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Penn State in line for another title as five Nittany Lions advance to finals
ST. LOUIS — Any doubts that might have risen after Penn State failed to win the Big Ten Championships two weeks ago certainly were nowhere to be found in the Scottrade Center the past two days, including Friday night’s semifinals when all five Nittany Lions won their matches to all but guarantee a second straight team championship for coach Cael Sanderson’s wrestlers.
“Every team is in the same boat,” said Sanderson, whose program is looking to capture a sixth title in seven years, despite not having a highly-ranked 125-pounder in injured Nick Suriano. “I don’t know if there’s doubt. We believe in our kids, and we see the potential. We see the positives, and we’ve got to go with that.”
Heading into Saturday morning’s All-American round where six other placements — third through eighth — will be determined, Penn State stands on top with 121 points, nearly 31 points ahead of Big Ten champ Ohio State (89.5), Oklahoma (86) and Missouri (81.5).
The Buckeyes feature two finalists in 174-pound Bo Jordan, who rallied from a 7-2 deficit to win a 174-pound semifinal and defending champion Kyle Snyder at heavyweight. The Buckeyes also have four other All-Americans.
Oklahoma State will feature just one finalist in defending champion Dean Heil at 141 pounds, while seven other Cowboys will earn All-American honors on Saturday.
The Tigers, considered the hosts of this year’s nationals, will send three wrestlers to the finals as Lavion Mayes (149) and Joey Lavallee (157) will join two-time champion J’den Cox (197).
Also shooting for a third championship on Saturday will be Illinois junior Isaiah Martinez at 165 pounds and 184-pound Gabe Dean of Cornell.
But when it comes to the most dominant team in this year’s NCAAs, that honor will go again to Penn State, especially 149-pound Zain Retherford and 184-pound Bo Nickal, who scored pins against a pair of Iowa Hawkeyes, Brandon Sorensen and Sammy Brooks.
Nickal said finishing third at the Big Tens had not impact on him.
“I don’t really feel like a win or a loss defines me,” said the native of Texas. “It’s not going to make or break me as a person. I’m just going to be who I am each and every day. Just because you win or lose on a wrestling mat doesn’t mean that you’re a different person after the loss. I just kept going, and it’s life, you know. Some things aren’t going to go your way. Just got to keep moving forward.”
Meanwhile, Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165) and Mark Hall (174) also won their semifinals as part of the programs murderer’s row lineup that will all be back a year from now. Hall, just a true freshman, got help from Sanderson and his staff, when it appeared Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia scored a takedown and an apparent 3-1 lead. But a technical violation — for pulling a headgear — was called and Hall eventually won 4-3.
“(Coach Casey) Cunningham saw it,” Sanderson said of the call. “You saw kind of a weird reaction of Mark’s head kind of getting twisted and position he would scramble in, but wasn’t able to.”
Valencia was one of three top seeds to lose — Iowa’s top-ranked Thomas Gilman suffered his firsts loss of the year to Lehigh’s Darian Cruz in overtime at 125 pounds while another Hawkeye, Cory Clark, upset Big Ten champ Nathan Tomasello at 133 pounds.
Clark, who finished second to Oklahoma’s Cody Brewer in 2015 and against Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett last year in New York City, will face a former Iowa teammate in South Dakota State’s Seth Gross, who was let go by the Hawkeye program for off-the-mat issues.
“Two years from this day I was in jail,” said a candid Gross, who majored Oklahoma State’s Kaid Brock, 12-3. “It’s crazy to think what God has done for me and my team has done for me, my family, and everybody that’s had my back since then. Looking back on that day, I never thought I would be wrestling in the NCAA Finals two years later. I thought my wrestling career was over. It’s an amazing feeling. Can’t thank God enough. Just trying to use the best of my opportunity, my coaches that God has given me and everybody that was rooting for me. I’m doing this for them.”
Top 10 Team Standings after Semifinals
|1||Penn State (5/1)||121|
|2||Ohio State (2/4)||89.5|
|3||Oklahoma State (1/7)||86|
|8||Virginia Tech (0/5)||53.5|
The following is a list of Saturday night’s finals. The NCAA will announce Saturday morning which weight class will be the last one.
125 — Darian Cruz (Lehigh) vs. Ethan Lizak (Minnesota)
133 — Cory Clark (Iowa) vs. Seth Gross (South Dakota State)
141 — Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) vs. George DiCamillo (Virginia)
149 — Zain Retherford (Penn State) vs. Lavion Mayes (Missouri)
157 — Jason Nolf (Penn State) vs. Joey Lavallee (Missouri)
165 — Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) vs. Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State)
174 — Mark Hall (Penn State) vs. Bo Jordan (Ohio State)
184 — Gabe Dean (Cornell) vs. Bo Nickal (Penn State)
197 — J’den Cox (Missouri) vs. Brett Pfarr (Minnesota)
Hwt — Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) vs. Connor Medbery (Wisconsin)