Franklin Regional grad Spencer Lee avenges loss to reach NCAA wrestling finals
Spencer Lee knew he couldn’t dwell on a reversal he gave up in the second period of his NCAA wrestling semifinal match with Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni. He couldn’t afford to.
Similarly, Lee couldn’t wallow in disappointment when Piccininni pinned him earlier this season. The Franklin Regional graduate believed to achieve his ultimate goal, he needed to focus on what came next: the next point or the next match.
Lee moved closer to that ultimate goal Friday night as the Iowa sophomore and defending national champion beat Piccininni, 11-4, in the 125-pound semifinals of the NCAA tournament at PPG Paints Arena, moving within one victory of another title.
“You’ve just got to believe in your coaching staff,” said Lee, who will wrestle Virginia’s Jack Mueller for the 125-pound championship at 7 p.m. Saturday. “They believed in me. They tell me every day I have the ability to do whatever I want to do as long as I believe in myself.”
Two other former WPIAL wrestlers will get a chance to defend their NCAA titles Saturday: Penn State redshirt senior 157-pounder Jason Nolf (Kittanning) and redshirt junior 165-pounder Vincenzo Joseph (Central Catholic), both two-time national champions, won their semifinal matches Friday night.
Mueller knocked off top-seeded Sebastian Rivera of Northwestern in the semifinals. Nolf will face Nebraska’s Tyler Berger, whom he beat 10-4 in the Big Ten final earlier this month. Joseph will take on Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, the No. 8 seed, who had a pair of upset wins Friday.
Nolf had a close battle in his semifinal with N.C. State’s Hayden Hidlay, a rematch of last year’s NCAA final, getting a 3-2 victory. Joseph earned a hard-fought 3-2 victory of his own in an all-WPIAL semifinal against Arizona State redshirt junior Josh Shields (Franklin Regional).
“Wrestling at this tournament is tough, and I’ve had a lot of great matches at this tournament,” Nolf said. “But I’m still focused on one match at a time, not looking ahead, and just trying to do the best I can. That match was probably not the best that I could do, but I gave 100 percent attitude and effort, and that’s all I really ask of myself. Just didn’t have the offense tonight, but I got it done, and I will tomorrow.”
Lee credited his coaches for lifting him up after Piccininni pinned him in a dual match in late February at Oklahoma State. That pin was the first time Lee lost by fall since the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling finals when he was 9 years old.
“It was hard for me to be able to get over that,” said Lee, who pinned Piccininni in last season’s NCAA quarterfinals. “The coaches, they were trying to get me through it. But they knew I hadn’t felt that in a long time. Props to Nick, he’s a great opponent — he packed me in front of his home crowd … and I know that I had to focus on the next big thing.”
In their rematch Friday, Lee took a 5-1 lead with takedowns in the first and second periods before Piccininni scored his reversal.
Lee escaped in the last second of the second period, and after a Piccininni escape in the third, Lee got a late takedown and nearfall points to secure the victory.
“The next score is the most important score,” Lee said. “That’s the mindset that my coaches have instilled upon me, and that’s what’s got to matter.”
Nolf needed a similar focus against Hidlay in a rematch of the 2018 NCAA final, a 6-2 Nolf victory.
The mat officials initially awarded Hidlay a takedown in the final seconds of the first period before reversing the call upon video review. Nolf got a quick escape and takedown in the second period for a 3-0 lead and held on for the win after two Hidlay escapes, staving off another late takedown attempt by Hidlay to get the one-point win.
“It didn’t really matter what the score was,” Nolf said. “I was going to try to continue to score. I was looking for my score, but he was staying really low, so it was hard to get a tie-up … He’s just a good wrestler, has a good, solid defense and solid offense, obviously. But yeah, my mindset is always to keep scoring points.”
Joseph beat Shields by an 11-2 major decision earlier this season. The rematch was closer, but an early takedown by Joseph made the difference.
“I figured it would be a lot closer than the first time around,” Joseph said. “I kind of caught him on his back there, kind of set the tone. But he’s going to wrestle tough all seven minutes.”
Penn State finished the second day of the tournament with 120.5 team points, well ahead of second-place Ohio State (88.5), as the Nittany Lions seek their eighth NCAA title in nine seasons. They also can tie the NCAA record with five individual national champions as Nolf, Joseph, Mark Hall (174 pounds), Bo Nickal (197) and Anthony Cassar (285) won their semifinal matches Friday night.
Like Nolf and Joseph, Nickal is seeking his third individual championship. Hall can win his second.
“We all wrestle together. So people think it’s big match after big match out there — well, we have big matches with each other every single day,” Hall said. “I think that’s pretty important. I just think we’re ready to go because of our preparation.”
Ohio State junior Luke Pletcher, a Latrobe graduate, dropped a narrow 4-2 decision to top-seeded Daton Fix of Oklahoma State in the 133-pound semifinals.
Pletcher and Shields, who clinched All-American status earlier Friday, will wrestle in the consolation semifinals Saturday and have a chance to finish as high as third in the country.
The third day of NCAAs begins at 11 a.m. Saturday with the consolation semifinals, followed by the matches for third, fifth and seventh place. The championship finals begin at 7 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.