Penn State strong on first day; 8 former WPIAL wrestlers advance to NCAA quarters
The first day of the NCAA wrestling championships saw its usual share of dominant wins and eyebrow-raising upsets. And, as is also custom at this time of the year, Penn State ended the night in strong position to win another national title.
Although they weren’t immune to the upset bug themselves, the Nittany Lions still ended the first night of the three-day event Thursday at PPG Paints Arena atop the team standings as they seek an eighth championship in nine seasons.
“Tomorrow’s a new day. Each match is a new day,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “So if we wrestled great, just keep it up, but we’ve got to make that decision. Each individual has to make that decision (Friday).
“I like where we’re at. I’ve got a lot of confidence in these guys, but more than that, it’s just about them. This is their opportunity. As a team, it’s their opportunity. It’s the national championship, so we’ll see what they do (Friday).”
Penn State came through the first two rounds with six wrestlers in the national quarterfinals, including three — 157-pounder Jason Nolf (Kittanning), 165-pounder Vincenzo Joseph (Central Catholic) and 197-pounder Bo Nickal — who are seeking their third NCAA titles. Mark Hall, a former national champion and the top seed at 174 pounds, also advanced to the quarterfinals, along with 141-pounder Nick Lee and heavyweight Anthony Cassar.
The Nittany Lions lead the team standings with 32.5 points, ahead of second-place Ohio State (25.5) and third-place Iowa (24).
But the Nittany Lions also saw Shakur Rasheed, the No. 2 seed at 184 pounds, drop a second-round match to North Carolina’s Chip Ness. Rasheed was the highest-ranked wrestler to lose Thursday.
“Not much we can do about the past right now,” Sanderson said. “We’ve just got to move forward and get ready to roll (Friday) morning.”
Although all 10 No. 1 seeds and all six defending champions advanced to the quarterfinals, a handful of upsets shook up the brackets. Four top-five seeds lost, and the 184- and 197-pound weight classes saw half of their top eight seeds lose.
Pitt redshirt freshman Nino Bonaccorsi pulled off one of those upsets when he knocked off fourth-seeded Emery Parker of Illinois, 9-7, in the second round at 184 pounds. Parker finished third in the country last season.
“It was definitely awesome,” said Bonaccorsi, a Bethel Park graduate. “This whole experience has been awesome, wrestling in my backyard pretty much. I was really happy to get that win there in front of the home crowd.”
Fellow Pitt redshirt freshman Micky Phillippi, a Derry graduate, advanced to the quarterfinals at 133 pounds. He will face a familiar face from his past in Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher, a Latrobe graduate.
Eight former WPIAL wrestlers advanced to the quarterfinals, with Iowa 125-pounder Spencer Lee (Franklin Regional), Arizona State 165-pounder Josh Shields (Franklin Regional) and Virginia Tech 184-pounder Zack Zavatsky (Latrobe) joining Phillippi, Pletcher, Nolf, Joseph and Bonaccorsi.
After getting his school-record 60th pin in the first round, Nolf advanced to the quarterfinals with a second-round technical fall over Rutgers’ John Van Brill. Penn State teammate Joseph beat Missouri’s Connor Flynn by decision.
Lee, a defending NCAA champion, beat N.C. State’s Sean Fausz by major decision in the second round. Former Franklin Regional teammate Shields also won by major decision, beating Rider’s Jesse Dellavecchia. And Zavatsky capped a strong second round by ex-WPIAL wrestlers with a 9-7 decision over Michigan State’s Cameron Caffey.
“I feel like it was a good start to my weekend,” Zavatsky said. “My first match or two is usually getting my body feeling good, getting all the weight cut just through my body. So I felt pretty good. It was a little battle there with that (second-round) match, but he’s a tough freshman, slick kid, and I just kept battling, understanding that the farther you go in these rounds, the more of a war it’s going to be.”
Iowa heavyweight Sam Stoll, ranked 29th but a former All-American, beat the No. 5 and 12 seeds in his class to get to the quarterfinals. He is the lowest seed remaining. Lock Haven’s Kyle Shoop knocked off fourth-seeded Josh Alber of Northern Iowa in the second round at 141. Thomas Lane of Cal Poly beat fifth seed Jacob Warner in the second round at 197.
The tournament resumes at 11 a.m. Friday, with quarterfinals on the docket. The semifinals will take place at 8 p.m.
“Personally, I just think (you have to) just wrestle how you’ve been wrestling the whole year,” Bonaccorsi said. “Don’t change anything up now. I don’t really want to make it bigger than it is. I’ve been in a lot of big tournaments in my life, so this is really no different and I’m treating it just like any other.”