Penn State Wrestling

What was Penn State wrestling’s move of the year, and who was the MVP? Our season awards

‘Be respectful to your opponent’ Sanderson says about celebrations

Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson talks about celebrating in college wrestling, and being respectful to your opponent.
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Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson talks about celebrating in college wrestling, and being respectful to your opponent.

The awards season is finally over for Penn State wrestling — well, almost.

Bo Nickal was named the winner of the Hodge Trophy on Monday, in addition to being named Intermat’s Wrestler of the Year. No other major awards remain but, now that we’ve had our own time to reflect on the season, we thought now would be the perfect time to look back and hand out our own superlatives for the 2018-2019 wrestling season.

From the quote of the year to the most clutch performance to the season’s best move, we’re wrapping up a season that ended in a fourth straight national championship — and three individual national champs — with our own awards. Check it out:

Team MVP: Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf (co-MVPs)

OK, OK. Picking two here might be a bit of a cop-out, but how can you pick between two of the most storied wrestlers in Penn State history? Nickal had a 90 percent bonus rate this season, while Nolf boasted an 87 percent bonus rate. Both also went undefeated while winning the national titles in their respective weight classes.

Nickal has gone more than 750 days since his last collegiate loss, while Nolf — not counting when he was injured last season — has gone more than 1,000. Nickal and Nolf were the heart and soul of this team and, while Nickal might’ve had a slight edge over Nolf in a lot of stat categories, there’s no denying these were the two most dominant wrestlers in the NCAA this season. That, we think, calls for co-MVP honors.

Biggest breakout: Anthony Cassar

And the least controversial category is ... this one. Not only is Cassar the biggest breakout on the team and in the Big Ten, but we’d argue he’s the biggest breakout in the country. Cassar began last season as essentially Penn State’s third option at 197 pounds. But after an incredible offseason that saw him transform from Bruce Banner to the Incredible Hulk, Cassar took the Big Ten and then the NCAA Wrestling Championships by storm at heavyweight.

His speed, combined with his strength, proved to be a deadly combination. The “Champ,” his given nickname even before the season, surpassed every expectation thrown his way. Ten years from now, Cassar’s 2018-2019 season should still be a shining example to Nittany Lions patiently waiting their turn to compete as upperclassmen. Cassar is the living proof to the old adage that hard work pays off in the end.

Best hair: Bo Nickal

There will be no co-MVPs in this category. For those of you who think this award is only because Nickal’s hair was blue, well, you’re totally right. Nickal is brave on the mat, and he’s similarly courageous with his hairstyle choices. His blue hair was easy to pick out during the airing of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, and showing school spirit with hair definitely gets you some bonus points — something Nickal is familiar with.

Our apologies to Shakur Rasheed and Anthony Cassar, who do have great hair. Just not as great as Nickal’s.

Biggest upset (for Penn State): Roman Bravo-Young over Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher

This wasn’t the most important bout of the season and, sure, you could argue that Anthony Cassar’s win over Minnesota’s Gable Steveson at Big Tens turned a lot of heads. But RBY didn’t have many, if any, believers when Penn State took on the Buckeyes.

At the time, on Feb. 8, RBY was ranked No. 15 while Pletcher was No. 6. On top of that, Bravo-Young was coming off an injury — but the true freshman was determined to seize the opportunity. He and Pletcher were deadlocked through seven minutes and an overtime period, but RBY escaped in the tiebreaker and maintained control in a 2-1 (TB) victory. That set the tone for the entire match, as Penn State easily cruised in a contest that many thought would be much closer.

Biggest upset (against Penn State): UNC’s Chip Ness over Shakur Rasheed

If you thought Oklahoma State’s Dakota Geer beating Rasheed was a bigger upset, you’re not totally off base. Geer’s ranking was artificially deflated because the Cowboys shuffled their weights around late but, on paper, that was bigger.

Still, we’re sticking with Ness over Rasheed for a couple reasons. For one, Rasheed’s 8-5 loss knocked him into the consolation bracket at the NCAA Wrestling Championships, making him the highest-seeded wrestler to lose on Day 1. Rasheed was seeded No. 2, entered nationals undefeated — but had question marks surrounding the brace around his knee. He came in aiming for a national title, and those hopes were dashed in the second round — to Ness. FloWrestling referred to Ness as “Mr. March” after the upset.

Rasheed was up 5-2 in the third period, but Ness took advantage of Rasheed’s aggressiveness. In the final 30 seconds, Ness got four near-fall points after a scramble and tacked on two more for the 8-5 decision.

