Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: NCAA wrestling championships lived up to the hype
The NCAA wrestling championships came with a warning: You’ve never seen anything like it.
Wrestling fans filled PPG Paints Arena over a three-day span to watch a pair of Western Pennsylvania products win individual championships and Penn State win its fourth consecutive national title and eighth in nine years.
The place was packed with 18,950 on Saturday night for the championship matches. Over six sessions, the attendance was 109,405.
And it was as awesome as advertised.
1. Reason to smile: If you were expecting more than a smirk from Jason Nolf after the Penn State senior won the 157-pound NCAAtitle Saturday night, take into consideration what he was expecting.
That was as much emotion as the Kittanning graduate showed when he capped his undefeated senior season with a 9-2 decision over Nebraska’s Tyler Berger and was showered with a standing ovation from Penn State fans at PPG Paints Arena.
Nolf didn’t smile atop the podium, either.
“Not as good as four-time national champ, but I’ll take it,” Nolf said. “Look, coming into college, I think everybody wants to be a four-time national champ. I was definitely willing to work for it and sacrifice.
“But after the first year, my goal was to be a three-time national champ, and that’s what I am.”
Nolf will have to settle for being a four-time NCAA champion in a different way. He was one of five wrestlers to reach the finals on Penn State’s four-time defending NCAA team champions.
“That’s definitely a blessing to be part of such a great team,” Nolf said. “Sometimes you can take it for granted and kind of expect that it’s going to happen. But … you’ve got to go work hard for it, and everybody individually has to do their part.
“I’m definitely blessed to be around people that have such a clear mind and know exactly what they want. And they’re willing to sacrifice maybe some other things that other people are doing in order to get it. Our team is just full of a bunch of great guys and definitely blessed.”
Someday, Nolf will be able to reflect on his career with a smile.
2. Two for Lee: Iowa’s Spencer Lee of Franklin Regional soaked up every second of winning his second 125-pound NCAA championship before a hometown crowd.
“Being in Pittsburgh,” Lee said, “is awesome.”
Only a sophomore, Lee was asked about being halfway to becoming a four-time NCAA champion.
“I don’t really care about being a four-time,” Lee said. “Can’t worry about four-time national champ because you can’t win four if you don’t win three, and I haven’t won three yet.”
Not yet, anyway.
But there’s no reason to believe Lee isn’t on his way, especially after he explained how he believes his teammates when they tell him that he’s the best wrestler in the world.
“I truly believe that you have to believe that.”
Lee was one second shy of becoming an undefeated, four-time WPIAL and PIAA champion, before suffering his first career loss. In the semifinals, he avenged the first pin since he was 9.
With Lee, seeing is believing.
3. Two for Rutgers: Nick Suriano was speechless.
Suriano trailed by one point with 4 seconds left in the ride-out period when he somehow managed an escape against Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix. He scored a takedown in the second sudden victory for a 4-2 decision.
“I didn’t quit through this whole journey,” Suriano said. “And it came down to not quitting this last match. I was going to quit. I was this close. I was thinking about it. He rolled me like that. And, like, I got out. I made sure I was going to get out.
“And I looked in his eyes, and I said, ‘I’m going to take him down.’ And I took him down, and he was getting away with stalling the whole match.
“It’s an honor to bring history to Rutgers, where it belongs. And Anthony Ashnault, right on the screen right there, is going to do it next. And this is going to be a day in history.”
Soon after, Rutgers had another national champion. Ashnault, a sixth-year senior who became the school’s first four-time All-American, scored a 9-4 decision over Ohio State’s Micah Jordan to win the 149-pound title.
“I know what I did and I know what Nick did, the steps along the way,” Ashnault said. “The proof’s in the pudding. It’s a lot easier to set the table for a high school kid looking to come to school for Rutgers. We’re not just producing All-Americans and national finalists and Big Ten champs now. We’re taking top 10 in the country as a team, and now we’re national champs.”
And the night of firsts for Jersey wasn’t over.
4. Upset alert: Mekhi Lewis went from No. 8 seed to the first national champion for Virginia Tech with a 7-1 decision at 165 pounds over two-time champion Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State and Central Catholic.
“It means a lot, because Virginia Tech wrestling has been really good,” Lewis said. “It’s just that we never really had good finals, good end results. So to be the first one is really special. It means a lot to me … just so happy that I’m a part of the program.”
Lewis, a redshirt freshman, stunned top-seeded Alex Marinelli of Iowa by a 4-1 decision in the quarterfinals Friday morning and topped No. 4 Evan Wick of Wisconsin by a 5-2 decision in the semifinals later that night.
It was an amazing night for New Jersey wrestlers, starting with Penn State senior Anthony Cassar winning the heavyweight championship and followed by the Rutgers duo.
Lewis beat the Nos. 1, 2 and 4 seeds on his way to the title.
“I didn’t think I was the underdog,” Lewis said. “I just thought people didn’t get the chance to see me wrestle at a big stage, like, folk style, because they only saw freestyle. And I just felt like I was like I was prepared and ready to win a national title. So I felt equal to everybody I wrestled.”
5. Hat tip: The Parade of All-Americans before the NCAA championship bouts had a Western Pennsylvania flavor, a nod to its rich wrestling history and Pitt serving as the event host.
The list of legends leading each weight class was impressive:
Pat Pecora, whose 597 victories as coach at Pitt-Johnstown are second most in college wrestling history. Pitt three-time All-American Jeff Jelic. Six-time NCAA champion Carlton Haselrig, who starred for the Steelers, had 149. North Allegheny graduate Jake Herbert, a two-time NCAA champion and Hodge Trophy winner at Northwestern who was a 2012 Olympic silver medalist.
Scott Hovan, a two-time All-American at Pitt. Carl Fronhofer, an NCAA runner-up at Pitt. Panthers coach Kevin Gavin, a 2008 NCAA champion. Greensburg Salem graduate Greg Jones, who won three NCAA titles at West Virginia. Mark Bodo, a three-time All-American at Pitt. And leading the heavyweights was the former Edinboro coach Bruce Baumgartner, a two-time Olympic champion.
Western Pennsylvania can take a bow.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .