Penn State wrestling, a history of dominance
With the conclusion of World Team Trials on Sunday in Raleigh, N.C., the Final X field for men’s freestyle wrestling is set, with former Nittany Lions Zain Retherford and Bo Nickal joining David Taylor in the best-of-three finals at Rutgers on June 8.
All three wrestle for the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
The winner of each of the five men’s freestyle weight classes represented at Rutgers — 65, 79, 86, 92, 125 kilograms — and the winners in the other five weight classes at Final X in Lincoln, Neb., will go on to represent Team USA at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Sept. 14-22.
“I’m excited to be at Final X,” Retherford told reporters in a video posted on TrackWrestling.com. “It’s at Rutgers, so a lot of Pennsylvania and New Jersey fans will be there, so I’m excited.”
To make it to Final X, Retherford first had to get through a 65 kg trials field that consisted of two-time Oklahoma State national champ Dean Heil and former Nittany Lion coach and Olympian Frank Molinaro to set up a best-of-three final with Jordan Oliver. He then beat Oliver two matches to none.
Until Sunday, Retherford had never beaten Oliver. The former NCAA champ out of Oklahoma State most recently bested Retherford 13-11 at the inaugural American Wrestling League event in December, and beat him 5-3 at the 2017 U.S. Open. Retherford ended up making the world team that year after Oliver got suspended for an anti-doping rule violation, and he went on to beat out Molinaro two matches to one in the World Team Trials championship.
Retherford’s Saturday match with Molinaro, wrestling for Titan Mercury, was reminiscent of the physicality displayed in that 2017 match — albeit without the blood. Between knocking each other back and forth, Retherford outscored Molinaro three takedowns to one to win 6-1.
The two-time Hodge Trophy winner had to fight for his two-matches-to none win over Oliver. Retherford was trailing Oliver through most of the first match, until he rolled him over twice for total points to trail by one with a little bit over a minute left, then took him down for two with 20 seconds remaining to win 7-6. Retherford also had to come back from a deficit in the second match and fend off a late rally by Oliver to again win 7-6 and secure his first Final X berth.
The adjustments Retherford said he made between his last match with Oliver and Sunday were largely mental.
For Nickal, the road to Final X this weekend was a bit easier. Having won the U.S. Open in April, the reigning Hodge Trophy winner had a bye until the finals, where he faced 2018 NCAA champ Mike Macchiavello, of North Carolina State. Like he did at the U.S. Open, Nickal made quick work of the former Wolfpack wrestler, winning the first match by technical superiority 10-0, and the second 5-0.
The road will now get a bit more difficult for Nickal, as he’s set to face reigning world champ and Olympic bronze medalist J’Den Cox at Final X. For Nickal, however, that’s just another step in the process toward achieving his goals.
“It doesn’t really change anything for me. My plan is to be a world champion and and Olympic gold medalist, so I’m going to have to wrestle and beat the best guys in the world,” he told reporters in a video posted by USA Wrestling. “It just so happens that one of them is from the United States and he’s a really, really talented wrestler.
“I want to prove that I’m the best in the world, and that’s my plan.”
As the reigning world medalist at 86 kg, Taylor has already had a seat at Final X. But after this weekend, he now knows his opponent —Pat Downey III, who bested former Ohio State All-American Nick Heflin two matches to none.
The only men’s freestyle final on Sunday that stretched to three matches was former Nittany Lion Jason Nolf vs. former Illini Isaiah Martinez. Trailing 5-2 with just three seconds left on the clock in the second bout, Nolf threw Martinez for four points to stun him 6-5. Martinez finished things off in the third match with a 12-2 tech. He’ll move on to face multiple-time world and Olympic medalist Jordan Burroughs at the Final X in Lincoln.
Nico Megaludis fell short of making Final X this weekend, falling 6-4 to former Wisconsin standout Tyler Graff in the challenge tournament finals. Graff went out to best Cody Brewer in the championship finals to earn the chance to face reigning bronze medalist Joe Colon at Final X. Mark Hall also lost in the challenge tournament finals, falling 5-0 to Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia. Valencia lost to Alex Dieringer in the championship finals, and Dieringer will challenge Kyle Dake at Final X.
World Team Trials were also going on this weekend for Greco-Roman and junior freestyle. Nittany Lions Mason Manville and Jarod Verkleeren both fell short of making the Greco team. Manville lost two tight matches to Patrick Smith in the finals, and Smith will now go on to face last year’s World Team member Kumal Bey at Final X.
On the junior level, Nittany Lion sophomore Roman Bravo-Young lost 10-5 in the 62 kg challenge finals to Jaime Hernandez. Incoming freshman Aaron Brooks, however, will be the Junior World Team representative at 79 kg.