Retherford wins Hodge Trophy

149-pounder named nations top wrestler

Penn State's Zain Retherford is named the winner in the 149-pound match in the championship round of the NCAA Division I wresting championships, Saturday, March 18, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

UNIVERSITY PARK — For two seasons, Penn State coaches and fans have contended that 149-pounder Zain Retherford is the best collegiate wrestler in the nation.

On Tuesday, the rest of the wrestling nation finally signaled its agreement.

Retherford was named Tuesday the WIN Magazine/Culture House Dan Hodge Trophy recipient, presented annually to the top collegiate wrestler in the nation by ASICS.

Known for his soft-spoken and humble demeanor, Retherford’s response to the news was predictably understated.

“I was pretty happy. It’s a pretty awesome award. It represents Dan Hodge, a legend. I met him once. I think I have big hands. His hands were twice the size of mine. I’ve heard stories about him. He was a boxer, a wrestler and a national champion. Very dominant. To win something named after him is pretty awesome,” he said Tuesday in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex.

Many observers thought Retherford should have won the award a year ago when he finished the season undefeated at 34-0 as the NCAA champion, having racked up three pins, a technical fall and a 10-1 major decision in the final of the national tournament.

He finished second in the Hodge voting, though, to Oklahoma State three-time NCAA champion Alex Dieringer, who capped his third title with a 33-0 mark.

“I think he’s very deserving. We thought last year statistically he had a great chance. You just had Dieringer (who) had such an outstanding career,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said Tuesday.

“He had an incredible year. Teching your way through the national tournament, it’s unbelievable. It doesn’t happen … it’s happened probably a couple times. Even last year he teched/pinned everybody and a major in the finals. To do that two years in a row is really impressive. That’s legendary type of stuff there.”

Retherford is the third Nittany Lion to have won the award since it was first presented in 1995. Kerry McCoy won it in 1997. David Taylor is one of only three two-time winners, having won it in 2012 and 2014.

Sanderson, who won it in 2000, 2001 and 2002 at Iowa State, is the only three-time recipient. Missouri’s Ben Askren, who won it in 2007 and 2008, is the only other two-time winner.

Retherford, Penn State’s 26th three-time All-American and seventh two-time NCAA champion, ran his winning streak to 63 straight matches with his five-match march to a second NCAA championship on March 16-18 in St. Louis.

The junior finance major earned the 2017 NCAA Championships Outstanding Wrestler award after racking up four technical falls and a pin in helping lead the Nittany Lions to back-to-back titles and their sixth championship in seven years.

He ended the season with a 28-0 record with 17 pins, seven technical falls and a major decision. Those superlatives earned him the NCAA’s 2017 Most Dominant Wrestler award.

Retherford won practically every other award available to him, including:

¯ 2017 Big Ten Champion

¯2017 Big Ten Championship Outstanding Wrestler

¯2017 First Team All-Big Ten

¯2017 Academic All-Big Ten

After his 18-2 technical fall win over Missouri’s Lavion Mayes in this year’s NCAA final, in which he gave up the first takedown of the match and then reeled off 18 unanswered points, Retherford admitted he had wanted to win the Hodge after last season. On Tuesday, he said that experience forced a change.

“After last year when I didn’t get the Hodge, I reevaluted some things. I approached this year like, ‘if it’s in the cards, it’s in the cards.’ I’m just going to do my best and, at the end of the year, if I get it, I get it. If not, I didn’t get it. I’m going to do that same thing next year,” he said.

Retherford will try to win a third title and fourth All-America honor during the 2017-18 season. He’ll carry with him a 95-3 career record that includes 36 pins, 17 technical falls and 17 majors.

Despite all of that, Retherford said he still thinks he has lots of areas to improve in.

“I’m here at practice right now. It doesn’t change anything that way. I’m still going to do what I’m going to do. There are a lot of moves and positions I need to work on, obviously. I got taken down in the national finals. Any moment someone’s ready to compete against you so I’ve got to work on some stuff and improve,” he said.

“I don’t think I’m a marked man. I don’t see myself as that. I see myself as someone who steps on the mat and, when he steps on the line, he’ll be ready.”