Lions aim for thriller in Ohio

UNIVERSITY PARK — Nick Lee was a freshman just three weeks into his career as a Penn State starter last season when he got his first taste of the Penn State-Ohio State rivalry.

That night made an impression on him.

“That was really, really cool. It kind of felt to me like the biggest thing that I’ve ever been a part of to that point. It was indescribable,” he said Tuesday in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex. “You try to take the mindset of just another match, but that one was a lot of fun. There was a little bit of extra energy in there and it was fun being down on the floor. We had everyone do their job.”

Even without an injured Jason Nolf, No. 1 Penn State rallied for an epic 19-18 win over No. 2 Ohio State, thrilling 6,699 delirious Nittany Lion fans.

Over the last few years, you could make an argument that Nittany Lions vs. Buckeyes on the wrestling mat has produced more memorable moments than any other two teams.

Whether it was individual matchups, like Bo Nickal vs. Myles Martin, or team battles, like last year’s Rec Hall dual or the team race at the 2018 NCAA Championships, wrestling fans would be hard pressed to list a better rivalry.

The latest installment will be televised live by Big Ten Network at 8:30 p.m. Friday from St. John Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

The atmosphere in St. John, which seats more than 13,000 fans, promises to be electric.

“I’m sure it will be (a crazy atmosphere),” Nickal said. “With most of the Big Ten matches, you usually get a good crowd. I’m looking forward to it. There’s gonna be a lot of good matches. I think everybody’s ready to roll.”

Coach Cael Sanderson said a raucous crowd adds another level of enjoyment to a dual meet.

“Yeah, anytime the crowd’s into it, it makes it a little bit more fun. Ohio State has a great team, always does, and they’ll be ready to go and that will just add more to the opportunity, so we’re excited,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot of people tell me that (the 2018 dual) was one of their favorite dual meets they’ve ever been at. Just two great teams battling in an outstanding atmosphere. A lot of build-up last year. It was exciting, but that was last year. This year, we expect it to be very similar.”

With the potential for eight matchups featuring pairs of ranked wrestlers, points figure to be at a premium. So, it would follow that Penn State’s best chance to extend its 55-match winning streak would be to have its starting lineup intact.

The Nittany Lions had to overcome the absence of two starters — 133-pounder Roman Bravo-Young and 149-pounder Brady Berge — in last Friday’s win over No. 4 Michigan. And starting 184-pounder Shakur Rasheed looked a bit sluggish in a 5-3 win wrestling with a wrap on his right knee after missing the previous three duals.

“They’re fine,” Sanderson said of that trio. “Yeah, we’re good, good to go.”

The coach said Rasheed’s issue was not having wrestled in a while coupled with expending too much energy securing the first takedown in the bout.

He called Berge’s absence “a game-day decision last week. But you can see him through the window there. He’s wrestling hard (against former Nittany Lion Zain Retherford). He’s ready to go.”

As for Bravo-Young?

“We’re expecting him to wrestle this weekend. We weren’t gonna push anything so there wasn’t a reason to try to get him to wrestle (last Friday),” Sanderson said. “He was coming off a week prior where he injured himself. The more time the better for him.”

Several of Friday’s bouts could be back-and-forth affairs, but two stand out.

Lee will face a rematch with second-ranked 141-pounder Joey McKenna, who used a riding-time point to win a 7-6 decision a year ago.

“McKenna is very, very good and he’s been wrestling very, very well, I’d say, based on the scores I’ve seen,” Sanderson said. “Nick’s gonna have to go wrestle. I think Nick believes he can beat anyone, we believe he can beat anyone but he has to go wrestle a great match.”

The marquee matchup will come in the dual meet’s penultimate bout between a pair of undefeated wrestlers. Top-ranked Nickal will face No. 2 Kollin Moore at 197.

“I haven’t really watched too much film or thought about that a lot. I’ll probably watch some film the next couple of days. We’ll see. I’m excited to get out there and compete,” Nickal said.

As for the overall matchup, each team lost key contributors from last year’s team, but the final margin could once again be razor thin.

“They feel pretty good about their chances and we feel pretty good about our chances and it’s just a matter of who goes out there and gets it done on Friday,” Sanderson said.