In his first three years of college wrestling, senior Jimmy Gulibon has improved in each subsequent Big Ten Championship. As a redshirt freshman, he took seventh at 133. The next year, he placed sixth. Last year, after moving up to the 141-pound weight class for his junior season, Gulibon made it all the way to the finals where he dropped a 9-0 major decision to Anthony Ashnault of Rutgers.
Gulibon, the only Penn State senior competing, hopes to continue that trend this weekend and take the next step in pursuit of what he has been chasing for the last three years.
“It would be great to see [Gulibon] finish the season really strong and get up on that podium, really high,” Cael Sanderson said. “It just makes me happy thinking about that just because of the kid he is and the dedication that he has.”
Although Sanderson is very upfront with his excitement for Gulibon’s impending postseason run, the senior wouldn’t give you any indication that there was any difference in wrestling at Rec Hall, Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, Scottrade Center, or even Derry Area High School. The magnitude of the next month doesn’t even seem to faze him.
“I just want to go out there and enjoy it and have some fun,” he said with a shrug at Monday’s media availability. “I’m going to go in like I always do and try to stay relaxed and do some wrestling.”
Don’t let Gulibon’s soft-spoken demeanor and standing as the lowest ranked starter fool you.
On a team where flashy pins, undefeated records, and standout underclassmen are the norms, Gulibon quietly emerged as a leader down the stretch of the regular season.
After a slow 7-6 start to the season where he twice lost to unranked opponents and dropped two of his first three Big Ten matches, Gulibon won his last six regular season bouts — a finish strong enough to earn him a two-seed in the conference tournament.
Given the team’s persistent struggles at 133, Gulibon has reliably bridged the gap from the lower weights to Penn State’s nightmarish middleweights that have combined for a 94-5 record. One specific match of Gulibon’s that characterizes his season and meaning to the team came in the dual against Iowa, which the Nittany Lions eventually won 26-11. With Penn State trailing 8-0 after two bouts in an unwelcoming Carver Hawkeye Arena, Gulibon jumpstarted a streak of five Nittany Lion victories with an 8-6 decision over No. 18 Topher Carton.
That victory did more than catapult Penn State to a statement win against the third-ranked team in the country at the time; it started his own six-match winning streak and turned around what had been an underwhelming senior season up until that point.
His 4-1 defeat to Ashnault on January 13 was his last loss of the dual season until a controversial 3-2 defeat in the NWCA Dual Championship against Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil, who is ranked No. 1. In that match, Gulibon appeared to take down and was about to pin the top-ranked Cowboy on two separate occasions, but was denied points both times. Regardless of the outcome, Gulibon’s match against Heil may have been his best since he upset Iowa’s Cory Clark in the final seconds of the match in 2015.
This hot streak is the product of five years of consistent dedication at Penn State.
“He’s extremely committed to being the best that he can be,” Sanderson said. “He won’t even eat a Cheeto. Even during the summer, I’ll try to get him to eat a Cheeto and he’s not willing to do that. He’s very strict and obedient to what he thinks he should be doing.”
Coupled with that dedication throughout Gulibon’s career has been his quickness on the mat (Sanderson has described him as being as fast as any wrestler he’s coached) and his trademark high crotch.
“His high crotch is so quick,” Zain Retherford said. “You can barely even see it coming sometimes.”
The redshirt junior No. 1 at 149 who knows a thing or two about dominating the mat has drilled with Gulibon during their four years together at Penn State together
Although the course of the last five years has been a bit up and down for Gulibon — from his All-American sophomore season, to his periodic rocky stretches during the regular season, and now the tear he’s on — his arsenal of weapons has carried him to the highest highs of his periodically up and down career.
They also have him entering the Big Ten and NCAA Championships while wrestling at the peak of his career and in a position to make a statement both this weekend and in St. Louis in two weeks.
Considering how past ebbs of Gulibon’s career have fared, Ashnault, who he will likely meet in the finals once again this weekend, Heil, in two weeks, and the rest of the 141-pound weight class has every reason to be wary of Gulibon and his high crotch in their swan song.