Best move of the year: Jason Nolf’s ‘milkshake’ vs. Michigan State

Nolf has left reporters scratching their heads many times over his four years as a starter at Penn State, as they’ve frantically tried to come up with words to describe exactly how he contorted his opponent’s body to put him on his back. This year, it was Nolf’s “milkshake” against Michigan State’s Jake Tucker that had all of Rec Hall buzzing.

In our best effort to describe what happened, Nolf held onto Tucker’s right arm and walked both legs over his shoulders, into a seated position with Tucker’s arm between his legs. Nolf then dragged Tucker for a few steps, turned around and put him in a headlock.

Although Tucker’s coach may not have been too happy with the move, we’ll just say there’s a reason his teammate Shakur Rasheed calls Nolf “an artist.”

Most underappreciated wrestler: Nick Lee

When there’s as many stars on one team as Penn State has, there’s no shortage of guys who fly under the radar. Vincenzo Joseph, Mark Hall or anyone not named Jason Nolf or Bo Nickal could have been good picks for this category. However, we believe sophomore Nick Lee was more underappreciated than the rest.

Lee has been one of the most consistent spokes in Penn State’s lineup over the past year. Lee may not be pinning his opponents as often as some of his teammates, but he wins most of his matches on his feet. Lee is in a three-way PSU tie on for first in dual major decisions, and is second to Anthony Cassar in dual takedowns. If Cassar doesn’t get a sixth year or chooses not to return next season, Lee will be Penn State’s second-highest returning dual points scorer, to Hall.

Next season will be Lee’s opportunity to step up and fill the points void left by Nolf and Nickal, and make a jump from All-American to national title contender.

Best walkout song: Anthony Cassar’s ‘Crank That (Soulja Boy)‘

There are few college wrestlers who walk out onto the mat with as much swag as New Jersey’s own, Cassar. Pulling on his singlet straps as Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” blares over the loudspeaker, rocking a “flash tattoo” across his chest of a chain and cross his sister gave him — there’s little comparison.

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Vincenzo Joseph’s “Bad Moon Rising” will always be a classic, and Mark Hall has a knack for always coming up with something quirky like “Ballroom Blitz” or songs from “Space Jam.” But no one can compete with “The Champ” on this one.

Most clutch performance: Nick Lee over Joey McKenna in the Ohio State dual

Unlike with Anthony Cassar’s upset of Kollin Moore in last year’s Ohio State dual, it was hard to find one match in any dual this season that turned the dual around or kept Penn State from losing. That’s because none of Penn State’s duals this past season were even close.

The Ohio State dual had the most potential to be close. But Roman Bravo-Young, as mentioned earlier, and Lee took care of that early. If Bravo-Young’s upset made winning difficult for Ohio State, then-No. 5 Lee’s upset of then-No. 2 McKenna put it out of reach. From there, any other upsets or bonus points were just icing on the cake for Penn State.

The win, however, didn’t come easy for Lee. McKenna came out strong, trying to beat Lee at his own game and tire him out. It worked, at first, as McKenna led 5-2 going into the third. That’s when Lee was able to out-motor McKenna, capitalizing on a poor shot attempt by the Buckeye to get a takedown and tie things up.

In a gutsy move, Lee then cut McKenna loose with just a little over a minute left to wrestle, attempting to win the match on his feet. He got the takedown for the lead with 30 seconds left on the clock, and rode out the rest of the period to stun the senior in front of his home crowd, effectively ending Ohio State’s upset bid and extending Penn State’s dual winning streak to 56.

Quote of the Year: Cael’s talk on celebrations and society

Although there’s no shortage of entertaining sound bites from Anthony Cassar and Shakur Rasheed about their time together laying out in the sun, doing each other’s hair and “looking for chicks,” the quote of the year come the wrestling sage himself, coach Cael Sanderson.

When asked for his take on wrestlers celebrating after matches or gesturing to the other team’s bench, Sanderson gave an answer that sent the internet ablaze with comments and reposts, with most people agreeing with college wrestling’s only undefeated four-time national champ.

“I’ve never believed in celebrating,” he said. “I think if you’re authentically excited, that’s different, but be respectful to your opponent.”

Sanderson explained that in his household growing up, with his father Steve Sanderson as a coach, celebrating was never an option for him or his brothers. He was always focused on the next match.

“It’s about respecting your opponent, one,” he said, “and two, why motivate anyone else to want to beat you even worse? Because you’re going to have to turn around and beat that same guy again. This is wrestling. It’s supposed to bring the best out in people not the worst.”