Penn State Wrestling

Here’s why Penn State’s Bo Nickal won the Hodge Trophy, the ‘Heisman of college wrestling’

Bo Nickal wins Hodge Trophy

Penn State's Bo Nickal wins the Hodge Trophy, college wrestling's most prestigious award.
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Penn State's Bo Nickal wins the Hodge Trophy, college wrestling's most prestigious award.

After a senior season in which he put up bonus points in 90 percent of his matches — including 18 pins — it came as no surprise Monday afternoon when Penn State’s Bo Nickal won this year’s WIN Magazine/Culture House Dan Hodge Trophy, better known as the “Heisman of college wrestling.”

Named for the Oklahoma three-time national champ who never gave up a single takedown and pinned 36 of his 46 opponents, the trophy is presented each year to the wrestler who best embodies Hodge’s dominance on the mat.

“It’s something I’ve wanted since I was in high school and I first found out about the award,” Nickal said in the news release from WIN Magazine. “I’ve tried to go out and do what the Hodge symbolizes, going for the pin and scoring as many points as I can.”

As InterMat’s Wrestler of the Year and as the NCAA’s 2019 Most Dominant Wrestler, Nickal had a strong case. His teammate Jason Nolf, however, made the decision a bit trickier, with an 87 percent bonus-point rate, 15 pins, five tech falls and six major decisions.

Some voters were clearly split between “two of the bests to ever step on a college mat,” as Penn State coach Cael Sanderson described them.

All 51 total ballots were cast for some combination of Nolf and Nickal at the top. Nickal earned 37 first-place votes, Nolf 10, and four were cast for the Hodge to be awarded to both Nickal and Nolf. Rutgers senior Anthony Ashnault and Cornell sophomore Yianni Diakomihalis were also finalists.

Nickal and Nolf were neck-and-neck all season long as the two top contenders. Between the race for the Hodge and the hunt for the all-time school record in pins, the pair were consistently asked throughout the season about competing against each other and what breaking records and winning awards meant to them.

And, each time, they would both respond with their familiar mantra of just wanting to “score points and have fun.”

“It’s like we’ve always said, I hope I pin every single guy and I hope he pins every single guy,” Nickal said ahead of the NCAA tournament. “It’s more about doing that for the team.”

Added Nolf: “When you look at why we wrestle, we don’t wrestle to go out and win awards that other people make up. We do it because we love wrestling.”

Despite however many times the pair denied even the slightest bit of “friendly competition” between each other, both had said the Hodge was something they had wanted to win since before coming to Penn State. Nickal had even said that he had hoped to win a “couple Hodges.”

That feat was made difficult by his former teammate Zain Retherford, who won the honor the past two years before graduating. With Nickal’s win, the Hodge Trophy remains in Happy Valley for the third consecutive year. Nickal is the fourth Nittany Lion to win the Hodge, which was established in 1995. He joins Retherford and David Taylor, who each won twice, and Kerry McCoy, who won in 1997.

Nickal finished out his collegiate career on March 23 by getting his hand raised as the 197-pound national champion over Ohio State’s Kollin Moore at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. The national title was Nickal’s third. His other two were won at 184 pounds — one in dramatic fashion with a pin of Ohio State’s Myles Martin to clinch the team title in 2018 and the other by taking out two-time defending national champ Gabe Dean, of Cornell, in 2017.

Three bouts prior on March 23, Nolf had also won his third national title in four finals appearances at 157 pounds, making the pair the third and fourth three-time national champs and second and third four-time finalists in Penn State history. Nickal ended his career with a record of 120-3, with 59 pins, 12 tech falls and 23 major decisions.

Nolf, who was named Penn State’s male recipient of the Ernest B. McCoy Award for athletics and academic excellence Monday, ended his carer with a 117-3 record, including 60 pins — Penn State’s all-time record.

The pair split the Big Ten’s Wrestler of the Year award this year.

The Hodge Trophy winner is decided by a group of formal voters, including each former Hodge Trophy winner, national media, representatives from national wrestling organizations and retired former coaches from different regions. The winner of the fan vote —which was Nickal with nearly 50 percent of the votes — got two first-place votes.

But for Nickal, it’s not the accolades he’s racked up or the records he’s broken throughout his career — or even his national titles — that he hopes fans will remember most, now that he’s hung up his blue and white singlet.

“I hope that when I’m done wrestling at Penn State, people will have just look back and have enjoyed it,” he said earlier this season, before his final home match. “I hope people will look back on the matches I’ve wrestled and that would have brought them some joy and entertainment, and that they were excited about it.”

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