Penn State captures Big Ten title

MINNEAPOLIS — It seems like the only ones not getting excited about Penn State failing to win a Big Ten tournament championship the past two seasons were the Nittany Lions.

They were poked and prodded and queried and questioned about that one blank spot on their resume even after they ended that two-year mini-drought Sunday. The Nittany Lions claimed the 2019 Big Ten Wrestling Championships in the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena, and even they as much as shrugged at the significance.

“The guys wrestled pretty well. Not everyone’s happy but that’s usually how a tournament like this goes,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “It’s a conference meet so we’re not gonna get too excited about it but we’re grateful for the success we had this weekend.”

Mark Hall shared similar sentiments, but added that if the Nittany Lions are going to compete in a tournament, they might as well win it.

“I guess it’s how important we make it. We make it our top priority for the weekend, then, yeah, we’re in a good position to be winning the Big Ten tournament,” he said. “This is our first Big Ten title since I’ve been here. I think we had the group to do it. We’ve had the group to do it in the past but, it’s the Big Ten, there are a lot of good teams that come out of here.”

Before getting the impression that Penn State is big footing the Big Ten, there’s a reason they weren’t popping champagne or showering confetti in Minneapolis.

“The nationals is what we’re looking at. That’s the big picture and we’ll be ready to go in Pittsburgh,” Sanderson said.

For the Nittany Lions, every practice, dual meet and tournament is just another stepping stone to the NCAAs. Few would argue with the success that approach has yielded.

Penn State set a team record in accumulating 157 points. The Nittany Lions crowned four champions, had two runners-up and had three more, for a total of nine, qualify for the NCAA Championships March 21-23 at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.

Ohio State, which crowned two champs, was a distant second with 122.5 points to go along with 10 national qualifiers. Iowa, with one champ, was third with 107.5 points. Host Minnesota didn’t crown a champ but accumulated enough points to finish fourth with 101.5.

Jason Nolf (157 pounds), Hall (174), Bo Nickal (197) and Anthony Cassar (285) all won titles. Vincenzo Joseph (165) and Shakur Rasheed (184) finished as runners-up. Nick Lee (141) claimed third place, Roman Bravo-Young (133) was fifth and Brady Berge (149) was sixth.

Sanderson was voted the conference’s Coach of the Year, Nolf and Nickal shared Big Ten co-Wrestler of the Year Honors and Nolf shared co-Wrestler of the Championships honors with Iowa’s Alex Marinelli.

Perhaps the last finals match was the most anticipated. Cassar met Minnesota’s undefeated and top-ranked wunderkind Gable Steveson. After a slow 0-0 first period start, the match delivered on its promise.

“There’s a lot going on out on the mat, more than you guys can see. There are positions where you don’t see a shot but I felt one coming and he felt one coming. There’s a lot more going on in there that you don’t see, so I was active the whole time,” Cassar said.

Steveson quickly escaped to start the second as did Cassar to start the third. With 1:12 left in the third, Steveson converted on a leg attack to take a 3-1 lead. Cassar escaped seconds later and went on the hunt. With 19 seconds left he hit a single, converted to a double and toppled Steveson to the mat out of bounds.

“Just ride him as hard as I could — I knew he wasn’t getting out,” Cassar said.

Steveson didn’t, as the Lion held on for a 4-3 win.

“Yeah, we definitely had a lot of respect for each other. We had a lot of similar opponents and had a lot of similar results so we were pretty even. … It was good to get the win,” Cassar said.

Nolf delivered the first of Penn State’s four titles with a dominating 12-4 major decision over Nebraska’s Tyler Berger. Nolf admitted he wanted to get bonus points in winning his second Big Ten title.

“Yeah, I just want to keep scoring points and moving my feet and faking and I’m way better. So I just stayed focused on doing that and always trying to get as many team points as possible,” he said.

Hall claimed a fourth all-time win, 3-2, over Michigan’s Myles Amine in the 174-pound title bout for his second Big Ten title. A takedown in the first period was the difference. Hall said Amine’s build presents problems for him.

“He’s long. He has some leverage. But I got into him now. The only thing stopping me from doing that is myself,” he said. “Go get my tie, get my takedown. Go get my tie, get my takedown. That’s how I drill, that’s how I wrestle. I have to get back to the laboratory on that.”

Nickal scored takedowns in every period and only ceded three escapes in a 10-3 decision over Ohio State’s Kollin Moore, whomg Nickal pinned in the dual meet. It was Nickal’s third Big Ten championship.

The decisive sequence came in the second period. Nickal escaped and Moore penetrated deep on a double-leg attempt. Somehow, Nickal was able to underhook, separate with his hips and then power back through Moore for a takedown of his own. Having withstood Moore’s best shot, Nickal built his lead from there with two more takedowns and a riding time point.

In one of a handful of the most anticipated bouts, Joseph dropped a 9-3 decision to Iowa’s Alex Marinelli. Twice Marinelli countered throw attempts by Joseph and turned them into points for himself.

“I think Marinelli is just a great wrestler. He just got the job done. We can learn and move forward and get ready for Pittsburgh. I think Marinelli went out to win the match. He scored the points and did a nice job,” Sanderson said.

Rasheed medically forfeited the 184-pound final to Ohio State’s Myles Martin.

“It was just kind of precautionary. We need him in Pittsburgh,” Sanderson said. “Myles Martin is just an unbelievable wrestler and a senior, so I felt bad about that being live on the Big Ten Network but It was just kind of the suggestion of our medical staff to not take a risk there.”

Bravo-Young was dominated, 12-8, by Iowa’s Austin DeSanto in the consolation semifinals and then received a medical forfeit over Michigan’s Stevan Micic in the fifth-place bout.

“I don’t know if we learned anything new. Roman’s just, he’s just still figuring things out. I think he knows he can wrestle with anybody,” Sanderson said. “I think wrestling DeSanto was good for him. He’s one of the top three guys. He got his hands on some good guys and he knows what he’s got to be ready for in Pittsburgh.”

With his NCAA berth secured, 149-pounder Brady Berge medically forfeited his two Sunday matches and finished in sixth place.

“If it’s the national tournament, he’s wrestling. Again, like I said, this is the conference meet and we’re trying to get ready for the nationals,” Sanderson said. “We hate to forfeit a match, but we’ve got to put our kid ahead of anything else.”