Jason Nolf was relaxed during a news conference Wednesday at the NCAA Division I wrestling championships at PPG Paints Arena.
The 2014 Kittanning graduate was joking with teammate Bo Nickal during the question-and-answer period, which might surprise many Penn State wrestling fans. They are used to the serious Nolf, who is focused on one thing: winning.
That will change Thursday for Nolf and his Penn State teammates as the tournament gets underway. It’s all business for Nolf for the next three days as the senior will attempt to win his third consecutive NCAA title.
Nolf, who also was an NCAA runner-up (2016), is seeded No. 1 at 157 pounds and is a huge favorite to win it all again.
He is 26-0 this season with 14 pins. His career mark is 112-3, and he owns the Penn State record of 59 falls — three more than Nickal.
“I’m not focused on what others are saying and what other people think,” Nolf said. “I’m focusing on my first match, and I take it one at a time.
“When you start thinking about what other people think, it becomes a distraction. And I don’t think anybody deserves anything. I think you have to go earn it. And that’s what I’m looking forward to do.”
Nolf will wrestle the winner of the preliminary-round match between Duke’s Ben Anderson and Alexander Klucker of Lock Haven in the first round.
Bucknell freshman Zach Hartman (Belle Vernon), who was pinned by Nolf earlier this season, said he believes Nolf is beatable.
“He does a great job getting you off balance,” Hartman said. “I was able to take him down, and I’d like another shot. A lot of people lose before the match starts.”
Hartman (26-7) has to win four matches before a possible rematch with Nolf.
While Hartman is optimistic, Pitt’s Taleb Rahmani said he isn’t worried about Nolf.
“He’s an elite wrestler,” Rahmani said. “Everybody is beatable, but he’s been so dominant. It’s hard to study film on him because it seems like he makes stuff up as he goes. There is a method to his madness.”
Nolf won the 2018 title while not at 100 percent. He hurt his knee in the regular season but managed to come back and win his second title.
He already has handled the second seed, Nebraska’s Ty Berger, with ease twice, 10-4 and 12-4.
Penn State coach Cael Sanderson could tell early in Nolf’s high school career what made him special.
“You can tell just by the look in his eye,” Sanderson said. “He’s very confident. And the bigger the match, the better he wrestles.
“Late into his high school career, you could just kind of see that he was separating himself, and a lot of that is his desire, his work ethic, his drive. It’s just him wanting to be the best and believing that he can be that.”
Nolf was a three-time PIAA Class AA champion. He lost in the finals his sophomore season (2012) — his only defeat in 177 high school matches.
Growing up in rural Armstrong County, Nolf would drive more than an hour to find good workout partners in Westmoreland County.
“I would drive to Franklin Regional or Latrobe to practice,” he said. “One benefit is I think there are amazing coaches everywhere. The biggest thing for me, I think, was finding really good partners and coaches to facilitate that.
“I had amazing coaches in the Strittmatters, coach (Rob) Waller and Isaac Greeley, but there were so many partners like (Josh) Shields, (Josh) Maruca, (Sam) Krivus and (Luke) Pletcher. I could name a million people.”
All four wrestlers he mentioned are in this year’s tournament. And while Nolf seems to be calm, he said the NCAA finals are different.
“It’s time for a big night whenever you start to feel all the jitters, and you start to feel nervous,” Nolf said. “A lot of people think that’s a bad thing. But for me, I feel spirited whenever it comes to national tournament.
“I really love this tournament. It’s where we’re supposed to peak, and I think we do as a team and as individuals and we’re just looking forward to competing.”
And if the experts are right, he will be celebrating another title.