Wrestling Looks Like A Team Of Destiny Ahead Of National Championship Run
After clinching the NWCA Dual Meet Championship and the Big Ten Championship this year, the Penn State wrestling team is gunning for the trifecta that would be achieved with a win in the NCAA Wrestling Championships in Madison Square Garden. A victory would give Penn State its fifth National Championship in six years and extend the Nittany Lions’ reign of dominance enjoyed during the decorated tenure of head coach Cael Sanderson.
Penn State qualified all but one wrestler into the NCAA Championships. Eight of those qualifications were automatic bids based on their respective finishes in the Big Ten Championships, while Geno Morelli earned an at-large bid at 165. Based on rankings alone, the Lions are considered a safe bet to take home the title, but as Zain Retherford said after practice earlier in the week, “Anything could happen at nationals. You’ve just got to stay focused.”
Last year was an off-year for the Nittany Lions after four consecutive years of winning both the Big Ten and National Championships. But after cruising through an undefeated season that featured statement victories against powerhouse programs like Lehigh and Oklahoma State, Sanderson has his team in near-perfect form — something Sanderson hopes will propel his program to victory in New York City.
Great leadership has been a major key every year for this team, but this season it’s helped the team reach new heights. “We have some great leaders,” Sanderson said. “Even our young guys are tremendous leaders.”
Penn State’s three starting seniors, Morgan McIntosh, Jordan Conaway, and Nico Megaludis, all have experience on the national stage under their belts that they’ll use to their advantage in New York, but that doesn’t mean young guns like Zain Retherford and Bo Nickal (who both earned top seeds in their respective weight classes) and Jason Nolf (who earned a No. 3 seed at 157), won’t be integral to their team’s success. They’ve been key pieces throughout the season, and that won’t change in the Garden.
Coming out of the Big Ten Championships, the Nittany Lions suffered some tough losses, specifically Jason Nolf’s loss in the championship to Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez — the only loss of his career. Even with the loss, Sanderson remained optimistic about what Nolf can bring to the table at the NCAA Championships. “I think when Nolf loses, which is very rare obviously, he comes back at a higher level,” Sanderson said. “I think you’ll see an even higher level, which is kind of scary.” Sanderson, who went undefeated in his collegiate career at Iowa State at 157, knows a thing or two about being successful and rising to a higher level to beat quality opponents. Sanderson calling Nolf’s higher level “kind of scary” really speaks to Nolf’s ability to overcome a loss, and it reveals how much confidence Sanderson has in Nolf for the NCAA Championships. Expect Jason Nolf, with a week of adjustments and practice before nationals, to come out firing in New York City and end up at the top of the podium at the end of the weekend.
The three seniors in the NCAA Championships are also getting a lot of attention as they prepare for what will be their final collegiate matches. Morgan McIntosh is the No. 1 seed at 197 and the favorite heading into the Championships. Even as the favorite, he still expressed a lot of gratitude and respect for the tournament. “There’s always five or six guys in each weight class that can probably win it,” McIntosh said, “and I think it’s just the guy who goes out with the best attitude and who wants it the most and goes out there and scores the most points.”
While Jordan Conaway may not be favored at 133, the No. 5 seed is more than capable of advancing far into the tournament. Nico Megaludis has come close to being crowned champion the last few years, and in his final NCAA Championship, he wants that title more than anything. After beating Thomas Gilman from Iowa in the Big Ten Championships but falling to Nathan Tomasello in a close match in the finals, he knows he can compete with anybody to win this year. It’s hard to say where Megaludis may end up, but expect him to be wrestling on Saturday for a spot on the podium.
Guys like Geno Morelli will surely help the Nittany Lions rack up some points they may not be expected to win, and Sanderson emphasized that. “Geno’s the one that has the opportunity to really give the team a boost by going out there and winning some matches and scoring some points,” Sanderson said. “He’s a guy that could get in there and be an All-American.” At the end of the day though, the national champion will be determined by whose best wrestlers perform the best on the biggest stage. “Winning the National Championship is going to be about our big dogs,” Sanderson said, “and our big dogs scoring bonus points and them having success.” That task will fall on the three top-ranked seeds — Zain Retherford, Bo Nickal, and Morgan McIntosh — and other highly ranked guys like Jason Nolf and Nico Megaludis. The seniors always step it up in the NCAA Championships, and they should be expected to do the same this year. “We have a history as a program of our seniors getting the job done,” Sanderson explained, “and that’s a tradition we want to continue.”
Everything is going right for the Nittany Lions right now, and results from previous tournaments and meets point to a potential Penn State victory. As for individual victories, it’ll come down to how the young guys respond to the environment and if the seniors are up to the task. “We certainly want to see Morgan happy on top of that podium at the end of the week, and obviously Nico,” Sanderson said of his senior leaders. “He’s a guy that we all want to see reach his goal.”
It will be an eventful and emotional week for Penn State, but if the team performs like it has week after week, Sanderson will be able to add another National Championship to his sterling resume.