PITTSBURGH — Penn State clinched the team title at the 2019 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh Saturday, with three Nittany Lions earning individual championships … hours before any of them took to the mat for the finals.
The trio of Penn State wrestlers to win titles in Pennsylvania’s second-largest city were Jason Nolf at 157 pounds, Bo Nickal at 197, and, at 285, Anthony Cassar. It was Cassar’s first national crown; Nolf and Nickal each claimed their third national titles, joining Nittany Lion alums Ed Ruth and Zain Retherford in the three-timer club.
Penn State won the 2019 NCAA team title with 137.5 points. Ohio State placed second with 96.5 points, with Oklahoma State placing third with 84 points. Iowa and Michigan were fourth and fifth in the final team standings, with 76 and 62.5 points, respectively.
It is the fourth straight championship for Penn State, and eighth since Cael Sanderson became head coach in April 2009. Add in the team title that the Nittany Lions won at the 1953 NCAAs in their home gym, Rec Hall, and the program now has nine championships … placing it just behind the wrestling programs at Oklahoma State and University of Iowa, with 34 and 23 team titles, respectively.
“I’ll just say we’re very happy and proud of this team,” Sanderson said at the conclusion of the 2019 NCAAs. “Some great competition individually and team-wise. And so being able to win a national championship is very special and something that we’re excited about.
“We’re also excited about the future, happy that our seniors got to go out on top. And that’s something that’s important to us. And we know we’ve had some really special guys, guys like Bo and Jason, both three-time national champs, really, really just special, special people, special kids and super happy and proud of them.”
Big news beyond Penn State …
There were other headlines to come out of the 2019 NCAA finals. For starters, freshman Mekhi Lewis — the No. 8 seed at 165 pounds for Virginia Tech — made history by upsetting two-time defending champ Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State (going for his third title). Lewis became the first NCAA mat champ for the Hokies. Rutgers also claimed its first two national champs in Nick Suriano at 133 pounds, and Anthony Ashnault at 149 pounds.
Two sophomores — Iowa’s Spencer Lee, and Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis — each successfully defended their 2018 NCAA titles at 125 pounds and 141 pounds, respectively … winning two national championships just two years out of high school. Another defending champ — Zahid Valencia of Arizona State — repeated his winning ways at 174, defeating Penn State’s Mark Hall for the second straight year.
The evening’s action — and Penn State’s winning ways in the finals — began at 285 pounds, with second-seeded Anthony Cassar defeating top-seeded Derek White of Oklahoma State, 10-1. There was no scoring in the first period. White scored an escape in the second period, but then Cassar piled up the points with a takedown, then four nearfall points near the end of the period to make the score 6-1. In the third, Cassar scored an escape, followed by a takedown. With riding time, the final score was 10-1.
After the match, Cassar said, “I always look inside. If I don’t get something I wanted, it’s because of me. I’m in the best school, the best program, the best facilities, the best coaches, everything I have to be a champion. So if I’m not a champion, it’s my fault. I’m not going to go somewhere else and achieve that. So I’ve looked inside. I have to make more changes and figure it out, because everything around me was doing it right. It was me.”
At 125 pounds, Iowa’s Spencer Lee earned his second national title just two years out of high school, beating No. 5 seed Jack Mueller of Virginia, 5-0. Lee scored a takedown in the first minute of the first period; towards the end of the period, Mueller was warned for stalling. In the second, Lee got a one-point escape, then Mueller was assessed a penalty point. In the third, Lee scored a second takedown with about 30 seconds left for the shutout win.
With two titles in two years, Lee was asked if he’s working towards getting four titles.
“I don’t really care about being a four-time I’m not a three-time national champ … I’m focused on what’s next,” said Lee. That’s going to be summer wrestling and we’ll see how that goes. And gotta get healthy and everything, whatever, you know how it is … That’s pretty much it, just focusing on the next thing. Can’t worry about four-time champ national because you can’t win four if you don’t win three, and I haven’t won three yet.”
