There isn’t much to be said about the strides that a returning NCAA champion makes in the offseason, especially when there’s five of them. Expectations are already high and they’ve shown what they’re capable of doing– competing down the stretch and wracking up points in the team tournament race, although the individual finals were a moot point at last year’s NCAA Championships.
While defending a title is often much harder than winning it for the first time, Penn State knows what it’s getting with Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf, Vincenzo Joseph, Mark Hall, and Bo Nickal. The main jump for the Nittany Lions this season after last year’s historic team won’t come in the Murderers’ Row of grapplers that swept the last five bouts of the NCAA Finals in March. It will come at two of its more inconsistent weights (at least by Penn State standards) last season: 197 lbs. and HWT.
Matt McCutcheon and Nick Nevills devoted their offseasons to putting on more and better weight after wrestling uphill during seasons of transition. They enter tonight’s season opener poised to supplant their names at the end of Murderers’ Row and join their teammates on Saturday night of the NCAA Championships and better equipped to reach those aspirations.
Both enjoyed successful seasons by most measures a year ago, with McCutcheon going 20-6 and qualifying for the NCAAs and Nevills finishing 25-5 and fifth at the NCAAs. However, given each of their struggles at times, bulking up in the weight room with strength coach Mike Schroeder was a priority for both wrestlers who were a bit undersized against their opponents.
McCutcheon jumped up to 197 from 184 lbs. in the preseason last year to make room for Nickal who was moving up to 184 from 174 lbs. The transition took a toll on McCutcheon, who wrestled significantly underweight in the low 180s early on in the season and then struggled to find a healthy 197 lbs. He finished 20-6 but failed to move past the Round of 12 at the NCAAs and was 7-6 against ranked opponents.
“I didn’t put on the best weight last season, just trying to eat as much as I could and then just lift more often to get up to 197 lbs,” said the senior 197-pounder who will suit up as a catcher for the Diamond Lions once his final wrestling season comes to a close.
“Now that I was preparing to wrestle 197, I got my weight up, am a little bigger this offseason, and am feeling great.”
McCutcheon’s competing weight will be within five and 10 pounds.
Nevills’ weight hovered around the low 250s last season in a weight class that included opponents as much as 35 pounds heavier than him. He now sits between 265 and 275 lbs., following an offseason when he met with a nutritionist, lifted 4-5 times per week, and added 15 pounds of muscle.
For Nevills, this offseason was especially beneficial because he was able to fully focus on training at full health, after a broken foot and torn pectoral derailed each of his first two college seasons.
“It’s tremendous to get consecutive months of health wrestling and lifting in a row without having to worry about something bothering you or still feeling sore,” he said. “I’ve had over a full year of wrestling so I feel more prepared for this season than I have in other years.”
That added brawn will be key for Nevills this season, given his struggles a year ago against elite heavyweights. Although he finished with a 25-5 record, Nevills was 1-5 against top-five opponents who often managed to overpower and outlast the redshirt sophomore in tight matches.
Other than Olympic gold medalist Kyle Snyder’s 19-9 beatdown of Nevills, all of his losses came by fewer than two points, showing he was almost ready to take that step to the upper echelon of heavweights but not quite there, yet.
This summer, he took that step.
He showed signs at the end of last season by ending his season with a 4-3 decision over Duke’s Jacob Kasper, who beat him the day before, to secure a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Championships and his first top-five win. That win gave him some momentum heading into the offseason and carried over to last week’s NWCA All-Star Classic, when he knocked off No. 4 Tanner Hall of Arizona State.
“I got in with our strength coach and lifted really hard for those months,” the Clovis, Calif. native said. “But I’ve also been getting more confident in myself and my ability to shoot, scramble, defend leg attacks, and get up off the bottom.”
Not only will Nevills need both that improved strength and elevated confidence to hold onto his No. 3 preseason ranking and even have a chance at making a move on Snyder. He has some lofty expectations for his dual season.
“Everyone wants bonus points and last year, I finished something like fourth on the team,” he said. “It’s tough when you have guys like Jason, Zain, and Bo who pin everyone, but it makes you more competitive to keep up with them. I’d like to myself crack into the top-three and I think it’s pretty realistic.”
If both wrestlers’ jumps this offseason translate to success on the mat, Penn State will have seven surefire wrestlers in a row from 149 lbs. through HWT, as well as a three-time NCAA qualifier in Corey Keener, who transferred from Central Michigan, at 133 lbs., a liability for the Nittany Lions a year ago. This assurance will compensate for the question marks at 125 lbs., as Penn State seeks to replace Nick Suriano with a yet-to-be-determined starter, and 141 lbs., with Jered Cortez, who has wrestled only five matches last season because of a season-long shoulder injury, sat out the year before because of an intraconference transfer policy (Yeah, those things are real.) and redshirted at Illinois the year before.
What makes McCutcheon and Nevills taking these big steps forward so important is the fact that 197 lbs. and HWT are Ohio State’s best weight classes. The Buckeyes have the No. 1 wrestler in the country at each weight class in Snyder and Kollin Moore, as well as Nathan Tomasello at 125 lbs. The same Buckeyes who stole the Big Ten Championship a year ago have similar intentions heading into this year. And how well McCutcheon and Nevills– not Retherford, Nolf, Joseph, Hall, or Nickal– do could make the difference between seven titles in eight years and another disappointing finish to a highly anticipated season at the hands of Ohio State.
Luckily, they both added the muscle to carry that extra weight on their shoulders.