Penn State wrestling, a history of dominance
Although college wrestling season is still six months away, plenty of former, current and future Nittany Lions are actively training and competing, hoping to make world teams this summer.
The most important tournament in determining the men’s and women’s senior-level freestyle, Greco Roman and junior freestyle teams — World Team Trials — will be held this weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina.
These tournaments will determine who makes the Junior World Team, and in the case of all the other divisions, who punches their ticket to Final X.
As this process can be a little confusing for those who haven’t been regularly following, here’s a breakdown for Penn State fans of what guys like Bo Nickal, David Taylor, Mark Hall, Zain Retherfod, Jason Nolf and Nico Megaludis need to do to make the world team, and who might be standing in their way.
What’s the process for making a world team?
For juniors, whoever wins this World Team Trials this weekend will represent Team USA this fall. The winners are determined in a best-of-three final between the top placer in the challenge tournament and last month’s U.S. Open winner.
For men’s and women’s senior-level freestyle, and this year for Greco, there is an extra step. This weekend’s winners will go on to face last year’s returning medalists or the U.S. Open winners, in a best-of-three series at Final X, held in either Lincoln, Nebraska (June 15) or Piscataway, New Jersey (June 8). That winner will have the opportunity to compete at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Astana, Kazakhstan on Sept. 14-22.
Where are the Penn State guys in the process?
As the reigning world champ at 86 kilograms, David Taylor, along with Team USA’s other six returning medalists, were invited to defend their spots on the world team at Final X. All seven wrestlers — Joe Colon, Jordan Burroughs, Kyle Dake, Taylor, J’Den Cox, Kyle Snyder and Nick Gwizdowski — accepted their invitations and are waiting at either Final X Lincoln or Final X Rutgers for a best-of-three series to decide their fate. Their opponents will be determined this weekend at World Team Trials in Raleigh.
Taylor has been the favorite to win, regardless of his opponent, but an apparent knee injury at last week’s Beat the Streets fundraiser match in New York City might have thrown a wrench into the equation. Only a few seconds into his match with 184-pound NCAA champ Drew Foster, of University of Northern Iowa, Taylor yelled out in pain as his left leg got twisted in a scramble. After getting taped up, Taylor tried to continue on, but just couldn’t.
Although the extent of his injury has not been publicly released, the two-time national champ and 2011 Hodge Trophy winner did update his fans in a video posted on social media the next day.
“Well, last night didn’t go as planned,” he said. “I was really looking forward to putting on a show at Beat the Streets. I’ve got a lot of big things ahead of me, and I had to be smart. I would have loved to continue wrestling, but no doubt, I’ll be back very soon.”
If Taylor is unable or not ready to compete by June 8 at Final X Rutgers, he can request a medical delay at least 48 hours prior to that match, according to USA Wrestling procedures. The make-up match must occur before the team leaves for the 2019 World team Acclimation Camp.
World Team Trials Championships:
The remaining three world weights that don’t have returning medalists were filled by the winners of April’s U.S. Open — college standouts Daton Fix at 57 kg, Yianni Diakomahlis at 65 kg and Ryan Deakin at 70 kg.
Those who won the open at other weights, like Nickal at 92 kg, were rewarded with a bye to the finals of World Team Trials. While the rest of his field competes in the challenge tournament, Nickal gets to sit out until the best-of-three final between him and the winner. The winner of that punches his ticket to Final X Rutgers to face reigning world champ Cox.
World Team Challenge tournament:
Those who did not win the U.S. Open must go through the full challenge tournament and the best-of-three final to get to Final X. But to even make it to World Team Trials, wrestlers first had to qualify. The way most wrestlers qualify is by finishing in the top 7 in their weight class at the U.S. Open. Megaludis, Retherford, Nolf, Nickal, Frank Molinaro, Dan Vallimont and Geno Morelli qualified this way.
Nick Nevills and Hall made it to World Team Trials by blowing through their fields at the Last Chance Qualifier tournament in East Stroudsburg at the beginning of the month.
As last year’s Junior World Team members, incoming freshman Aaron Brooks and redshirt sophomore Brady Berge are also qualified. As he still has junior-level availability, Brooks is set to wrestle in the junior tournament this weekend, where he’ll be sitting out until the finals. As a reigning NCAA champ, Anthony Cassar is also qualified. However, there has not yet been any indication that he or Berge have registered.
Another incoming freshman, Seth Nevills, as well as true sophomore Roman-Bravo Young are also set to compete for the Junior World Team this weekend. Redshirt sophomores Mason Manville and Jarod Verkleeren will be competing to make the Greco team.
Who are their biggest challengers?
Men’s senior-level freestyle:
For Taylor, the biggest challenge is his health. A healthy Taylor is a heavy favorite to make the world team for a second consecutive year. Depending on the extent of the injury, however, Taylor’s path to making the world team — and potentially the Olympic team in 2020 — might be a bit more difficult. U.S. Open winner Pat Downey is sitting in the best-of-three final at 86 kg in Raleigh, in a field that includes former college stars such as Nick Heflin, Myles Martin, Sammy Brooks and Brett Pfarr.
