The NCAA wrestling championships should have been a crowning achievement for Penn State, a weekend where the nation’s dominant program showed why it’s the dynasty of this decade.
There were memorable moments, especially when seniors Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal received standing ovations on Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena after capping their careers by winning their third national championships.
The Nittany Lions captured their fourth consecutive team title in a landslide with 137.5 points, so far ahead of Ohio State (96.5), Oklahoma State (84) and Iowa (76) that the finals weren’t a factor.
With dominance comes disappointment.
Cael Sanderson has set the bar so high at Penn State that the Nittany Lions find frustration with anything short of a national championship.
“I think you just have to believe in what you’re doing,” Sanderson said. “I think we believe that we’re going to be successful and win. And I think we’re not satisfied right now.”
Sanderson admitted it’s what keeps him awake at night, thinking about what his program needs to do better. He suggested it’s the great thing about his wrestlers facing great competition at a national tournament, “that it really reinforces things that we can improve on.”
Nothing is ever good enough for Sanderson or Penn State. Granted, that one-track mindset is why he won a record 159 consecutive matches at Iowa State. It’s why he has turned Penn State into the nation’s premier program, with 22 national champions and eight team titles since 2011.
But it’s why wrestlers like Kittanning’s Nolf finish their senior season undefeated and crack that it’s “not as good as four-time national champ, but I’ll take it.” That’s a warrior’s mentality that spans the sport, for better or worse.
The talk before NCAA championships was that Penn State could challenge Iowa’s record for most team points (170 in 1997) and have as many as six wrestlers win national championships.
That number was reduced to five Thursday night when No. 2 seed Shakur Rasheed — believed to be dealing with a serious knee injury — lost in the second round.
But Penn State still had five wrestlers in the finals. Its chance to tie the national record for most champions got off to a good start in the first match. Heavyweight Anthony Cassar, who moved up a weight class after taking a redshirt last year, stunned top-seeded Derek White of Oklahoma State by a 10-1 decision to win his first national title.
Nolf gave Penn State a second champion with his 10-2 decision over Nebraska’s Tyler Berger at 157 pounds. Then the unexpected happened, as Vincenzo Joseph and Mark Hall lost in the finals.
Joseph, a Central Catholic graduate, fell short of his goal of winning a third consecutive title at 165 pounds by losing a 7-1 decision to Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, who was named Outstanding Wrestler. The previously undefeated Hall, the top seed at 174, lost a 4-3 decision to Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia.
Sanderson was at a loss to explain whether Penn State clinching the team title before the start of the finals played a role.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I like when they have the edge a little bit, and there’s a little extra pressure,” Sanderson said. “I think with the right mindset, that just heightens the nerves a little bit and increases focus a little bit. Again, we all have the choice and the opportunity to go out there and take advantage of every second we have on the mat, regardless of the circumstances. So you can’t blame anything other than ourselves.”
But there was an anti-climactic feel by the time Nickal finished his storied career with a 5-1 decision over Ohio State’s Kollin Moore to win at 197 in the final match of the night. Nickal was the NCAA’s Most Dominant wrestler, winning three of his five matches by fall.
But that neither Nolf nor Nickal was its most outstanding was an upset.
Not that Penn State should be upset or disappointed with crowning two three-time champions and winning its fourth straight national championship and eighth in nine years. Instead, it should be just the opposite.
“It’s really been blessing after blessing. Since the first time I stepped foot on campus, it’s been incredible,” Nickal said, praising the people who put so much effort and energy into his career. “I’m incredibly grateful for it. And being able to go through it with a guy like Jason Nolf is something that’s amazing and a true blessing.”
What would be something that’s amazing is if Penn State can learn to count its blessings the way it does it championships, even when its dominance includes disappointment.