Wrestling Team More Confident Than Ever After Incredible Season
Penn State won Big Ten and national titles in wrestling in each season from 2011 to 2014. Surprisingly, none of those seasons had a zero in the loss column at the end of the regular season. While the number of losses never exceeded one, this is the only season under head coach Cael Sanderson — and the first since 1993 — in which the Nittany Lions managed to go undefeated in the regular season as a team.
Let that sink in for a moment. In those four years, Sanderson led the Penn State wrestling team to the top of the wrestling world, but his teams never completed an undefeated season. This year, the Nittany Lions are 16-0, champions of the NWCA Dual Meet Championship, and the team looks unstoppable.
As past experience tells us though, no team is unstoppable — and especially in the Big Ten Championships. A disappointing fifth place finish in the Big Ten Championships last year for the Nittany Lions after four straight titles left a sour taste in their mouth, which they are clearly getting over this season. This squad has been fierce, aggressive, and surprising at times.
Jason Nolf, the redshirt freshman from Yatesboro, Pa., surprised everyone by rocketing to the top of the 157-pound weight class. He has easily been the most dominant wrestler for Penn State this year. Cael Sanderson had some positive remarks about Nolf as well. “If you watch video on him from December until today,” Sanderson said, “he’s even better now than he was then.” With Nolf having the top ranked spot heading into the Big Ten Tournament, Sanderson said, “Nolf keeps getting better, and he’s very confident.”
Other young guns such as Bo Nickal, Zain Retherford, and Matt McCutcheon have also helped the Nittany Lions tremendously this season. Nickal and Retherford are ranked No. 1 in their respective weight classes, and McCutcheon, fresh off an injury and despite his injury default loss last week, has looked as if he’s gotten better since the absence. The seniors, Jordan Conaway, Nico Megaludis, and Morgan McIntosh, have paved the way for Penn State to hold the No. 1 ranking in the nation all year, and they are determined to keep the Nittany Lions on top at the end.
Still though, there seems to be something different about this team than there was with previous teams. “This team continues to step up and wrestle well each week,” Sanderson said, and after 11 straight weeks of matches this season, the energy and enthusiasm is really starting to build for the Nittany Lions. “I can feel a little bit more energy and excitement right now, which is exactly what we need.”
Starting off the season with a match against nearby rival Lock Haven, a lot of questions filled Happy Valley wrestling fans’ minds. What did the disappointing finish last year mean for the team this year? Did Penn State stand a chance in the Big Ten? Some of those concerns were calmed with a 50-0 rout of the Bald Eagles, but the most grueling part of the schedule was still to come for Penn State. Although another traditional powerhouse team, Iowa, wasn’t on the schedule this year, the Nittany Lions still had tough matches against Ohio State and Wisconsin in the BJC Duals, Virginia Tech, Stanford, and some of the other best Big Ten teams.
The match against Virginia Tech proved a few things to the fans of the blue and white: the Nittany Lions were in for another successful season, and Jason Nolf was someone to look for throughout the rest of the season. Well, nobody has to look for Jason Nolf anymore because you can’t escape a conversation about Penn State wrestling without hearing that name. As for the Nittany Lions staying around to enjoy some success this season, that was pretty accurate as well. Impressive and dominating wins against Stanford, Illinois, and Michigan, along with a 2-0 record in the BJC Duals told the story of Penn State’s season.
Something else caught the eyes of many a week ago, though. In the NWCA Dual Meet Championship match against Oklahoma State, Jan Johnson, wrestled in the heavyweight in place of Nick Nevills. Nevills recently had returned from an injury that sidelined him for the majority of the season, and was competing in the US Collegian Open while his team took on the Cowboys to get more practice in before the Big Tens. After returning from injury and competing in just one match, he was ranked No. 16 at heavyweight, and he ended up winning the heavyweight title at the Open.
Nobody should expect, at least for this year, that Nick Nevills is going to lead Penn State to a heavyweight title. That’s improbable at best, especially for a guy who’s only wrestled in one dual meet and one major tournament. He can, however, possibly scratch out a few points for the Nittany Lions if he is able to advance even just a little bit at 285. Every little point will help Penn State en route to a Big Ten title.
The return of Nick Nevills eased one problem area for the Nittany Lions, but they were still left with a decision to make on who would wrestle at 165. Shakur Rasheed hasn’t looked quite comfortable in the weight class this year, and Geno Morelli had a few close matches with highly ranked opponents. With that, Morelli was chosen as the wrestler for Penn State at 165. After hearing of the news, Morelli said, “I’ve had some close matches with some good guys. I’ll go in and just wrestle.” While Morelli may be going into the tournament with the nothing to lose attitude, it doesn’t mean he isn’t confident. “I think I can beat anyone in the country,” Morelli said, “so I’d be really excited to get the trip to go [to Nationals], and I plan on going.”
Going back to Jan Johnson, now, I don’t think it’d be fair to talk about the incredible season Penn State had without discussing Johnson a little more. The redshirt freshman linebacker was called up to the wrestling team after Nevills went down before the season started. In his very first match in a Penn State singlet, Johnson won a decision bout to a resounding applause from the Penn State faithful. In his probable final match for the team against Oklahoma State, Johnson was beaten outright by No. 5 Austin Marsden. The crowd noise for the end of that match rivaled the noise after the Nittany Lions had clinched the victory. The wrestling fans in Happy Valley knew exactly what Jan Johnson meant to the team, even if he wasn’t the greatest collegiate wrestler at heavyweight. They applauded his season-long efforts, and they still will if and when he sees the turf at Beaver Stadium.
It was truly a remarkable season for Penn State wrestling, one which is still far from over. With the Big Ten and national titles within their grasp, the Nittany Lions have proven to everybody this season what it means to wrestle for Penn State, and they hope to come home from Iowa City and Madison Square Garden with some new trophies for their expanding collection.