It's hard to even know how to begin to describe Penn State's dominance in wrestling. After clinching a sixth national championship in seven years, and winning five individual titles (out of five opportunities on Saturday night), it's easy to simply accept it as the norm. But there is nothing normal about what the Nittany Lion wrestling program is doing. It's easy to look back on the results of the 2017 NCAA Tournament and accept it as the expected outcome, but to do so would be a bit of revisionist history.
On Wednesday, Penn State announced that Nick Suriano wasn't going to wrestle in the NCAA's following an injury sustained against Nick Piccininni in the National Duals Championship. Following this announcement, Penn State still entered the tournament as favorites, but it was expected that the team title race would boil down to the final session.
Ohio State, led by Nathan Tomasello, Bo Jordan, Myles Martin, Kollin Moore, and Kyle Snyder, were expected to keep close. Oklahoma State, with Dean Heil, Anthony Collica, Kaid Brock, and a host of wrestlers who could become All-Americans or maybe finalists, were expected to put up a fight. Penn State, on the other hand, was down a man. How would they keep pace with last year's dominant team?
That answer was simple: by beating the brakes off of every single wrestler standing in their path. Penn State scored 31.5 bonus points during the NCAA Tournament, which as a total by itself, would have been good for 15th place. The points earned by individual national champions Zain Retherford, Bo Nickal, and Jason Nolf combined would have ended sixth.
Following a fifth place finish from Nick Nevills in session five, Penn State entered session six with five finalists and the team national title already clinched. Standing between various Nittany Lions and individual title glory were some of the best wrestlers in the country in two-time national champions Isaiah Martinez and Gabe Dean, along with preseason No. 1 Bo Jordan. With the team title wrapped up, Penn State had every built-in excuse to limp across the finish line. They didn't.
It all started with Retherford. Surprisingly, he was the victim of the first takedown of the match, courtesy of No. 3 Lavion Mayes. Retherford, clearly not amused, went on to score 18 consecutive points while nearly locking in the same bow and arrow that he used to pin Brandon Sorensen. Mayes fought it off though, leaving Retherford to settle for a technical fall and the Most Outstanding Wrestler and Most Dominant Wrestler awards. So he did fine, I guess.
Nolf was up next against Joey Lavallee. Nolf wrestled a textbook Nolf match, dominating the action from start to finish. By the end of the match, he had broken Lavallee, scoring takedown after takedown in the third. It was the perfect result for Nolf after a dominant season.
The shock of the night came when Vincenzo Joseph PINNED Martinez (after all, we are PIN STATE). Joseph gave up the first takedown, but took things to a different level from there, dominating Martinez. He scored two takedowns and an escape point prior to the double overhook trip that led to Martinez being put on his back and pinned in what was easily the most exciting moment of the entire tournament.
Mark Hall then got his revenge on Bo Jordan after Jordan was victorious in the matchup between the two at the Big Ten Tournament. Hall was up 3-2 when he was hit with a stall warning late in the third period. Hall responded well, though, scoring a slick double leg late in the third, clinching the Lions' fourth individual national title in four tries.
Then came the main event. One versus two. Gabe Dean vs. Bo Nickal. Outside of the fact that Bruce Buffer wasn't there to let us know that it was TIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIME for the main event, it was everything that college wrestling fans could have hoped for out of a marquee matchup.
It was clear from the beginning that these two were as equally matched as any pair in the country. If they wrestled each other ten times on neutral ground, it's likely that they'd split that series five and five. However, with the lights shining bright and a championship on the line, Nickal took home the crown with a 4-3 victory.
Saturday night exhibited Penn State's dominance in wrestling under its most magnified spotlight. At a time when the Nittany Lions appeared to be at their most vulnerable, they responded by scoring their highest ever point total at the tournament and captured another title. This goes beyond Zain's calculated tenaciousness, Nolf's technical dominance, or Bo's unparalleled fearlessness.
When it comes to college wrestling, and perhaps college athletics in general, there is no program and no dynasty quite like what we're currently witnessing with Penn State under Cael Sanderson.
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