No. 3 seed Nick Suriano made history by becoming the first NCAA wrestling champ in the nearly 90-year history of Rutgers wrestling … winning the 133-pound crown by being awarded a takedown in the second sudden victory period to defeat top-seeded Daton Fix of Oklahoma State. The Scarlet Knight tied up the match in regulation with an escape, 1-1, sending things into overtime. In the first overtime session, Fix led 2-1; Suriano scores an escape of his own to knot the score again to take the match into the second sudden victory. Suriano scores a takedown, winning the match 4-2.
Suriano was asked to comment on his history-making first title for Rutgers.
“Yeah, I’m just telling my family, I heard Goodale, Coach Goodale yell, and it made me so happy, man. Honestly, when I heard Coach Goodale yell and cheer me on, it was a dream.
“I saw Donny, I saw my coaches. And man I am blessed. It’s an honor to bring history to Rutgers where it belongs. It’s an honor, a blessing …”
At 141 pounds, Cornell’s top-seeded Yianni Diakomihalis earned his second consecutive title with a 6-4 overtime win over No. 2 seed Joey McKenna of Ohio State. In the closing seconds of regulation, the Big Red champ got a takedown to knot the score. Diakomihalis got a takedown in sudden victory for the win.
How does Diakomihalis stay so poised in situations such as the NCAA finals? “It’s one thing that I’ve kind of grown up with and my coaches instill in me is that I will never allow myself to lose. And I always can and will find a way to win a match. And I genuinely believe in myself. And I think that’s what does it for me.”
Anthony Ashnault became Rutgers’ second-ever national champ. The top seed at 149 got a 9-4 win over Ohio State’s Micah Jordan, the No. 2 seed. Ashnault scored takedowns in the second and third period … then seemingly put the match out of reach with four nearfall points after the second TD.
When asked about the possibility that he might have hung up the headgear rather than wrestle this past season, Ashnault replied, “I had two surgeries, I was out for about six months, not wrestling at all. And at a time when I was going through it I didn’t know if this was in my cards. Did a lot of soul searching. And at the end of the day I know I loved wrestling.
“And it was just a chance to get out there and compete again. It wasn’t about winning the title at the time. It was just like being a little kid again, and enjoying the sport and falling back in love with it.”
In the 157-pound title match, No. 1 seed Jason Nolf completed his season with a perfect 31-0 record … and wrapped up his Penn State career with his third national crown. Nolf got the 10-2 win over No. 2 seed Tyler Berger of Nebraska. The first period was a scoringpalooza, with the Nittany Lion scoring eight points — including a very early takedown and backpoints.
“It’s definitely a blessing to be part of such a great team,” Nolf said in his post-finals press conference. “Sometimes you can take it for granted and kind of expect that it’s going to happen. But at the beginning, at the end of the day, you’ve got to go work hard for it, and everybody individually has to do their part.”
In the next match, Vincenzo Joseph was looking to become Penn State’s fourth three-time NCAA champ … but Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis had other plans at 165 pounds. The No. 8 seed Hokie put the second-seeded defending champ in a cradle at the edge of the mat in the second period … then added a takedown in the third period to earn a 7-1 win, and the distinction of being the first NCAA champ for the Blacksburg, Va. engineering school … a matter that came up in the question-and-answer session after the match.
“It means a lot, because Virginia Tech wrestling has been really good,” Lewis said. “It’s just that we never really had good finals, good end results. So to be the first one is really special. It means a lot to me. Just so happy that I’m a part of the program.”
At 174, defending champ Zahid Valencia of Arizona State — the No. 3 seed — got a 4-3 win over Penn State’s top-seeded Mark Hall. The Nittany Lion scored the first takedown in the first period, while the Sun Devil got an escape to make it 2-1. In the second period, Hall took down and scored an escape … only to have Valencia get a takedown. Valencia got an escape in the third period to make it 4-3. Hall was a three-time NCAA finalist in the space of three years, winning the title in 2017 but losing to Valencia the last two years.
