Penn State Wrestling

Penn State wrestling mailbag: Was this year’s squad the best in program history?

To Penn State wrestling fans, Saturday was probably a night of mixed emotions.

Sure, the Nittany Lions just finished winning their fourth straight NCAA title — and eighth in the last nine years. But it also marked the end of the 2018-2019 season and the collegiate careers for fan favorites Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal.

This marks the final mailbag of the season. So let’s see what you have asked me this week:

Was this the best Penn State wrestling team in program history? If not, who is?

This question could be answered in many different ways; it really depends on your criteria. After all, It’s hard to gauge talent without falling back on numbers like wins, titles and bonus points. But those don’t always truly reflect talent or depth.

So let’s work our way through this. At the end of the 2017-2018 season, I said the 2018-2019 season would be better — and that was saying something with the departure of Zain Retherford. When I compare the two seasons now, two things stick out to me. Last year, there were eight All-Americans and 141.5 points scored at the NCAA Wrestling Championships. It was the most All-Americans under Cael Sanderson. The point total was third all-time for the program. This year’s squad had seven All-Americans and 137.5 points scored, which was only good for fifth overall in school history.

From a talent and depth aspect, yes, this year’s squad might be the best in program history. But they weren’t the best when it comes down to the numbers.

For me, I find it difficult to overlook the 2016-2017 squad. Yes, they only had six All-Americans, but five of those six were champions. Oh, and they scored 146.5 team points that year, which is No. 1 for the program. The Nittany Lions also did that with only eight NCAA qualifiers.

That team also had 21 bonus-point victories. Retherford and Nolf each bonused their way to titles. Retherford was more dominant with four technical falls — one in the finals — and a pin in the semifinals. But one thing this year’s squad has over the 2016-2017 squad? There was an opportunity to crown a trio of three-time NCAA champs, even if it didn’t come to fruition.

So, to me, the top-two teams in Penn State history are 2016-2017 and 2018-2019. Who’s better? It all depends how you look at it. But, personally, I’m going with 2016-2017.

What would you have said at the start of the season if someone told you Anthony Cassar would win a national championship? And, really, when did you first think there was a good chance that would happen?

One of my friends told me mid-year that Cassar was going to win a national title. I laughed at him and said there was no chance Cassar was going to beat Minnesota’s Gable Steveson. I’m sure I was with the majority of the wrestling community that all thought Steveson was going to win as a true freshman. Boy, was I wrong!

To answer the second part of this question, as I watched Cassar progressively get better all season long, my thoughts slowly changed. I think the loss to Oklahoma State’s Derek White in the Southern Scuffle set Cassar up for what he ultimately did Saturday night to White — a major decision win.

I didn’t officially feel Cassar was going to win a title until that win in the Big Ten finals over Steveson. Go back and look at my prediction of where I thought Cassar would finish in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships. I was wrong to pick against him in the Big Tens but, in my predictions for NCAAs, I said he’d beat Steveson again and put his infamous blast doubles on display on White. Well, it wasn’t the blast doubles, but it was Cassar showing of all his offensive skill-set in that major-decision title win.

Who’s your pick for the Hodge? Nolf or Nickal?

This will be the 24th year the award has been given out. Only one year were there co-winners for the “Heisman of College Wrestling.” It was 2001 when Sanderson shared the title with Simpson College’s Nick Ackerman, a Division III athlete who went 38-4 with 13 pins. However, Ackerman did it on two legs that were amputated below the knees because he had spinal meningitis. Sanderson was just finishing off his third straight undefeated season at 40-0 with 19 pins. Could 2019 see another pair share the crown?

There are two others vying for the trophy in Rutgers’ Anthony Ashnault and Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis. However, the Hodge Trophy isn’t leaving Happy Valley after Retherford won it two straight years. So let’s compare Nolf and Nickal.

Nolf finishes with a career mark of 117-3. Sixty of those wins came by pin, 27 by technical fall and 16 by major decision. This year, he was 31-0 with 15 pins, five technical falls and six major decisions. Nickal finishes his career with a record of 120-3. 59 came by pin, 12 by technical fall and 23 by major decision. His 2019 stats were 30-0 with 18 pins, three technical falls and six major decisions.

There are seven criteria taken into consideration taken directly in order from WIN Magazine’s website: record, number of pins, dominance on the mat, quality of competition, past credentials, sportsmanship/citizenship and heart. Just below the list of these items is the below paragraph: “The first four criteria are the primary criteria. Number of pins is an extremely important criteria. Part of the reason the award was created was to elevate the importance of the pin, and to motivate top collegians to go for the fall. The Hodge Trophy is a single-season award. However, if you have two candidates who are virtually equal, consideration can be given to past credentials, which is criteria No. 5. The last two criteria should be used to help guide voters to select a winner who also is a good representative of the sport.”

If it truly is a “single-season award,” Nolf gets a check for record, and Nickal gets a check for pins and dominance on the mat. I’d have to say they split quality of competition. I think the pins is what tips the scales in Nickal’s favor by the voting standards.

That being said, my pick? Make them co-winners.

Who is your projected starting lineup for PSU wrestling next season?

Let’s just get right into it and break it down by weight class, assuming several of PSU’s fifth-years get their extra year of eligibility.

125: Brody Teske, 133: Roman Bravo-Young, 141: Nick Lee, 149: Jarod Verkleeren, 157: Brady Berge, 165: Vincenzo Joseph, 174: Mason Manville, 184: Shakur Rasheed, 197: Kyle Conel/Michae Beard, 285: Anthony Cassar/Seth Nevills.

Yeah, you see that new face at 174. Don’t worry, it will only be for this year. I believe Mark Hall will take an Olympic redshirt, which is why I think PSU might not win next year. However, Hall will be back the following year to lead the new crop of wrestlers and begin another title-winning streak.

So long until next year, mailbag readers!

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