis felt that, locked up a cradle and tallied four near-fall points. Joseph trailed 4-1 after two periods of wrestling.
Lewis, who won a junior world title this summer, escaped to open the third period and Joseph was forced to go for it. The redshirt freshman earned a counter takedown for the final points in the win.
“I thought he wrestled a great tournament and just got beat,” Sanderson said of Joseph. “No doubt about it.”
174 Pounds: Mark Hall (No. 1 seed)
Tournament record: 4-1
Recap: Hall and Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia have squared off three times in the NCAA Championships. Hall is 1-2 in those matchups.
Those two losses have each come in the NCAA finals the past two seasons. Saturday came down to Valencia having choice in the third period and ultimately winning 4-3.
Hall recorded the first points of the match with a takedown by coming out on top of a scramble with 1:50 left in the first period. Hall held a 3-1 lead late in the second period, but Valencia got a takedown with 54 seconds left. It was challenged by Sanderson, but was upheld. It was 3-3 after two periods.
Valencia started on bottom to start the third and escaped for the lead. Hall seemed out of gas and was unable to get the winning takedown.
“I think Mark Hall wrestled a really good kid,” Sanderson said. “They’ve gone back and forth, two of the best wrestlers in the country at any weight.”
197 Pounds: Bo Nickal (No. 1 seed)
Tournament record: 5-0
Recap: Nickal was the final match of the night. It wasn’t ideal for him, but he loved the spotlight.
“I think that’s exciting for me. The bad part is I don’t get to relax and watch my teammates,” he said. “That’s something I do enjoy, watching them. But I like being the last match. It’s something that’s exciting for me and it’s just fun. Get to feel a little more pressure and a little more hype around it.”
As much as there was hype around Nickal’s match against Ohio State’s Kollin Moore, there wasn’t too much excitement. It took until there were seven seconds left in the first period for points to be scored — a takedown for Nickal.
Outside of Moore’s escape in the second period, the pair just circled around the mat. Nickal picked up an escape and a late takedown for the final score in a 5-1 win. He became Penn State’s fourth three-time NCAA champ.
“It’s really been blessing after blessing,” Nickal said about his time at Penn State. “Since the first time I stepped foot on campus, it’s been incredible. There’s so many people that have just put so much time and effort and energy into me — my coaches, trainers and countless others. I’m incredibly grateful for it.”
285 Pounds: Anthony Cassar (No. 2 seed)
Tournament record: 5-0
Recap: Cassar had such an intriguing story coming to Penn State. He never made the New Jersey state tournament until he was a senior in high school. He won the title that year.
Well, the senior may have just ended his collegiate career in the same fashion by claiming the 285-pound title in his first NCAA Championships. Cassar took on a familiar foe in Oklahoma State’s Derek White.
“I guess I perform very well under pressure. I have a goal,” Cassar said. “If I don’t achieve that goal — like, if I didn’t achieve this goal tonight, the past five years would be a failure in my mind, which may not be the right thing, but that’s just how I see it. When all the chips are out, I’m going to perform because it’s do or die for me.”
White topped Cassar 3-2 in the Southern Scuffle finals — the only loss all season for the Nittany Lion. Let’s just say Cassar got revenge in a big way.
The pair had a scoreless first period, and White opened with choice in the second. White started from the bottom and quickly escaped. Late in the period, Cassar got a low single and took White directly to his back. White was saved by the buzzer, but Cassar led 6-1 after 2.
It was all Cassar in the third period. He had an escape early, got a takedown and rode White out for the remaining 1:26. Cassar earned a 10-1 major decision to kick things off for Penn State.
“I felt him hesitate right off the bat. It was my mat to score and do whatever I pleased to him,” Cassar said. “I felt that in the first period and he was getting super tired. I was keeping my pace up, moving my feet and hands. I could go all day. They don’t want to go to the second, third period with me if I move my hands and feet.”
Saturday at Pittsburgh
Team key: Arizona State (ASU), Cornell (Co.), Iowa (I), Minnesota (Minn.), Nebraska (Neb.), North Carolina (NC), Northern Iowa (UNI), Ohio State (OSU), Oklahoma (O), Oklahoma State (OKST), Penn State (PSU), Rutgers (RT), Virginia (V), Virginia Tech (VT)
Team scores: 1. Penn State 137.5, 2. Ohio State 96.5, 3. Oklahoma State 84, 4. Iowa 76, 5. Michigan 62.5, 6. Missouri 62, 7. Cornell 59.5, 8. Minnesota 53.5, 9. Rutgers 51.5, 10. Nebraska 51
125: Spencer Lee, I, dec. Jack Mueller, V, 5-0; 133: Nick Suriano, RT, dec. Daton Fix, OKST, 4-2 (SV2); 141: Yianni Diakomihalis, Co., dec. Joey McKenna, OSU, 6-4 (SV); 149: Anthony Ashnault, RT, dec. Micah Jordan, OSU, 9-4; 157: Jason Nolf, PSU, major dec. Tyler Berger, Neb., 10-2; 165: Mekhi Lewis, VT, dec. Vincenzo Joseph, PSU, 7-1; 174: Zahid Valencia, ASU, dec. Mark Hall, PSU, 4-3; 184: Drew Foster, UNI, dec. Max Dean, Co., 6-4; 197: Bo Nickal, PSU, dec. Kollin Moore, OSU, 5-1; 285: Anthony Cassar, PSU, major dec. Derek White, OKST, 10-1
5th Place Match
141: Nick Lee, PSU, pinned Mitch McKee, Minn., 3:22
7th Place Match
133: Ethan Lizak, Minn., dec. Roman Bravo-Young, PSU, 8-5
141: Dom Demas, O, dec. Lee, PSU, 13-9