PITTSBURGH — The second day of the 2019 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships concluded on Friday night at PPG Paints Arena in downtown Pittsburgh with defending champ Penn State in a position to win its fourth straight championship with finalists in half of the title matches.
The Nittany Lions went 5-for-6 in the semifinals as Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (197) return to the NCAA finals, while Anthony Cassar (285) will make his first finals appearance.
Penn State leads the team race with 120.5 points. In second place is Big Ten rival Ohio State, with 88.5 points. Oklahoma State is in third place with 73.5 points. With 68 points, Iowa is in fourth place … with Missouri in fifth place with 54 points.
“Overall, the guys wrestled well,” said Penn State coach Cael Sanderson. “It’s the national tournament. It’s very competitive. A lot of great wrestlers. Great competitors. A little tight tonight. But it’s the national semifinals and you’re wrestling some really great competition. Big day tomorrow.”
Nolf earned a hard-fought 3-2 decision over Hayden Hidlay of North Carolina State in a rematch of last year’s NCAA finals. Hidlay was initially awarded a takedown in the first period, which was challenged and overturned. Nolf scored a second-period takedown, which proved to be the difference in the match. He will meet Nebraska’s Tyler Berger in the finals.
Joseph remains on track for his third NCAA title after edging Arizona State’s Josh Shields 3-2. The Nittany Lion junior scored the match’s only takedown in the first period. His finals opponent will be Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, a redshirt freshman and the No. 8 seed.
Hall, a 2017 NCAA champion, will be wrestling in his third straight NCAA finals. He needed overtime (tiebreaker) in the semifinals to top Michigan’s Myles Amine. With the semifinal victory, Hall will face rival Zahid Valencia of Arizona State for the second straight time in the NCAA finals. Last year, Valencia defeated Hall. Hall came back to defeat Valencia this year.
Nickal continued his dominance, earning a fall over Princeton’s Patrick Brucki at 197 pounds. Like Joseph and Nolf, Nickal will be wrestling for his third straight NCAA title.
The fifth Nittany Lion to win on Friday night in the semifinals was Anthony Cassar (285), who edged Minnesota true freshman Gable Steveson for the second time in three weeks. Steveson led 2-0 after two periods, but an escape and takedown with just over a minute thirty remaining gave Cassar the lead. Cassar was able to ride Steveson and accumulate just over a minute of riding time before the Gopher freshman escaped. Minnesota challenged the time of the escape, but the call was upheld. Cassar was able to hold off Steveson in the final 30 seconds and earn his spot in the finals.
Cornell’s Max Dean pulled the biggest upset of the semifinals as he knocked off No. 1 Myles Martin of Ohio State 5-4 at 184 pounds. The Cornell sophomore scored the go-ahead takedown with 10 seconds left to stun Martin.
Dean, a returning All-American who entered the tournament as the No. 5 seed, had been outscored by Martin 30-13 in two previous matches this season.
“He’s got great attacks, super athlete, very technical,” Dean said of Martin. “We realized we need to get him moving more, more fakes, more snaps, even if I’m not scoring early on and see if we can get into a scramble position later because I think that might be one position that might be to my advantage and we got into a scramble and I was down by one and scored and won.”
Virginia’s Jack Mueller (125), undefeated and seeded No. 5, also knocked off a No. 1 seed, Sebastian Rivera of Northwestern. 8-2.
Mueller was an All-American two seasons ago at 125 pounds and moved up to 133 pounds last season. He made the move back down to 125 this season after initially starting the season redshirting.
“It’s crazy,” said Mueller. “It’s like a blur. It felt really good to get that win. It was dominant. I wish I didn’t give up the eversal at the end. 125-pound grind sucks. I’m going to have to cut a lot tonight. But I mean it’s for the love of the sport. I love this sport.”
Two true freshman NCAA champions from a year ago will look to repeat on Saturday night, Iowa’s Spencer Lee (125) and Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis (141).
Lee avenged a loss this season by beating Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccinnini 11-4.
Diakomihalis earned a return trip to the NCAA finals by beating Missouri’s Jaydin Eierman 6-5.
Rutgers has a pair of NCAA finalists in Nick Suriano (133) and Anthony Ashnault (149). Ashanult became the program’s first four-time All-American.
As for the number of schools to have at least one wrestler in the finals … the magic number is 11. Penn State has five finalists, while Oklahoma State has three. Cornell, Ohio State and Rutgers each have two. Programs with one wrestler competing on Saturday night include Arizona State, Iowa, Northern Iowa, Ohio State, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Attendance figures remained strong in the second day of the 2019 NCAAs. Friday’s Session 3 had 18,013 fans in the stands … while Session 4 had 18,100 fans.
Below is a recap of the semifinal matches.
No. 5 Jack Mueller (Virginia) dec. No. 1 Sebastian Rivera (Northwestern), 8-2
No. 3 Spencer Lee (Iowa) dec. No. 2 Nick Piccinnini (Oklahoma State), 11-4
Mueller managed to score a takedown in each of the three periods, and accumulate at least five minutes’ riding time to knock off the top-seeded wrestler in this weight class.
