We are… National champs

Penn State sets number of NCAA records

ST. LOUIS — Penn State produced arguably the most astounding finals performance in NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships history Saturday night at the Scottrade Center to win its second consecutive national championship and sixth in seven years.

The Nittany Lions won five consecutive finals (from 149 through 184), the first team to ever accomplish that, and only the fourth team to crown five champions in the same year, joining Dan Gable’s 1986 and 1997 teams at Iowa and Oklahoma State coach John Smith’s 2005 squad.

Penn State’s team total of 146.5 points is the most in school history, eclipsing the 143 the 2012 team scored. Ohio State was second with 110, Oklahoma State third with 103, Iowa fourth with 97 and Missouri fifth with 86.5.

Junior Zain Retherford (149) won his second title and ran his consecutive wins streak to 63, sophomore Jason Nolf (157) won after losing in the finals last year, freshman Vincenzo Joseph (165) beat a two-time defending champion, freshman Mark Hall (174) won and sophomore Bo Nickal (184) dethroned a two-time defending champion.

Six Nittany Lions will return home as All-Americans as Nick Nevills (285) finished fifth.

It was, quite simply, a tour de force.

“Yeah, this is a great team. And with Suriano getting hurt, he was a guy we felt had a legit chance to win a national championship as well. This is our best dual season ever, just in how we competed and we’re on the road,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “So when you have a great dual season like that you want to finish it off with a national championship. And so we’re glad that things have worked out for us. But we’re always looking ahead, obviously. But we’re going to enjoy this, just really happy for the guys.

“I don’t think I even have words to describe that. It was unbelievable. I’m so happy for these guys. They wrestled amazing. They did it,”

The NCAA allowed fans to vote for the final match of the night and the vote settled on 184 pounds, which meant Penn State won the last five titles of the night.

Rethorford’s path to his second consecutive championship was dominant. He had three technical falls, a fall in the semifinals and then an 18-2 technical fall in 6:42 over Missouri No. 3 seed Lavion Mayes in the final.

Mayes struck first, hitting a lightning quick double leg 28 seconds into the match.

“I’ve been taken down before. I was feeling kind of nervous, but more excited nervous. So that’s the signal it’s go time,” Retherford said. “It’s national finals, let’s go. So, yeah, just keep focusing on keep scoring after that point, doesn’t matter.”

Retherford escaped 21 seconds later and then gathered a takedown of his own to lead, 3-2, after a period. An escape and takedown in the third gave him a 6-2 lead after two.

In the third, Mayes chose bottom and Retherford kept him there, turning him three separate times with a brutal top ride for 12 points and the win.

Nolf blitzed his way to the title by rolling up two technical falls, a pin and then two major decisions, the last a 14-6 demolition of Missouri No. 3 seed Joey Lavallee.

Nolf started slowly, scoring a takedown with 1:10 left in the first and ceding an escape. In the second, he escaped, earned a penalty point and then a takedown to take a 6-2 lead into the final frame. Then, as he is wont to do, he turned it on, scoring four takedowns to close out the win.

“I am looking to get a pin out there every time no matter what. And I’m kind of upset a little bit when I don’t,” Nolf said. “So, even though I just won the national title, I’m still looking to improve. But I’m grateful for all of this.”

For Nolf, it was his chance to take one step to the top of the podium after falling in the finals last year to Isaiah Martinez.

“It was super heartbreaking last year. That was my goal. It was my goal to be a four-time national champ. That obviously stopped that,” Nolf said. “So, Martinez is a great competitor, and I have a lot of respect for the way he wrestles.

Joseph and two-time defending champion Martinez from Illinois, who defeated Nolf in last year’s 157-pound final, put on quite a show. They exchanged shrug takedowns and escapes in the first. In the second, Martinez had two escapes to Joseph’s takedown and the match was tied, 5-5, after two.

Joseph had 1:05 of riding time accumulated at the start of the third and escaped in five seconds, which looked huge at the time as he led 6-5.

But he and Martinez went over-under, chest-to-chest, a position Martinez scored with at the Big Ten Championships. This time, Joseph dumped the Illini to his back, feet flying and then settled in chest to chest and scored the fall, unleashing a thunderous roar.

“You know, he was taking out a lot, and after my first takedown, he was trying to force it a lot more. My second, and then he’d be coming hard at it and kind of set it up perfectly,” Joseph said.

Joseph headed into assistant coach Casey Cunningham’s waiting arms and then Sanderson’s, had his hand raised and then sprinted into the stands to hug his mom and dad. After he was interviewed on ESPN, he was greeted in the tunnel by several of his teammates. Joseph was the first Nittany Lion redshirt freshman to win a national title.

After a scoreless first period, Hall escaped and scored a takedown on the edge for a 3-0 lead. Ohio State’s Bo Jordan, though, escaped and the match went into the third with Hall leading 3-1. Jordan escaped and then coaxed a stalling call against Hall with 48 seconds left. With Hall retreating, Jordan stayed on the attack, but Hall scored a takedown with four seconds left for a 5-2 win.

“It’s all buildup. One day I want to be an Olympic champion. That’s my ultimate goal, and then coach my college team, just like coach Cael,” Hall said. “That’s the guy I look up to.”

Hall is the first Nittany Lion true freshman to win a national championship and only the 17th in the history of the tournament.

In the marquee bout of the night, Nickal tangled with Cornell’s Gabe Dean, who was trying to win his third title. The two swapped takedowns in the first period and Nickal added an escape for al 3-2 lead after one. Nickal’s second-period escape sent him into the fourth with a 4-2 lead.

Dean escaped 14 seconds into the third and he tried desperately to score a winning takedown. He was in on a leg for the final 20 seconds as a wild scramble ensued. Neither wrestler could gain an advantage and Nickal was a champ, 4-3, after losing in the finals a year ago at 174.

Penn State’s seventh championship ties it with Oklahoma for fourth on the all-time list. Oklahoma State heads the list with 34, followed by Iowa with 23 and Iowa State with eight. The Lions’ previous titles came in 2016, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011 and 1953.

Nevills went 1-1 Saturday morning to claim his fifth-place finish. He fell to Virginia Tech’s Ty Walz in the consolation semifinals, 5-3. He rebounded with a 4-3 sudden victory win over Duke’s Jacob Kasper in the fifth-place bout, avenging his quarterfinal loss.

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