Bo Nickal Off To Perhaps The Best Start In Program History
“Bo Knows” — the legendary Nike ad campaign for two-sport star Bo Jackson — could also be applied to sophomore Nittany Lion Bo Nickal. He simply knows how to get it done on the mat.
After an otherwise dominant redshirt freshman campaign, Nickal ended the 2016 season on a low note. Wrestling at 174, Nickal went 34-2 and placed second at the NCAA Championships. One of his only two losses came in the first place bout at Madison Square Garden. Despite beating Ohio State’s Myles Martin three times last year, including a pin in the Big Ten Tournament, the top-seeded Nickal was upset by the No. 11 seed Buckeye, 11-9.
Since the disappointing finish, Nickal has done more than just rebound; he’s put in arguably the best individual start to a season in this program’s illustrious history. Through six matches, Nickal is 6-0 with six pins.
Because of the typically-easy early schedule filled with duals and matches in open tournaments against weaker opponents, 6-0 starts are nothing novel for the upper echelon of college wrestling. Three weeks into the season, there are six other Penn Staters with undefeated records. However, after research of some of the winningest seasons in school history, we believe that Nickal’s start to 2016 is something that no other Nittany Lion has done although quite a few notable grapplers have come close.
David Taylor began his undefeated 2012 season with five pins and a technical fall. That year, “The Magic Man” didn’t even wrestle in the third period until his eighth match of the season. In their first six matches of the 2014 season, Ed Ruth had two pins and four technical falls and Matt Brown picked up four pins and two major decisions. The closest anyone from the pre-Sanderson era who we found came was Cary Kolat who logged four falls in his first six matches of the 1994 season.
Two of Nickal’s current teammates have turned in nearly identical starts to their campaigns, although Nickal remains the lone wrestler with six falls. Redshirt sophomore Jason Nolf paced Nickal through his first five matches, pinning each of his opponents before advancing to the Keystone Classic final via a 19-4 tech fall win over Pittsburgh’s Jake Wentzel. Similarly, redshirt junior Zain Retherford has started both of his last two seasons with five pins and a tech fall.
Nickal has commanded nearly every second of the 22:56 (out of a possible 42 minutes) that he has spent on the mat this season, having wrestled in the third period only twice. While the lone ranked opponent who Nickal has faced is No. 20 Mitch Sliga of Northwestern, his start takes on added importance because he’s done all of this while adjusting to a higher weight class.
One of the main challenges that came with moving up to 184 was entering an already-loaded weight class that is anchored by defending two-time NCAA champion Gabe Dean of Cornell and the reigning champ at 174 in Martin, who also made the jump to 184. In the latest IntermatWrestle.com rankings, Nickal remains ranked third in the nation for 184-pounders behind Dean and Martin, who have combined for a 13-0 record with seven falls this season.
Because Cornell does not fall on Penn State’s dual schedule and won’t be at the Reno Tournament of Champions, Nickal won’t get a shot at Dean until the NCAA Championships in March. Nickal will meet Martin on Feb. 3 in the Ohio State dual, though, and potentially again in the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Championships.
Although he has yet to be truly tested this year, Nickal’s start to this season ranks among the best in program history. With four of his next six dual opponents ranked by InterMatWrestle.com, it’s unlikely that Nickal’s pinning ways will continue through 2017.
Nevertheless, Dean and Martin remain the ultimate challenges for Nickal, not only to sustain his early success but to end the season as an NCAA Champion, a goal he finished just short of attaining last year.