At the post-semifinals press conference, Mueller said, “Everyone has been talking about how weak my schedule was so it felt good to take down the No. 1 guy.”
“The match with Lee tomorrow night is going to come down to the mat. He’s amazing on top and everyone knows it. I’d like to think I’m pretty good on top myself.”
When asked about preparing for Mueller in the finals, Lee — the defending champ at 125 — replied, “Well, you’ve just got to believe in your coaching staff. They believe in me they tell me every day that I believe I have the ability to do whatever I want to do as long as I believe in myself.”
No. 1 Daton Fix (Oklahoma State) dec. No. 4 Luke Pletcher (Ohio State), 4-2
No. 3 Nick Suriano (Rutgers) dec. No. 2 Stevan Micic (Michigan), 4-1
Suriano reversed a dual meet loss to Micic.
After the win, Suriano said, “It feels great. I just came back from a guy who beat me earlier in the season, top guy, world-class guy, and it feels good. Kind of lost for words. A lot of adversity, a lot of negativity I overcame.”
When asked about facing Suriano in the finals, Fix responded, “No, I’m not afraid of it, of it coming down to me and him. I’m going out there looking to score. That’s what I did in the previous match, as well. He’s a competitor, and points aren’t going to come easy so that means I have to work harder, and I’m prepared to do that. This is what I’ve been working all year for is to go win a national title.”
No. 1 Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell) dec. No. 5 Jaydin Eierman (Missouri),6-5
No. 2 Joey McKenna (Oklahoma State) dec. No. 3 Nick Lee (Penn State), 4-3
It’ll be a battle of the top two seeds Saturday night at 141 pounds, with Diakomihalis defending his title. Both semifinals winners in this weight class won their matches with third-period takedowns.
“Yeah, it’s been a longtime coming,” McKenna said of making it to the finals. “Been to the national semis three times now and finally pulled through it make it to the championship. So excited about that. You know, I knew it was going to be a tough match. I knew I’d be breathing like this. Wrestling him third time this season just a guy that’s always made me work super hard to the brink, all the way to the last buzzer to win the match. Just not as many points scored as I would have liked to in that match, but I did what I needed to do to get my hand raised at the end, and I’m in the national finals, so pretty psyched about that.”
Asked about being the defending champ, Diakomihalis said, “I know guys are going to wrestle me differently, you know. As you get to higher levels, not as much, but guys are going to game plan for me. They’re going to try and keep the score low, slow me down, and try and sneak one out. On the opposite side, it’s up to me to create wrestling, create action, move into the guy, give him pressure and score as many points as I can and don’t give that guy any break to try and stop my offense.”
No. 1 Anthony Ashnault (Rutgers) dec. No. 5 Matthew Kolodzik (Princeton), 2-0
No. 2 Micah Jordan (Ohio State) dec. No. 6 Austin O’Connor (North Carolina), 7-4
As in the previous weight class, the 149 finals will also feature the top two seeds. In the semifinals, Ashnault scored his points on a second-period escape and third-period rideout … while Jordan tallied three takedowns along with a riding point to win his way into the 149 finals.
When asked about the possibility of becoming the first national champ for Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Ashnault responded, “In previous years there’s been a lot of pressure. I put it on myself mostly. But honestly, this year it’s been all about me and what I want out of the sport and what I want out of my life, so the pressure really I took it away from doing it for Rutgers and doing it for the state, of course. Of course I want to be doing that, and I want to put Rutgers on the map, and that’s why I came to school, to put Rutgers and get guys like Nick Suriano and get top recruits out of high school, but at the end of the day, this is something I want to be doing. I want to be the national champ for myself, and glory to God, but this is a goal that I’ve had written down and I’ve looked at for a long time.”
Jordan was asked about how he plans to wrestle Ashnault for the title.
“Just staying smart, still getting to my attacks,” said the Buckeye. “Last time I wrestled I kind of shortened the gap from the first time. I did good on bottom so that’s an emphasis. I want to go out there and focus on when I wrestle, and then obviously just being really smart when I wrestle. Once I go to my attack, finishing hard.”
No. 1 Jason Nolf (Penn State) dec. No. 5 Hayden Hidlay (N.C. State), 3-2
No. 2 Tyler Berger (Nebraska) dec. No. 6 Kaleb Young (Iowa), 5-3
Nolf will be making his fourth straight appearance in the NCAA finals, thanks to an early second-period takedown. A takedown by Hidlay was reversed by replay.
Nolf weighed in on how he’s changed since he first arrived at Penn State.
“Well, from the start of arriving on campus, I was kind of naïve but then I met my future wife and grew with her in faith. I found my relationship with Jesus and that’s definitely changed me as a person … I’m still focused one match at a time,” said Nolf.
