Ohio State is clinging to a six-point lead after Session 5 of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, but Penn State will be in the driver's seat going into tonight's NCAA finals.
The Buckeyes will only have two in tonight's finals, whereas the Nittany Lions have five. The team race as of now is:
— NCAA Wrestling (@ncaawrestling) March 17, 2018
Things appeared to be going the Buckeyes' way early in Session 5, as Nathan Tomasello won by pin at 125. Luke Pletcher (133) and Joey McKenna (141) both picked up decisions as well. They had a 1.5-point lead with many more matches to go. Penn State's Nick Lee also struggled to finish against No. 2 Jaydin Eierman (Missouri) and ended up dropping a major decision because of it. However, losses by Micah Jordan (157) and Bo Jordan (174) started reducing Ohio State's margin of error. Kollin Moore cleaned up at 197, though, in the consolation semifinals to wrestle for third.
Following a gritty win by Tomasello over No. 8 Ethan Lizak (Minnesota), Luke Pletcher suffered a loss to unseeded Tariq Wilson (North Carolina State). It was a peculiar match, as Pletcher ended up thrown to his back on multiple occasions. Pletcher has just not been thrown like that much in his NCAA career. McKenna was able to get Ohio State back on track with a win over Jaydin Eierman in the third place match. Micah Jordan lost to No. 5 Alec Pantaleo (Michigan) in the fifth place match, but a medical forfeit for Bo Jordan gave the Buckeyes what looked to be three crucial team points going into the 197-pound, third-place match.
Moore Upset Swings Momentum?
The swing moment in the title race may have occurred at 197. Kyle Conel defeated No. 1 Moore again in the third-place match, preventing the Buckeyes from getting at least another placement point. At the same time, Shakur Rasheed defeated No. 6 Willie Miklus (Missouri) by major decision in a match where he was able to get to his tilt consistently. This resulted in a three-point swing for Penn State.
Nick Nevills completed Penn State's Session 5 on a high note with a 7-5 win over No. 12 Youssif Hemida (Maryland). Nevills had the capability to finish higher, but getting the placement point was important for the Nittany Lions. Despite Rasheed and Nevills wrestling below their seed, they picked up the wins when Penn State needed them most, and closed the gap on Ohio State. A nine- or 10-point gap would've been doable, but far more difficult. A six-point gap is very much something within reason for Penn State.
I would be remiss to not mention what a warrior Nick Lee is. He went from an opening-round loss to fifth place, which is such a massive accomplishment. It would have been easy to turtle up and be afraid after getting caught by Ryan Diehl, but Lee persevered. To wrestleback to fifth place and become a true freshman All-American, Lee defeated No. 5, No. 9, No. 10, No. 12, and No. 16. Lee is going to enter next season as one of the contenders at 141, and he has shown why he's such a promising prospect moving forward for Penn State. It'll be exciting to watch him develop throughout his time under Cael Sanderson.
What Does Penn State Need Tonight in Session 6?
Despite trailing, Penn State still controls its destiny. So, the question becomes obvious: how can the Nittany Lions win another national title? Every win in Session 6 will automatically give the winner's team four placement points, and they can earn bonus points on top of that. A pin is worth two additional points, a technical fall with nearfall points is worth 1.5 points, a technical fall without nearfall points is worth one, and a major decision is worth one.
Penn State has five finalists tonight, so the Lions can earn a maximum of 30 team points tonight. Now, the Nittany Lions have five defending national champions, but they aren't going to pin their way to the title. Ohio State has two finalists, so the maximum they can earn is 12 team points. Despite the quality of Myles Martin and Kyle Snyder, the Buckeyes aren't going to go with two pins either.
Nickal v. Martin Is Pivotal
The match that both teams will need to win for the team title is at 184. No. 1 Bo Nickal and No. 2 Myles Martin will not be the main event, but the winner could essentially flip the team race to Penn State or Ohio State. For Nickal, this final represents the ultimate redemption. The 2016 NCAA final is arguably the most memorable moment for college wrestling's best rivalry. Martin was able to come out on top - everyone within the sport remembers it.