Valencia was asked about his post-match, on-the-mat celebration.
“I think a lot of people know what he did after he beat me during the year. He did the air guitar. So I thought I’d do it right back and just smash it, smash it in front of his face. Just a little fun.”
By winning the 184-pound crown, Drew Foster became the first NCAA champ for Northern Iowa since 2000. The No. 6 seeded Panther scored first with a takedown in the first period, but Cornell’s Max Dean — seeded fifth — managed to go ahead 3-2. However, Foster got another takedown towards the end of the third period to get the 6-4 win (with riding time).
What does Foster have planned for the future?
“I’ve already had it planned out to where I want to be sticking around,” said Foster. “I have to do my student teaching this fall to complete graduation. So I’m going to be sticking around and helping out with the program and being part of PWC.”
In the last bout of the night, top-seeded Bo Nickal secured his third national title for Penn State at 197 with a 5-1 win over No. 2 seed Kollin Moore of Ohio State, with takedowns in the first and third periods.
In talking about concluding his college career, Nickal said, “It’s really been blessing after blessing. Since the first time I stepped foot on campus it’s been incredible. And there’s so many people that have just put so much time and effort and energy into me — and my coaches my trainers and countless others. And I’m incredibly grateful for it.
And being able to go through it with a guy like Jason Nolf is something that’s amazing and a true blessing. And that’s a guy I know I can count on, and I know we’re going to be friends for a long time to come.”
Nittany Lions: defining a dynasty
In January, this writer wrote a feature the top college wrestling programs in Divisions I, II and III that might be worthy of being called a “dynasty.”
First, let’s define the word. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a dynasty as “a sports franchise which has a prolonged run of successful seasons.” Here’s what Wikipedia says: “In sports, a dynasty is a team or individual that dominates their sport or league for an extended length of time …”
Among Division I mat programs, five — Oklahoma State, Iowa, Iowa State, Penn State, and University of Oklahoma — have seven or more national team titles earned since the first NCAA championships took place in 1928. Penn State wrestling now has eight.
The idea of a Penn State wrestling dynasty has gotten more coverage this week. In his coverage of the team clinching its team title Saturday morning, Mark Wogenrich of the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call provided some perspective by laying out the numbers for where the Nittany Lions stand among Division I college wrestling dynasties:
“The championship is Penn State’s eighth in nine years, coming close to matching Iowa’s run in the 1970s and ’80s. The Hawkeyes won nine consecutive championships from 1978-86 and 11 in a 12-year span.
“Oklahoma State won nine during a 10-tournament span from 1937-49 and eight from
m 1954-68. Penn State’s first NCAA title, in 1953, preceded that last Cowboys’ run.
“Penn State won its ninth team title overall, moving into third place behind Oklahoma State (34) and Iowa (23). Penn State had been tied with Iowa State, the team Cael Sanderson coached for three years before taking over the Lions in 2010.”
It’s one thing for a writer in Pennsylvania to make a case for Penn State wrestling = dynasty. How about when a sportswriter nearly 900 miles away in Iowa does it?
Earlier this week, Cody Goodwin — who covers wrestling for the Des Moines Register — wrote a feature for USA Today Sports with this attention-getting headline: “Most dominant dynasty going in college sports? It’s not Alabama football. It’s Penn State wrestling.”
Goodwin took the Penn State dynasty argument beyond college wrestling with this statement: “One could easily argue no sports team — professional or otherwise — has been as dominant as Penn State wrestling in the past decade. Not Alabama football. Not Connecticut women’s basketball. Not the Golden State Warriors. Not even the New England Patriots.”
Attendance, by the numbers
The 2019 NCAAs will go down in the history books for being well-attended. On Saturday, 18,436 fans took in the action during the medal round of Session 5 … while 18,950 witnessed the finals, the fifth-highest attendance ever for a Session 6. Total attendance for the first Pittsburgh-hosted NCAAs since 1957: 109,405, which ranks as the sixth-greatest total in NCAA history.
