‘I wake up as a national champion,’ Cassar says after winning first title
Penn State wrestling left Pittsburgh Sunday with its fourth consecutive national team title, seven All-Americans and three national champs.
While seniors Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf capped off their historic careers Saturday evening, each earning his third national title, Penn State is left trying to fill the void the two leaders will leave in the program.
With about eight months until next season, here are five things we learned from this year’s NCAA Wrestling Championships:
You don’t have to be a top recruit to win national titles at Penn State
Penn State has shown, with guys like Nolf, Nickal, Zain Retherford and David Taylor, that it can take some of the country’s top recruits and turn them into some of the best to step foot on a college mat.
With Anthony Cassar’s convincing 10-1 national championship win over Oklahoma State’s Derek White on Saturday, Penn State proved it also can make champions out of under-the-radar wrestlers willing to work hard and dedicate themselves to the sport.
Cassar wasn’t on most coaches’ radars in high school, having made the New Jersey state tournament only once —the year he won. That’s where Nittany Lions coach Cael Sanderson watched him and, clearly, liked what he saw.
Unranked, Cassar’s name was tacked on at the bottom of most news articles about Penn State’s top-rated recruiting class in 2014, drowned out by top-10 recruits Nolf, Nickal, Nick Nevills and Shakur Rasheed.
But five years later, even with taking a year off and time missed due to injury, Cassar got his hand raised as a national champion.
“He works very, very hard all the time,” Sanderson said after Cassar’s Big Ten title win on March 10. “I watched him for two years, coming back from injury, and he didn’t skip a day where he came in with a bad attitude; he just kept plugging away.”
That’s a story sure to inspire young athletes across the country.
RBY is ready to lead the next generation of Nittany Lions
With the members of Penn State’s top-rated 2014 recruiting class cycling out, true freshman Roman Bravo-Young gave wrestling fans the first taste of what the top-rated 2018 recruiting class might be able to do.
In one of the toughest weight classes in the country, Bravo-Young beat two wrestlers seeded ahead of his to make the podium and become an All-American.
The Tuscon native showed his potential many times throughout the season, but, besides his 2-1 win over Ohio State’s fourth-place finisher Luke Pletcher earlier in the season, didn’t have many big wins to back it up.
Wins over top-10-seeded Chas Tucker, of Cornell, and Micky Phillippi, of Pitt, this week helped boost the freshman’s resume. Even in losses, Bravo-Young showed improvement against Iowa’s Austin DeSanto, and that he could hang with three-time All-American Ethan Lizak.
“I’m going to win this in a couple of years or next year; that’s my goal,” he said after his loss to Lizak. “I know I can do that after being here.”
More often than not, Penn State still wins the close matches
The semifinal round on Friday had Penn State fans sweating. Of the Nittany Lions’ six bouts, five were decided by just a point. Of those five, Penn State won four.
Hall’s bout, a 2-1 tiebreaker win over Michigan’s Myles Amine, was the closest. In the pair’s five total meeting, Hall has won each by a point.
Hall is no stranger to close matches, winning 10 of his 26 matches leading up to the tournament by 5 points or less. Despite a season during which he had half as many pins as he’s had the previous two, Hall said he’s proud of how he’s been able to work on different aspects of his game and find different ways to win.
“I think a year ago, you know, I was getting like the bonus-point wins, the pins, things like that,” he said after the Amine match. “But this year there is nothing wrong with that. I just found a way to be winning different ways and so just got to make sure I wrestle hard and don’t really focus on anything else.”
The close matches, however, caught up with him in the finals, when he dropped a 1-point match to Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia.
Nickal has the best case for the Hodge Trophy
After the semifinal round Friday night, Nickal, in the minds of many on press row, pulled away from the rest of the pack in contention for the Hodge Trophy — the Heisman of college wrestling.
While fellow top contender Nolf eked out a close and controversial 3-2 victory over Mifflin County product Hayden Hidlay, of North Carolina State, and Ohio State’s Myles Martin took an unexpected loss, Nickal cradled up fourth-seeded Patrick Brucki, of Princeton, and stuck him on his back in 4 minutes and 40 seconds.
Coming into the tournament, Nolf and Nickal were nearly neck-and-neck in contention for the chance to be named this season’s most outstanding wrestler. Nickal had the slight edge, averaging 0.09 points per match more than Nolf and with one more pin on the season.
But at the tournament, Nickal added three more pins to Nolf’s one. As the only four undefeated wrestlers left at the end of the season, Nolf and Nickal will likely be joined by Cornell sophomore Yianni Diakomihalis and Rutgers senior Anthony Ashnualt on the short list of contenders.
With record, pins and dominance the top three criteria for deciding the award, the trophy seems to be as good as Nickal’s.
Another team title will be difficult, but not impossible to achieve in 2020
Having mathematically wrapped up the team race Saturday afternoon, Penn State won by a comfortable 41-point margin over runner-up Ohio State.
That points margin should give Penn State fans a lot of confidence in their team’s ability to keep its streak going, heading into next season. Penn State’s three national champs, however, are all seniors.
Despite the loss of Nolf and Nickal — perennial locks for the NCAA finals — Penn State will return past-national champions Joseph and Hall, and All-Americans Lee and Bravo-Young. Cassar and Rasheed could return if they’re granted sixth years of eligibility, and All-American transfer Kyle Conel could join the team if he’s granted one, as well.
On top of that, Penn State will likely start to cycle in members of its top-ranked 2018 recruiting class. Brody Teske red-shirted this season, while Aaron Brooks, Michael Beard, Joe Lee and Seth Nevills all took a year off between high school and college to train.
It’s hard to say what Penn State’s lineup might look like next year, especially with the 2020 Olympics coming up in July. As of now, Hall, Joseph, Brooks, Mason Manville, Jarod Verkleeren and Brady Berge already qualify for Olympic redshirts.
Despite the uncertainly surrounding next season’s starting lineup, it appears there’s plenty of talent within Penn State’s program.