Even if Nickal has the better record, NCAA finals will always be the standard. Nickal was able to avenge his loss in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament to Martin a couple of weeks ago. Now, he has the opportunity to avenge the loss on the grandest stage of them all with the greatest of team implications. Ohio State and Penn State are both worthy winners, and they'll both be relying on their horses at 184 to win their team the title.
Here are the realistic breakdowns for the team race:
- If Bo Nickal loses by a normal decision and Kyle Snyder wins by decision, Penn State would essentially need all of Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf, Vincenzo Joseph and Mark Hall or bonus points from at least two of them to win the team title.
- If Bo Nickal wins by a normal decision, then Penn State would essentially need two of Retherford, Nolf, Joseph and Hall to repeat as champions to win the team title, even if Snyder wins.
Zain Retherford will be looking to close out his career with a 94-match win streak when he faces No. 15 Ronald Perry (Lock Haven). Retherford is still one pin away from the all-time record at Penn State, and there could not be a grander or more important stage for him to show off the bonus points he gets match after match. Perry has been one of the Cinderellas of the tournament, and he has beaten No. 2 Brandon Sorensen and third-place finisher Matt Kolodzik (Princeton). Does the slipper still fit? Buckeye fans will be hoping it does.
Nolf will be looking to repeat as a two-time champion tonight against No. 1 Hayden Hidlay (North Carolina State). Nolf's season was thrown for a loop when he suffered a knee injury, and he has wrestled this entire postseason with a sizable knee brace. Despite the knee brace, Nolf has already accounted for 19 team points on his own, and he showed off his dominant top game against Micah Jordan in the semifinals. It's not been the Nolf we're used to, but he's still finding ways to win. Hidlay has had a great season and deserved the one-seed in all honesty. He defeated Alec Pantaleo in the semifinals after he threw Pantaleo to his back for a huge six point move. Hidlay deserves respect, and he has the ability to throw a wrench into Penn State's team title aspirations.
Then, perhaps one of the most anticipated NCAA final rematches in years will occur at 165 pounds, with Vincenzo Joseph taking on two-time champion and four-time finalist No. 1 Isaiah Martinez (Illinois). No one can forget Joseph's pin over Martinez from last season, and it was clear Martinez didn't either. Martinez was able to win 4-1 over Joseph in what was a tight match, but one that Martinez wrestled very well in. Joseph has had a fantastic sophomore season and will not be someone Martinez takes lightly. This matchup is poised to be tight again; can Joseph pull off the upset a second year in a row?
Mark Hall and No. 1 Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) is probably one of the most anticipated matchups in this set of NCAA finals, chalked full of high quality matches. Hall and Valencia had a match that was decided by an illegal headgear grab from Valencia in last year's semifinals. Hall ended up winning the NCAA title. Both of these guys wrestled at the NWCA All-Star Classic, a match that Valencia won 3-2. Since then, these guys have dominated their competition this season and particularly this NCAA Tournament. They've combined for eight wins this tournament with six of them by bonus. It's rare that you'll see such domination from two different wrestlers at the same weight. This match will be among the tightest that the NCAA has seen in recent years, and Ohio State will be hoping that the Sun Devil can find a way against Hall.
The only other wrestler in the final for either teams is Kyle Snyder, who will face No. 2 Adam Coon (Michigan) in the main event of Session 6. The solution is simple for the Buckeyes: Snyder needs to win. It's really difficult to see a path for the Buckeyes to win without Captain America picking up the win here. Even worse for the Buckeyes, considering the finish to Session 5, they may need this to be by bonus points. Coon is a tremendously difficult wrestler to deal with due to his size, and it's difficult to imagine him ending up on his back. Never count out Snyder, but he may have too much to do by the time he takes the mat.
The championship session, Session 6, will air on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. EDT.