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Penn State Wrestling Poised For Another Dynasty By Building For The Future

Penn State wrestling’s “drive for five” came to a halt this past weekend in St. Louis, as the Nittany Lions finished sixth overall at the NCAA Championships. Big Ten rival Ohio State captured the program’s first-ever national title, unseating a Penn State dynasty that claimed the last four championships. For Cael Sanderson, this year marked the first without a national title in Blue and White since his inaugural season in 2010.

But this season was never about winning a title. It was about building for the future. Faced with the departure of all-time greats Ed Ruth and David “The Magic Man” Taylor, Sanderson had a difficult decision to make: piece together a competitive roster to win now, or redshirt wrestlers to build a strong lineup for the future. Thus, the decision to redshirt two-time NCAA Finalist and three-time All-American Nico Megaludis and All-American freshman Zain Retherford — two key cogs in Penn State’s unprecedented championship run — came to be.

“We are not just thinking about this year only; we have to be two, three, four years ahead,” Sanderson said in November. “That is where the recruiting comes into play. That’s when you are making decisions on where to put scholarship money or not. You have to look at your lineup and make decisions, use your best judgment and your experiences, both good and bad in the past.”

In stepped Kade Moss and Jordan Conaway. Moss, a redshirt freshman, was coming off his first year at the Division I level that saw the Utah native finish with a 4-3 record in open tournaments with two pins. Conaway, the more seasoned veteran, came within one win of becoming an All-American in 2013 after redshirting his freshman season, but wrestled sparingly last year behind Megaludis. With limited experience, both were called upon to play key roles for a team seeking its fifth straight title.

Conaway finished the regular season with a 23-6 overall record — including a team-best four tech falls — and earned All-American honors after finishing eighth overall at nationals, while Moss struggled to find consistency, finishing the season unranked with a 17-17 record. While giving Moss, a second-year freshman, and Conaway, a fourth-year junior, valuable experience in the starting lineup, their production was limited in comparison to Retherford and Megaludis one season prior. Though it certainly didn’t cost Penn State the national title, it did weaken an otherwise strong starting lineup, anchored by senior Matt Brown and fourth-year junior Morgan McInstosh.

Choosing to make sacrifices to build for the future is a tough decision, and certainly unpopular with fans wanting to see Penn State strive for a fifth-straight championship, rivaling Iowa’s unprecedented nine-year title streak from 1978-1986. But Sanderson’s decision was necessary for the future of the program, putting Penn State in an advantageous position when championships begin again next March. In fact, Ohio State just captured its first title in school history thanks to a similar strategy last season.

“Looking at the landscape of college wrestling, we’ve finished second, second, seventh, eighth. We want to be first,” Ohio State coach Tom Ryan explained before the start of the 2013-14 season, choosing to redshirt two standout freshman in Nathan Tomasello and Bo Jordan. “I think that our best chance of being first is to sit these guys and get them ready for the following season.”

The move paid off. After sitting out a year to train, Tomasello won the 125-pound national title in 2015, while Jordan claimed third place at 165 pounds. By taking a page out of the Buckeyes’ playbook, Penn State will hope to see similar returns from Megaludis and Reatherford when they return to the lineup next season.

Joining them will be a crop of young grapplers with exciting potential, including true freshman Bo Nickal (174), second-year freshman Cody Law (157/165), Garrett Hammond (157/165), and Big Ten fourth place finisher Matt McCutcheon (184), as well as incoming freshman Vincenzo Joseph, the nation’s top-ranked 145-pound high school wrestler. Nickal, the front-runner to replace the departing Brown, posted a perfect 4-0 mark in his debut event at the collegiate level to win the 174-pound title at the Clarion Open, finishing the season with a 13-2 overall record. Law finished 13-7 with three major decisions, while Hammond posted a 23-12 mark with six major decisions and three tech falls one year after finishing seventh on the team in total victories and third in pins.

Where Joseph fits in the lineup is anyone’s guess, but at 145 pounds, he’s likely to compete for the starting spot at 149 along with Beitz, Moss, Luke Frey, and freshman Jason Nolf. With Retherford expected to have a big season at 141 pounds, there’s a glut of talent at the 149/157 position. Joseph, coming off an overtime win in the PIAA Championships last spring, gives Penn State another strong option at multiple weight classes moving forward.

Following his victory over Pitt’s Tyler Wilps to earn his elusive first national title, Matt Brown touched on the future of the program, knowing it’s in good hands with a new crop of talented young wrestlers like Nolf, Nickal, Shakur Rasheed, and of course, Retherford and Megaludis.

“They’re a competitive class, and I had a lot of fun with them,” Brown said. “Though they didn’t wrestle in the lineup, they were every part of the team and they worked out hard. And I’m grateful that I got to wrestle with them this year and I think they’re going to be real tough next year.”

While you might look back on this season’s sixth place finish and feel a sense of disappointment, consider just how close Penn State came to upsetting some of the nation’s best teams. The scores of Penn State’s four losses, as follows:

  • Jan. 11 at No. 3 Ohio State – L, 15-22
  • Jan. 25 vs. No. 2 Minnesota – L, 16-17
  • Feb. 8 vs. No. 1 Iowa (at BJC) – L, 12-18
  • Feb. 15 vs. No. 8 Oklahoma State – L, 18-21

Against four of the nation’s top-8 programs, Penn State lost by a combined 17 points — in other words, the total of six decisions, four major decisions, or three pins. If a handful of close matches had fallen in Penn State’s favor, the outcome of the season would have been entirely different. While that’s an easy explanation, it shows just how close the Nittany Lions were to full strength — even with two All-Americans on the bench.

Penn State wrestling was in capable hands the moment Cael Sanderson stepped on campus. By making the shrewd decision to sacrifice one season of winning for a decade of dominance, that assurance only continues to grow.

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About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.

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