With most of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club standouts — with the exception of World Champion David Taylor — having largely taken 2018 off from competition, many wrestling fans were left wondering how the likes of Bo Nickal, Zain Retherford and Jason Nolf stack up against America’s best in Olympic-style wrestling.
After the Marine Corps U.S. Open this weekend in Las Vegas, some of those questions have been answered.
Nickal left little doubt he’s one of the top contenders to challenge defending world champ J’Den Cox at 92 kilograms, easily blowing his way through the U.S. Open field with two falls and three technical superiorities en route to the title.
FloWrestling’s cameras hadn’t even gotten rolling yet when Nickal stuck his second opponent of the tournament, Patrick Rhoads, of Wildcat Elite Wrestling Club, in just nine seconds. He made similarly quick work of his other two opponents on Friday, reaching the semifinals with less than two minutes spent on the mat.
He continued the bonus-point trend in the semis with a tech in 4 minutes and 13 seconds against 2018 NCAA champ Mike Macchiavello out of North Carolina State, and another in 5:09 over multiple-time national team member Hayden Zilmer for the U.S. Open title.
With the win, Nickal earns a bye to the finals of the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament in Raleigh, N.C., in May, for a chance to take on Cox at Final X Rutgers.
In a video posted to FloWrestling.org, Nickal said his plans after NCAAs last year was to win NCAAs in 2019, win the Hodge, make the World Team and win a world championship. Beating the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist is just a step in that plan, he said.
“He’s a tough wrestler no doubt. He’s a world champ, the best in the world last year; and whoever wins between us is going to be the best at 92 kilos this year,” Nickal said of Cox. “So for me, that’s the step I have to take to win a world championship and it’s the same as it’s always been. There’s always going to be people out there who are tough, there’s always going to be good competition, and I’m just going to go out and wrestle my best every singe time. “
Nolf also showed a seamless transition from folk to freestyle, as he sailed his way through the 70 kg bracket, earning four wins by technical superiority on Friday to set up a semifinal matchup with last year’s World Team member James Green. In one of the most anticipated matchups of the weekend, Green and Nolf did not disappoint.
Nolf took the early lead about halfway through the first period with an ankle pick for two points. With 39 seconds left in the period, Green threw Nolf for four, but Nolf fought back, adding on two more takedowns to head into the second period with a 6-4 lead.
The two battled evenly throughout the final period with no scoring, until Green got the takedown with nine seconds left to win on criteria, 6-6.
“He wants to get my spot. I was there, I was in his shoes, I wanted to make a world team,” Green told TrackWrestling. “I know he’s hungry. He’s going to make me better; he’s going to make me a world champ.”
Green went on to get stunned in the finals when Northwestern’s rising junior Ryan Deakin got a seconds-left takedown of his own to win the 70 kg bracket as the No. 10 seed and to punch his ticket to Final X. Meanwhile, Nolf overcame a 6-0 deficit after the first period to beat Michigan’s Alec Pantaleo 10-6 for third.
Nolf and Green will have the opportunity to battle it out again at the World Team Trials next month for the chance to take on Deakin for that coveted World Team spot. The top-seven placewinners at each weight automatically qualify for that tournament.
In what was highly regarded as the deepest weight class of the tournament at 65 kg, Retherford finished second, falling victim, 6-4, to the Outstanding Wrestler-winning performance of Yianni Diakomahalis. Not only did the rising Cornell junior take out 2018 World Team member Retherford but also No. 1-seeded senior level veteran Jordan Oliver, along with Olympian and former Nittany Lion Frank Molinaro, to earn a Final X berth.
Molinaro, wrestling for Titan Mercury, finished fourth, losing by fall to former Minnesota wrestler and 2010 Hodge Trophy winner Jayson Ness, whom Retherford teched in the quarterfinals. In all, Retherford had five techs leading up to his bout with Diakomahalis, four of them 10-0.
