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Photo: Zain Retherford (center) was presented the 2017 Dan Hodge Trophy last fall during a Penn State football game. The three-time NCAA champion will first receive the 2018 trophy on April 15 at the Penn State wrestling banquet, then again in front of over 100,000 Nittany Lion fans at a 2018 Penn State football game, to be announced.
By WIN Magazine Publisher Bryan Van Kley
For only the fourth time in the 24-year history of college wrestling’s top award, Penn State’s Zain Retherford has been named the WIN Magazine/Culture House Dan Hodge Trophy winner for a second consecutive year. The three-time NCAA champ got 35 out of 48 first-place Hodge votes from a dominant group of Hodge finalists.
“To win the award that symbolizes dominance in college wrestling two years in a row means a lot to me. It’s awesome,” Retherford said. “Coming into college my first year, I really wasn’t that dominant. I would ride just to ride and would squeak out a few wins. Throughout wrestling at Penn State, I learned to look for more points and expand matches a little bit.”
The Hodge Trophy, presented annually by ASICS Wrestling, was created by WIN founder Mike Chapman in 1994. It is named after the former University of Oklahoma wrestler who won three NCAA titles (1955-57), never allowed a takedown in his career and pinned 36 of 46 foes. Hodge is still the only wrestler ever to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“Zain is very consistent. That’s one of the keys to him being who he is. His consistency is his best every second. And that’s very rare,” Sanderson said.
Retherford dominated his 149-pound peers during his senior season, winning titles at the Keystone Classic, Southern Scuffle and Big Ten Championships leading into the NCAA Championships. Finishing his Nittany Lion career at 126-3, Retherford scored bonus points in all but five matches this year, racking up 17 pins, 5 technical falls and 4 major decisions. His bonus-point percentage on the year was 83.9%.
The Benton, Pa., native joins the elite group of multiple-time Hodge winners. Penn State coach Cael Sanderson captured wrestling’s version of the Heisman Trophy three times, from 2000-2002 and won four NCAA titles at Iowa State.
Penn State’s 2014 team captain David Taylor also won the award twice: in 2012 and then as a senior in 2014. Missouri’s Ben Askren was the final multi-year winner, taking home the Hodge 2006 and 2007.
Nittany Lion Bo Nickal, the 184-pound junior who sealed the team title for Penn State with his dramatic NCAA finals pin against Ohio State’s Myles Martin, finished second in the Hodge voting with six first-place votes. South Dakota State’s Seth Gross tallied four first-place votes after winning the 133-pound title. Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia (174) earned the other three first-place votes.
The Hodge Voting Committee is made up of all past winners of the award, national wrestling media and select retired college coaches from different regions of the country. The final two first-place official Hodge votes are awarded to the Fan Vote winner from a nation-wide poll on WIN’s website the week after the NCAA Championships. Retherford easily won that voting as well, getting 52 percent of the over 25,000 unique votes. Gross came in second with 22 percent and just over 5,500 votes.
All four Hodge finalists had very dominant seasons. Nickal (31-0) was only one pin behind Retherford with 16 falls, and also added a tech fall and six majors in his 31-0 season. Gross finished 29-1 with his only loss coming in a February dual meet when he moved up to 141 to face No. 1 Bryce Meredith of Wyoming. The Jackrabbit had 12 pins, seven technical falls and five major decisions. Valencia finished 32-0 with nine pins, seven tech falls and nine major decisions in winning his first NCAA title.
After settling for fifth place as a 141-pound true freshman in 2014 and redshirting in 2015, Retherford ended his collegiate career on a 95-match winning streak in winning three straight titles at 149 pounds.
Like Taylor, Retherford also helped lead the Lions to four national championships as a team. The only year Penn State didn’t win the title in his five seasons in State College was the two-time Pennsylvania state champ’s redshirt season.
Retherford said he doesn’t think about the legacy he leaves on college wrestling any more than simply hoping people enjoyed watching him wrestle and that young wrestlers got something technically from him. The business major said he’s most proud of who he has become as a college student-athlete.
“Win or lose a match, I think I became a better person being at Penn State and made the most of it. The thing I’m most proud of is the person I’ve become,” Retherford said.
Sanderson said his “low-key” senior is one of kind who didn’t change once he had high-level success.
“When he won the Hodge (in 2017), it really didn’t change him. He’s still the nice Zain. But when he competes, he’s tenacious and competes to score points and do what it takes. He’s low-key, but he’s competitive and wants to be a World and Olympic champion,” the Nittany Lion coach said.
The primary criteria for the award are record, number of pins, dominance and quality of competition. Secondary criteria used to separate finalists with similar stats are past credentials, sportsmanship/citizenship and heart.
Retherford will be presented the award publically on Sunday, April 15 at the Penn State wrestling banquet. And then as is tradition with the Hodge, he’ll be publicly presented the award again in front of the larger Penn State athletic community at a home football game this fall.