Medal match results
1st: Spencer Lee (Iowa) dec. Jack Mueller (Virginia), 5-0
3rd: Sebastian Rivera (Northwestern) dec. Vito Arujau (Cornell), 8-3
5th: Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State) pinned Pat Glory (Princeton), 5:29
7th: RayVon Foley (Michigan State) dec. Ronnie Bresser (Oregon State), 7-4
1st: Nick Suriano (Rutgers) dec. Daton Fix (Oklahoma State), 4-2 SV
3rd: Stevan Micic (Michigan) dec. Luke Pletcher (Ohio State), 6-1
5th: Austin DeSanto (Iowa) dec. John Erneste (Missouri), 11-6
7th: Ethan Lizak (Minnesota) dec. Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State), 8-5
1st: Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell) dec. Joey McKenna (Ohio State), 6-4 SV
3rd: Jaydin Eierman (Missouri) dec. Dom Demas (Oklahoma), 2-0
5th: Nick Lee (Penn State) pinned Mitch McKee (Minnesota), 3:22
7th: Kyle Shoop (Lock Haven) maj. dec. Chad Red (Nebraska), 11-3
1st: Anthony Ashnault (Rutgers) dec. Micah Jordan (Ohio State), 9-4
3rd: Austin O`Connor (North Carolina) dec. Mitch Finesilver (Duke), 7-5
5th: Matthew Kolodzik (Princeton) dec. Brock Mauller (Missouri), 10-6
7th: Jarrett Degen (Iowa State) dec. Pat Lugo (Iowa), 11-9
1st: Jason Nolf (Penn State) maj. dec. Tyler Berger (Nebraska), 10-2
3rd: Alec Pantaleo (Michigan) dec. Hayden Hidlay (NC State), 5-3
5th: Kaleb Young (Iowa) dec. Ryan Deakin (Northwestern), 7-5
7th: Christian Pagdilao (Arizona State) dec. Larry Early (Old Dominion), 3-2
1st: Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech) dec. Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State), 7-1
3rd: Chance Marsteller (Lock Haven) dec. Evan Wick (Wisconsin), 6-5
5th: Isaiah White (Nebraska) dec. Josh Shields (Arizona State), 8-4
7th: Alex Marinelli (Iowa) dec. Bryce Steiert (Northern Iowa), 9-3
1st: Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) dec. Mark Hall (Penn State), 4-3
3rd: Myles Amine of (Michigan) dec. Daniel Lewis (Missouri), 4-3
5th: David McFadden (Virginia Tech) dec. Mikey Labriola (Nebraska), 4-3
7th: Jordan Kutler (Lehigh) dec. Devin Skatzka (Minnesota), 5-1
1st: Drew Foster (Northern Iowa) dec. Max Dean (Cornell), 6-4
3rd: Myles Martin (Ohio State) dec. Ryan Preisch (Lehigh), 5-3
5th: Emery Parker (Illinois) dec. Chip Ness (North Carolina), 11-5
7th: Dakota Geer (Oklahoma State) dec. Zack Zavatsky (Virginia Tech), 5-4
1st: Bo Nickal (Penn State) dec. Kollin Moore (Ohio State), 5-1
3rd: Preston Weigel (Oklahoma State) dec. Patrick Brucki (Princeton), 7-1
5th: Josh Hokit (Fresno State) dec. William Miklus (Iowa State), 7-2 TB1
7th: Jacob Warner (Iowa) dec. Ben Honis (Cornell), 8-4
1st: Anthony Cassar (Penn State) maj. dec. Derek White (Oklahoma State), 10-1
3rd: Gable Steveson (Minnesota) dec. Jordan Wood (Lehigh), 4-0
5th: Amar Dhesi (Oregon State) dec. Youssif Hemida (Maryland), 5-2
7th: Matt Stencel (Central Michigan) dec.Trent Hillger (Wisconsin), 3-1