Although he’s no longer with the NLWC, Nico Megaludis joined Nickal and Retherford as former Nittany Lions to make the finals this weekend. As the No. 1 seed at 61 kg, Megaludis put up three technical superiorities in three matches to set up a final against former Oklahoma State wrestler and new Virginia Tech assistant coach Cody Brewer. Megaludis owned a 3-0 lead early in the second when Brewer hit a lateral for four, then put Megaludis on his back for the pin.
Former Pitt-to-Penn State transfer Geno Morelli finished fifth at 79 kg, and Riley Lefever finished sixth at 92 kg for the NLWC, while former Nittany Lion Dan Vallimont, wrestling for the New York Athletic Club, battled back from his first-round loss to take sixth at 74 kg.
NLWC team member Josh Rodriguez, coming off a first-place finish at the Pan America Games last week, did not place, losing to former Illinois wrestler Zane Richards 8-7, then falling 3-2 to Cornell’s Vito Arujau. Jordan Conaway and Jarod Verkleeren also competed for the NLWC, but did not place in the men’s senior freestyle bracket.
David Taylor, who won the Open last year at 86 kg, went to Vegas this year in the capacity of a coach and not a competitor. The reigning World Champ accepted his spot in Final X, and will compete June 8 at Rutgers to defend his World Team spot.
In addition to former Nittany Lion standouts, some current and future Nittany Lions also found success at the U.S. Open this weekend.
Verkleeren, a rising redshirt sophomore for the Nittany Lions, also competed in Greco-Roman at the U.S. Open, finishing fifth at 67 kg in the Senior Division. Fellow redshirt sophomore Mason Manville, also wrestling for NLWC, finished third at 77 kg in Greco. Two-time Olympian Ben Provisor, wresting for the NYAC/NLWC, placed third at 87 kg.
Wrestling for Titan Mercury, Penn State commit Aaron Brooks, who’s spent the past year training at the Olympic Training Center under the guidance of Olympian Kevin Jackson before joining the Nittany Lions this fall, placed first at 79 kg in the men’s freestyle Junior Division.
“It’s been a long year training at the training center, so it just feels really good to be in action again,” he said in a FloWrestling video. “I went overseas, wasn’t really feeling it, so it’s good to be back and feeling like myself again.”
Rising true sophomore Roman Bravo-Young and Seth Nevills, who’s expected to enroll at Penn State this fall, both finished second at 61 and 125 kg, respectively, in the Junior Division.
Bravo-Young sailed through his first five matches, earning four techs, including one over this year’s NCAA sixth-place finisher at 125 pounds Patrick Glory, of Princeton. RBY was leading 4-2 going into the second period of the finals matchup with Gabriel Tagg, who’s also been training under Jackson this year, before giving up the pin in 4:15 to place second. Tagg won Outstanding Wrestler for his efforts, which included four techs and a pin.
Nevills’ finals loss came at the hands of Iowa redshirt freshman Tony Cassioppi, 13-0.
Brody Teske, Joe Lee and Paul Feite wrestled but did not place. NLWC members Brian Stuart and Brian Borden also did not place.
State College native finds success at U.S. Open
Former State High standout and Penn State grad Rob Prebish also saw action this weekend in the U.S. Open in Las Vegas, placing in both freestyle and Greco-Roman in the Master’s division.
The former Millersville wrestler competed in the C Division, for wrestlers born between 1967-75.
After losing his first bout in the freestyle division, Prebish battled back to place third with a fall in just 15 seconds. He won the Greco division, again with a fall in the finals, in 58 seconds.
As a gold medalist in both freestyle and Greco in the 1989 Maccabiah Games in Israel, and as a two-time Cadet National Greco-Roman champion in his youth, Prebish now spends most of his time as a coach for the Richmond Wrestling Club and St. Christopher’s School in Virginia. He’s also coached U.S. junior and cadet Greco teams, and was an assistant on the team competed in the 20th World Maccabiah Games, helping the team earn 19 medals.