In a tournament with more upsets, more history-making and more red/green brick throwing than we’ve seen in recent years, one thing remained the same – the Nittany Lions are National Champions.
For the eighth time in the past nine years, Cael Sanderson and his team took home the first-place crown thanks to dominating bonus-point wins early in the tournament. By the end of the fifth session, Penn State had already claimed the team title and had five wrestlers going for individual titles in the finals. The team also had seven All-Americans and was the only team to score over 100 points, with a team total of 137.5 – 40 points ahead of second place, Ohio State.
Saturday night kicked off at heavyweight with underdog No. 2 Anthony Cassar hungry for a National title. He faced Oklahoma State’s No. 1 Derek White who was favored to win the tournament. Leading up to the finals, Cassar had one pin in the first round, followed by a major decision and two decision wins. He went up against No. 3 Gable Steveson of Minnesota in the semis for a rematch of the Big Ten title. The thrilling match went to the last second but ended in Cassar’s favor 4-3. That win sent him to meet Derek White. The first period of the finals match was an even battle and ended in no score. White chose down to start the second and quickly escaped to a lead. The second period was playing out like the first until Cassar caught White with a single leg that led to a takedown and near fall points with just 10 seconds left in the period. With the momentum weighted toward the Nittany Lion, he quickly escaped to start the third and took a healthy 7-1 lead. Cassar then scored on a low single and worked to lock up the riding time point. Cassar’s dominating first run through collegiate wrestling ended in a Big Ten and National title and he’s hoping to come back for more next season.
Freshman No. 10 Roman Bravo-Young entered the tournament in one of the toughest, highly-competitive weight classes the sport has seen at 133. He blew through the first round with an 8-2 victory, then faced Iowa wild-card No. 7 Austin DeSanto. He lost 2-7 to DeSanto but was able to battle his way back through the consolation rounds to earn an All-American title and seventh place finish.
Sophomore No. 3 Nick Lee earned his second All-American title. He scored two pins in the first two rounds and beat No. 22 Max Murin from Iowa in the quarterfinals to make it to the semis Friday night. He faced No. 2 Joey McKenna in the semifinals. The familiar rivalry was even at one win each on the season – Lee in the regular season and McKenna in the Big Ten tournament. McKenna’s dominant ride on top in the second period ultimately gave him the win with the riding time point, even though Lee fought back to tie things up in the third. Lee dropped his next match in the consolation semifinals against No. 9 Dom Demas of Oklahoma. He was able to end the tournament on a high note with a win for his second-straight fifth-place finish. He pinned No. 7 Mitch McKee of Minnesota.
Redshirt freshman No. 12 Brady Berge at 149 and senior No. 2 Shakur Rasheed at 197 went 2-2 in the tournament and did not place.
Four-time All American and three-time National Champion, senior No. 1 Jason Nolf took home the crown at 157 and contributed a pin, two tech falls and a major decision to the team score. Nolf kicked off the tournament with a pin in just 47 seconds over No. 33 Ben Anderson from Duke. He continued his relentless scoring style in the second session and the quarterfinals. Nolf gave Nittany Nation quite a scare in the semifinals in a rematch of last year’s finals against North Carolina State’s No. 5 Hayden Hidley. The match had a controversial takedown and challenge end in Nolf’s favor at the end of the first and Nolf appeared to be off since. Nolf was able to notch a takedown in the second and cut Hidley loose to take a 3-1 lead. Hidley escaped again in the third to tighten the score and connected on a single-leg shot with seconds left in the bout. Nolf was able to hold him off on the late scoring chance to advance to the finals for a rematch of the Big Ten finals with Nebraska’s No. 2 Tyler Berger. Nolf looked back to normal Saturday night in the finals with a dominating 10-2 major over Berger for his final collegiate match and third straight individual title. He is the third Nittany Lion to earn three individual titles. Nolf finished the season spotless with a 31-0 record.
Three-time All American and Pittsburgh-native junior No. 2 Vincenzo Joseph got to wrestle in his backyard in front of a home crowd. He started of the tournament the same as Nolf with a pin over No. 31 Evan Delong from Clarion. He followed with three decision wins, including a nail-biter sudden victory win over No. 7 Isiah White of Nebraska in the quarterfinals. Joseph met No. 7 Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech in the finals looking for his third straight NCAA title. After a scoreless first period, Joseph chose down to start the second and Lewis was able to lock up a cradle, which Joseph eventually escaped from but trailed 4-1 after two. Lewis quickly escaped to a 5-1 lead and Joseph went on the attack. The Hokie was able to counter one last Joseph shot and sealed the deal with a 7-1 victory and a tough loss for Joseph.
Three-time All American Mark Hall met an all too familiar face in his finals match at 174. No. 3 Zahid Valencia of Arizona State was back for another win in the finals, while Hall was looking to end up back on top after last year’s loss in the finals. Hall beat Valencia earlier in the regular season, but Zahid was in much better spirits and much better shape at NCAAs. Valencia went in on a low single in the first, but Hall countered and forced a scramble to come out on top with the takedown. Valencia escaped, and Hall was able to hold on to the lead into the second. The Lion chose down to start the second and escaped. Valencia scored a late takedown in the second, which Penn State challenged, but to no avail. The Sun Devil was down to start the third and quickly escaped to a 4-3 lead. He was able to fight off Hall’s shots and hold out for the win. This was Hall’s first loss of the season – but no doubt these two will meet again next year for the fourth and final showdown.
The night led up to the final matchup between four-time All American senior No. 1 Bo Nickal and No. 2 Kollin Moore at 197. Nickal was searching for his third NCAA title and Moore was looking for his first win over the Nittany Lion powerhouse. Leading up to the finals, Nickal notched three pins in the first two rounds and the semifinals, and a major decision win in the quarters. Moore and Nickal stepped onto the stage through the spotlights and fog for one last battle for the throne. Nickal drew first blood in the final seconds of the first with a takedown on the edge of the mat to lead 2-0. Moore scored an escape point in the second, but the rest of the period remained locked at 2-1. Nickal escaped early in the third and locked up a cradle for the final takedown of the bout to secure the 5-1 win. He became Penn State’s fourth three-time NCAA Champion and finished his season with a spotless 30-0 record. Nickal was also honored as the NCAA’S Most Dominant Wrestler of 2019.
With all but Nolf and Nickal expected back on the roster next year and the possible addition of Kyle Conel at 197 from Kent State – next season is already looking bright. For now, add another National Champion hat to your collection and start counting down the days until November.