Penn State's Cael Sanderson reflects on winning the NCAA Championship
It took about one hour for the team race to be completed on Saturday.
It took another 2 1/2 hours to crown 2 champions in front of 19, 270 fans — the second-largest session crowd in NCAA Tournament history.
Penn State’s Nico Megaludis (125 pounds) and Zain Retherford (149) each reached their goals of an NCAA individual crown inside Madison Square Garden. Jason Nolf (157), Bo Nickal (174) and Morgan McIntosh (197) finished as runners-up.
Earlier in the day, the Nittany Lions cliniched the team title. They finished with 123 points — the fourth-highest total they’ve scored. It was 25.5 points better than Oklahoma State. Ohio State, Virginia Tech and Iowa rounded out the top five teams.
“Obviously, it was a great team effort,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “We’re happy but we leave here ready to improve and build. We’re excited about the future also. We lost some tough matches here in the finals but it’s the national tournament.”
It is the third time Penn State had five finalists in the same year it won the national title.
In 2012, the Nittany Lions had three champions in current assistant coach Frank Molinaro, David Taylor and Ed Ruth. Megaludis and Bald Eagle Area grad Quentin Wright finished as runner-ups. The following year there were two champions in Ruth and Wright with Megaludis, Taylor and Matt Brown finishing second.
After three years of trying, Megaludis was able to crack the code. He finally did with a 6-3 victory over Iowa’s Thomas Gilman. Megaludis finished as a four-time All-American finishing second twice, third and now a champion.
“Couldn’t be happier for Nico,” Sanderson said. “He is a guy we wanted to win in the worst possible way. It was emotional and awesome. A kid that works extremely hard and is very disciplined, it’s very rare.”
Megaludis tallied the only takedowns in the match. The first came with 30 seconds left in the first period. The other came in the second and he held a 4-2 lead to open the third. He tacked on an escape and secured a riding time point for the win.
“It’s not even celebration,” Megaludis said. “It’s just relief. I’m just relieved. I knew I was going to be the champion. It was a done deal a year ago when I signed everywhere — my room at Penn State, my room at home, my bathroom at home, my wrestling room at home, my car steering wheel — ‘I am 2016 national champion.’ I come into my car every day on my steering wheel and I see that and I brainwashed myself.”
It’s not even celebration. It’s just relief. I’m just relieved. I knew I was going to be the champion. It was a done deal a year ago when I signed everywhere — my room at Penn State, my room at home, my bathroom at home, my wrestling room at home, my car steering wheel — ‘I am 2016 national champion.’ I come into my car every day on my steering wheel and I see that and I brainwashed myself.
Retherford dominated Iowa’s Brandon Sorenson from start to finish in his finale. Two takedowns in the first period gave the redshirt sophomore a 4-1 lead. It remained the Retherford show as he tacked on two more takedowns for the 10-1 major decision victory.
“It’s just starting to set in right now,” Retherford said of his first title. “It’s awesome. That’s all I can say about it. I train for this every day. I have a great coaching staff and great opponents that push me every day.”
It was his first title and he is now a two-time All-American.
“What can you say about Zain,” Sanderson said. “Zain is just Zain. He is only a sophomore but the pressure he puts on his opponents and scores points … we’re glad he is only a sophomore. Well, we wish he was a freshman or just coming into school. He is a great leader for us. We hope everyone will follow his lead.”
McIntosh aimed to finish his Nittany Lion career with a title much like Megaludis. He faced Missouri’s J’Den Cox in the finals and it didn’t come to fruition.
“Like I said, he’s a tough competitor,” Cox said. “Wrestled through position, we saw that today. But it’s exactly what I said it was going to be. He’s tough, he’s strong. He wrestles good position. I’m grateful to come out on top.”
The pair were scoreless after one period, although a scramble looked to go in Cox’s favor but ended with no points. Cox took the lead with an escape in the second period.
McIntosh tied it up at 1-1 with 58 seconds remaining. Cox picked up a takedown with 10 seconds to go that proved to be enough in a 4-2 win for his second NCAA title.
McIntosh finished his career as a three-time All-American and a career record of 114-19.
“Morgan had a great year and a great career,” Sanderson said. “We were hoping he could go win that match but ran into a tough kid. We’re real happy for Morgan.”
Nolf and Nickal became the third and fourth freshmen, respectively, in Penn State history to reach the finals in their first tournament. They joined Megaludis and Taylor.
Nolf matched up with Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez in the most anticipated match of the night. It was the third time the pair faced each other this year. They wouldn’t disappoint.
They traded takedowns and escapes in the first period. Martinez got an escape in the second as Nolf gave him the optional start.
In the third, Nolf escaped to tie it up at 4-4. Martinez picked up a takedown with 16 seconds to go with a nice duck under and Nolf escaped with seven seconds to go. It wasn’t enough time as Martinez defended his 157-pound title. Nolf finished his season 33-2 with both loses to Martinez.
“I’m extremely pleased just with the win,” Martinez said, “especially a competitor like that. He’s definitely special. He gave me a hell of a fight. I just knew if it came down to the end that I was going to get it done.”
Nickal and Ohio State’s Myles Martin were paired up for a fourth time this season. Nickal won the first three meetings, the most recent being a pin in the Big Ten finals.
This time it was Martin’s turn in a thrilling 11-9 win. Nickal tried to hit a toss and Martin slipped the hold and got the counter takedown. Nickal quickly escaped but that was it for the period.
In the second, Nickal took a 4-2 lead thanks to an escape and a takedown. Martin reclaimed the lead after an escape that saw him counter a Nickal takedown attempt and stick him for four near-fall points. Nickal trailed 10-4 in third but looked for the rally. It came up short as he earned just one takedown, two stall points and a riding time point.
Jordan Conaway got the day started for Penn State in the 133-pound consolation semifinals. He squared off with Illinois’ Zane Richards. Richards tallied the only takedown in the match to hold off Conaway for the 3-2 win.
Conaway fell into the fifth-place match to face Nebraska’s Eric Montoya. Conaway led most of the match but in the third period it got away from him. He chose bottom and Montoya put together a strong ride. Montoya turned Conaway for four near-fall points to take a 6-4 lead. Montoya tacked on a riding time point for the 7-4 win. Conaway finishes his Nittany Lion career as a two-time All-American. He finished eighth at 125 pounds last season.
“Jordan is a gamer,” Sanderson said. “It’s a tough loss there at the end but he beat three All-Americans on his route. He wrestled well. He has continued to get better throughout his career. As a coach, you’re really proud of his effort.”