Franklin Regional’s Spencer Lee, Penn State win gold at NCAA wrestling championships
Jason Nolf cracked a bit of a joke upon taking the podium after winning his latest NCAA championship.
Asked how it felt to become a three-time national champion, the Kittanning graduate immediately responded: “Not as good as a four-time national champ, but I’ll take it.”
In a sense, Nolf became both Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena. The record-setting Penn State redshirt senior won his third individual NCAA title with a 10-2 major decision over Nebraska’s Tyler Berger in the 157-pound final, exemplifying a dominant Nittany Lions performance that resulted in their fourth consecutive national team championship and eighth in the past nine seasons.
“That’s definitely a blessing to be part of such a great team,” said Nolf, Penn State’s all-time pins leader and a four-time NCAA finalist. “Sometimes you can take it for granted and kind of expect that it’s going to happen, but at the beginning and at the end of the day, you’ve got to go work hard for it, and everybody individually has to do their part.”
Nolf and Iowa sophomore 125-pounder Spencer Lee, a Franklin Regional graduate, defended their NCAA championships in their backyard in front of a crowd of 18,950.
“Just knowing that the crowd was behind me gave me joy, and knowing that I put my heart into the sport and into the things I love, you can start to see things pay off,” Nolf said. “It kind of puts a smile on your face.”
Penn State capped the decade of NCAA wrestling championships in familiar fashion, with yet another title under coach Cael Sanderson.
Saturday night became a Penn State coronation, as the Nittany Lions virtually wrapped up the team title during the semifinals Friday night and clinched it officially during Saturday morning’s consolation session. They finished with 137.5 team points, with Ohio State in second (96.5) and Oklahoma State in third (84).
But Penn State had more than that in mind, crowning three individual champions: Nolf, 197-pounder Bo Nickal and heavyweight Anthony Cassar.
“I’ll just say we’re very happy and proud of this team,” Sanderson said. “Some great competition individually and team-wise. And so being able to win a national championship is very special and something that we’re excited about.”
The Nittany Lions opened the night powerfully, as Cassar dominated top seed Derek White for a 10-1 major decision in the heavyweight final — his first title in his first trip to the national tournament. And they closed just as strong, as Nickal won his third championship with a 5-1 decision over Ohio State’s Kollin Moore.
In between, Nolf earned his third championship, getting his second major decision over Berger this month. Nolf took control of the match early, getting three takedowns and two nearfall points in the first period for an 8-2 lead and wrestling strong the rest of the way.
“I don’t know if it’s adrenaline, but when I get on the big stage, I think I do a lot better and I just compete at a higher level,” Nolf said. “I give the same effort and attitude. I just compete better.”
Nickal, who won titles the last two seasons at 184 pounds, had a first-period takedown and added another late in the third for the win.
“The bad part (about being the last match) is I don’t get to relax and watch my teammates,” Nickal said. “That’s something. I do enjoy watching them. I have to just sit there and relax a little bit more and not get so into the matches.
“But I like being the last match. It’s something that’s exciting for me, and it’s just fun. Get to feel a little more pressure and a little more hype around it. That’s something I enjoy.”
A pair of Penn State wrestlers were denied in the finals. Redshirt junior Vincenzo Joseph, a Central Catholic graduate who was seeking his third title, lost to Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, 7-1, in the 165-pound final.
Mark Hall, a 2017 national champion, lost in the 174-pound final to Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia for the second consecutive season, dropping a 4-3 decision.
Lee, who used the Pokemon theme as his introductory music for a second consecutive season, won a second consecutive title at 125 pounds with a clinical 5-0 decision over Virginia’s Jack Mueller.
“(Iowa associate head coach) Terry Brands always tells me big-time wrestlers show up for big-time moments,” Lee said. “We preach that at the University of Iowa, and everyone on my team believes that they’re a big-time wrestler. And they have to because that’s the mindset you have to have to be in this sport.
”… I believe that, too. I believe we all show up the best we can, especially when you face a great opponent like Jack Mueller. He’s a great opponent.”
The night’s other champions were Rutgers’ Nick Suriano at 133 pounds, Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis at 141, Rutgers’ Anthony Ashnault at 149 and Northern Iowa’s Drew Foster at 184. Suriano and Ashnault became Rutgers’ first national champions, and Lewis became Virginia Tech’s first.
The finals attendance of 18,950 was fifth-highest in NCAA history, while the six-session attendance of 109,405 ranks sixth.