When asked how he was feeling knowing he would be wrestling for a national title, Berger responded. “Yeah, excited, and a lot of anticipation, I think for this match. But I’m really relaxed, mentally, physically, just enjoying this time to just — it’s the last time I get to put on a Husky wrestling singlet so I’m taking it in. Just now I took the time to look around the arena … I’m going to look back on this 20, 30 years from now, and if I’m not enjoying the moment, I’ll have some regrets.”
No. 2 Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) dec. No. 3 Josh Shields (Arizona State), 3-2
No. 8 Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech) dec. No. 4 Evan Wick (Wisconsin), 5-2
Joseph is a two-time NCAA champ, facing off against the No. 8 seed in the finals.
He’s a good wrestler,” Joseph said of his finals opponent, Mekhi Lewis. “He proved it all year, previous years, and I never really watched him wrestle too much, but it’s going to be a good match. He wrestles hard. I’ll wrestle hard. It’s going to be exciting.”
When asked about any potential pressure about the possibility of being Virginia Tech’s first NCAA champ, Lewis responded, “Yeah. Yeah, it is. It’s like always on my mind. But like I have to decide tonight because I want to mainly just focus on just trying to do the best I can, not worrying about that and then end up being in a match where if I’m winning, I’m like trying to hold a lead because of that reason, trying to be the first.”
No. 1 Mark Hall (Penn State) dec. No. 4 Myles Amine (Michigan), 2-1 (TB-1)
No. 3 Zahid Valencia (Arizona State), dec. No. 2 Daniel Lewis (Missouri) 11-3
Saturday night will see a rematch of last year’s 174-pound final, which saw the Sun Devil Valencia win the title.
Hall was asked about his collegiate rivalry with Valencia and how he would prepare for the finals. “I think I’m just going to wrestle. Prepare the same way I did last two days, any other match this year. Just be ready. Rivalries are great for the sport, I think. I remember growing up, you know, watching matches that everyone was looking forward to, all the big names that everyone wanted to see wrestle, right? And they got it two or three times a year, every year. So I’m really excited for that and like you said, we’re just — at the end of the day we’re just competitors.”
Valencia responded, “It’s been a great rivalry between us. I’m excited to do whatever it is whenever it is to do. The same thing is not having confidence in my conditioning, feeling that that target on my back and everything looking at my shots, defending everything I have trying to slow down my pace and I just need to condition to work on my conditioning and continue to push the pace and I don’t think he will be able to hang with me the third period, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
No. 5 Max Dean (Cornell) dec. No. 1 Myles Martin (Ohio State), 5-4
No. 6 seed Drew Foster (Northern Iowa) dec. No. 15 Chip Ness (North Carolina), 7-4
Dean upset the top-seeded Buckeye in the semifinals … while the No. 15 seed fell to the No. 6 seed.
“It’s always a good scrap,” said Foster said of his finals opponent “Max might be one of the strongest guys I’ve wrestled as far as strength goes and he’s a scrapper. He’s going to scrap for 7 minutes plus if he needs to. So I’m going out guns blazing. What do I have to protect? Right? I have this opportunity to represent my it the university, my teammates and my coaches and I’m going to run away with it.”
In the post-semifinals press conference, Max Dean disclosed his own battles with himself … until just a few months ago. “See, throughout most of my career until the end of December I carried around a lot of expectations and it was stressful and sometimes made the sport not fun … I was so disgusted and I thought maybe I should quit because I hate this. I had a good talk with my dad and he looked at me and he said, well, are you a quitter? I said, no. And he said, you would hate that more about yourself. He said, you’re not going to quit. You hate the way you’re doing things. Why not just change and be the person you want to be? It made too much sense not to listen, so now every time I step out there I try to do it with no fear and it makes it fun.”
No. 1 Bo Nickal (Penn State) pinned No. 4 Patrick Bricki (Princeton), 4:41
No. 2 Kollin Moore (Ohio State) maj. dec. No. 3 Preston Weigel (Oklahoma State), 12-4
Nickal will be going for his third straight NCAA title against a familiar Big Ten foe in Moore.
“He’s definitely a tough competitor,” Nickal said of Moore. “He’s somebody that’s going to wrestle me for seven minutes. That’s something I’m excited about, somebody that’s going to attack. He’s not a guy that tries to grab a wrist and hold on.”
Moore spoke about seeing his teammate Martin lose before wrestling his semifinal match.
“That was a really unique experience,” said Moore. “I’m used to Myles going out there and getting nasty on dudes before I go out. So I really feel for him. I’ve been there. I tried to not let myself get down, but I really didn’t want that to be a motivation for my match, either. Try to just like, block it from my mind for the longest amount of time possible, just go out there and wrestle for me because I know that’s what Myles would want me to do.”
No. 1 Derek White (Oklahoma State) dec. No. 4 Jordan Wood (Lehigh), 3-1 SV1
No. 2 Anthony Cassar (Penn State) dec. No. 3 Gable Steveson (Minnesota), 4-3
“I’ve learned a lot, you know, going to Nebraska for two years, transferring to Oklahoma State,” said White. “It’s been a long journey, but just had to overcome some challenges in life, and, you know, finally made it to where I wanted to be.”