Having already tech’ed three of the top seven wrestlers in his field in Hayden Zillmer, Mike Macchiavello and Scottie Boykin — Nickal is looking like the heavy favorite to come out of Raleigh, in a field that also includes Ohio State’s Kollin Moore, former Husker Tim Dudley and Nittany Lion Wrestling Club member Riley Lefever.
The next step for Nickal — a best-of-three face-off with Cox — however, won’t be as easy. Not only is Cox the reigning world champ at 92 kg and a three-time NCAA champ, he’s also won bronze at world’s in 2017 and the 2016 Rio De Janiero Olympics, and has also been the guy to keep world champs Taylor and Dake off teams in the past.
Although the rest of the guys have a little bit more work to do, some still have very real shots at punching their tickets to Final X this weekend.
As the U.S. Open runners up, Megaludis and Retherford are projected to secure the top seeds in their respective weight classes. Megaludis looked nearly unstoppable at the U.S. Open, until giving up the pin in the finals to Cody Brewer. Megaludis can get another shot at Brewer this weekend, but will first have to fend off the likes of Cory Clark and Tony Ramos.
The biggest challenge in Retherford’s way of a Final X berth and rematch with Diakomihalis is two-time NCAA champ Jordan Oliver, whom he has never beaten. Also in the 65 kg field, is Retherford’s former coach and Olympian, Molinaro. The last time the two former Nittany Lions squared off was in 2017, when Retherford bested Molinaro two matches to one in a bloody battle to make that year’s world team. Oliver had beaten both Retherford and Molinaro that year at the U.S. Open, but was disqualified due to an anti-doping rule violation.
After finishing third in the U.S. Open at 70 kg, Nolf surprised many when USA Wrestling announced he had registered for World Team Trials at 74 kg. With Isaiah Martinez, who handed Nolf his only two collegiate losses that weren’t an injury default, sitting out until the WTT finals, and Olympic gold and multiple world medalist Jordan Burroughs sitting at Final X, 70 kg seems like the easier path. Nolf dropped a close match on criteria at the U.S. Open to last year’s world team member James Green, who then went on to lose to Northwestern junior Ryan Deakin in the finals. Nolf beat Deakin by major decision last time they met during the folkstyle season.
Although Nolf has not publicly said why he’s bumping up, not having to cut as much weight and dipping his toes into an Olympic weight class might set him up for more long-term success. Former Penn State two-time All-American Vallimont is also in the mix at 74 kg.
Having run through the Last Chance Qualifier with four 10-0 technical superiorities, rising Penn State senior Hall now has a shot to compete against rival Zahid Valencia, former teammate Morelli and others for a crack at three-time national champ Alex Dieringer in the best-of-three final. That winner gets reigning world champ Dake at Final X Rutgers.
Having also tech’ed his way through the last chance qualifier, Nick Nevills will get a shot at WTT at 125 kg. Last year’s Greco world silver medalist Adam Coon is sitting out until the finals, with heavy-hitters such as Dom Bradley, Tony Nelson and Gable Steveson in the field.
Manville, who made the world team in 2017, finished as runnerup last year. His opponent in both of those finals matchups — Kamal Bey — is sitting out until Final X. With a bye to the WTT finals is Patrick Smith, who beat Manville 5-2 at the open.
Verkleeren had a strong showing in his senior-level debut at the open, placing 5th at 67 kg. Although Verkleren has some momentum going, he’ll be up against many seasoned senior-level athletes for a chance to face Hayden Tuma and Ellis Coleman.
As the reigning world silver medalist, incoming Penn State freshman Brooks is the guy to beat at 79 kg on the junior level. Brooks breezed through his bracket at the U.S. Open to get a bye to the WTT finals, and should give Penn State fans plenty to get excited about for the future.
Bravo-Young was having an impressive run at the U.S. Open, having won four of his five bouts leading up to the final by technical superiority — including a 12-1 beating of Patrick Glory, who was this year’s 125-pound 6th-place finisher at NCAAs. It was Gabriel Tagg, however, who got the best of Bravo-Young with a fall in 4 minutes and 15 seconds to win a bye to the WTT finals.
RBY should be the favorite to set up a rematch with Tagg, but future Buckeye Jordan Decatur could shake things up.
Seth Nevills had a similar story at the U.S. Open, beating each opponent — including Virginia Tech’s John Borst — with considerable ease until the finals, where he lost 13-0 to Iowa redshirt Anthony Cassiopi. Although Cassiopi has not yet registered for the tournament, according to FloWrestling, Michigan’s Mason Paris and Wisconsin’s All-American Trent Hilger will enter the mix.
How to watch
The World Team Trials will be streamed live on FloWrestling (paid subscription required) starting with juniors and Greco at 10 a.m. Friday. Men’s and women’s freestyle starts at 10 a.m. Saturday, wrapping up with the challenge tournament finals and consolation finals at 9 p.m. The best two-out-of three finals will start at noon Sunday.