We’re only three days away from the 2015-2016 wrestling season opening up with a dual at Rec Hall against Loch Haven. For those of you lucky enough to attend and the rest of us left to follow along at home with the golden voice of Jeff Ironhead Byers, we wanted to give you an introduction to the wrestlers you’ll be seeing/hearing.
Before we get to the wrestlers though meet the head coach of the Nittany Lions, Cael Sanderson. A full introduction would take too much time, so let’s just give a brief recap of his career achievements: 4 time NCAA champion, 159-0 career collegiate record, Olympic gold medalist, 4 NCAA championships as coach at Penn State. Basically if you’re talking greatest wrestlers in history, even the shortest of lists must include Cael.
Wrestling is an individual sport with a wide diversity of styles, but Cael’s approach to the sport is apparent in the style of every wrestler on this team. There’s only one mission when you’re on the mat wrestling for Cael Sanderson and that is to score points. Guys never stop wrestling for the full 7 minutes regardless of the score or situation. Bonus points win national championships and that’s something Cael’s teams put up in bunches with their nonstop aggression.
Returning from redshirt this year is senior Nico Megaludis. This returning 2x national finalist and 3x All American from Murraysville PA is on a mission for only one thing, to win a national championship. He’s come heartbreakingly close losing to #1 Matt McDonough from Iowa (4-1) in the 2012 NCAA finals, #2 Jesse Delgado of Illinois (7-4) in the 2013 NCAA finals and losing to #2 Nashon Garrett of Cornell (6-4) in the 2014 NCAA semifinals.
Nico has the skill set to match his ambition as he’s always looking to score points from any position. He has the agility that has become so prevalent in the 125 pound weight class but wrestles with aggression and hostility. He never tires and he never lets up, punishing opponents for the full 7 minutes they’re on the mat.
What to watch for: Nico loves to shoot a low right leg single off a collar tie. In a style that’s only orthodox to the light weights he keeps his elbows flared out while setting up the ankle right where he wants it before dropping down on the low single. The most underrated weapon in his arsenal is his wicked tightwaist that he uses from the top position to flatten guys out and take the wind out of them. It doesn’t take long for him to run that tight waist before opponents are sucking for air and he’s able to work a tilt or his preferred arm bars.
Prediction: Nico has had a whole year to train for this season. He’s not going to settle for anything less than a national championship and I’m not going to bet against him. If we were impressed by what he was able to accomplish in previous seasons I expect him to take it up a notch in 2015. Expect lots of wins and lots of bonus points coming from them.
Another redshirt senior in the lineup with an already impressive resume is 2x national qualifier and 1x All American Jordan Conaway. Another PA native, this time from Abbottstown, Jordan makes the move back to 133 as Nico returns to the lineup at 125. Jordan reached the NCAA tournament in 2012-2013 at 133 finishing just 1 round shy of the podium before making it again last year at 125 and finally earning All American honors. In 2012 David Taylor stated that if there was a 112 pound weight class, Jordan would be the national champion.
Jordan was undersized at 133 his redshirt sophomore year but still held his own at this weight. Despite being undersized he’s always had good strength and his style is a much better fit for 133 than the bending and rolling style that dominates the 125 pound weight class. Now that he’s had an entire off season to prepare for 133 without having to worry about getting back down it’ll be interesting to see if he’s put on a bit of size in the offseason.
What to watch for: Jordan is a no nonsense wrestler. He likes to tie up and control the neck before dropping down on a low single to the right leg. From there he’s capable of winning a scramble but he’s more comfortable cutting across to get the other ankle and drive through his opponent. He’s always fast off the whistle and likes to work an arm bar tilt from top. I expect to see more power in his wrestling style this year if he’s been able to put on size.
Prediction: 133 is a pretty stacked weight this year retaining Cody Brewer (Oklahoma) and Cory Clark (Iowa) and welcoming Nashon Garrett (Cornell). While Conaway falls short of the top 3 guys in this weight, a mid-AA podium placement isn’t out of the cards. He has the skills and the attitude to make it happen, he just has to get over the hump of turning close losses into close win.
Redshirt junior Jimmy Gulibon, another PA boy from Latrobe, bumps up to 141 this year after being a 2x NCAA tournament qualifier and 1x AA at 133. Jimmy is regarded as the strongest pound-for-pound wrestler on the team and has made every pound count on his bump from 133 to 141. Gulibon placed 5th at last year’s NCAA tournament after suffering a close loss in the semifinals against Cory Clark (Iowa) and then getting pinned by A.J. Schopp (Edinboro).
Jimmy overcame both his weight management problems and his mental hurdles last year to place firmly on the podium. This off season he’s put on more size and will be wrestling a weight class and style that is more of a natural fit for him, looking to outmuscle his opponents and always looking for a headlock or throw.
What to watch for: Gulibon loves to go heavy on the head before hitting a duck under or snapping down his opponents and spinning behind. He controls the tie and also uses it to set up a nice double leg. Don’t be surprised to see him look for more throws this year now that he’s at a weight where opponents might be foolish enough to try to throw with him. He likes to work a 2-on-1 tilt from the top position and looks for a power half when his opponent is flattened out.
Prediction: Last year I thought he was a dark horse candidate to win a national championship and this year he’s now a serious contender. I’m trying to keep myself from going full homer already, but I have him making the NCAA finals now that Stieber, Carter and Port are all gone. We’ll likely get to see how he stacks up against Heil at the Southern Scuffle, at which point I might start predicting championship.
At 149 we get to experience the return of redshirt sophomore phenom Zain Retherford hailing from Benton, PA. Zain redshirted last year after coming off an impressive true freshman season where he placed 5th at the NCAA finals and pulled off the upset of the year in the Ohio State dual against eventual national champ Logan Stieber (thanks in part to average officials, the flu, and probably the weather). He only has 3 career losses, 2 of which were to the eventual national champ Logan Stieber (Ohio State) and a consolation bout in the NCAA tournament to Mitchell Port.
As a true freshman Zain was one of the most technically sound wrestlers I’ve ever seen, wrestling a methodical style improving his position, however minutely, with each movement. He’s been taking on the top competition on the freestyle circuit throughout his redshirt year and looks to supplement his world class technical ability with sheer power and athleticism. He’s taken advantage of every ounce between 141 and 149 turning into a watermelon squashing monster.
What to watch for: In his freshman year Zain didn’t waste much time tying up, instead looking to shoot on a low left leg single. However with his added size he seems more willing to tie up and set up the single off a collar tie. What truly sets Zain apart is his ability to throw in legs from the top position. He consistently racked up riding time points as a true freshman and don’t expect that to change. What he’ll likely be bringing to the table this year however is the strength necessary to finally turn a flattened out opponent with an arm bar or a power half that he wasn’t capable of running his freshman year.
Prediction: Zain was a national contender his freshman year. He’s spent an entire off season putting on size, training with Molinaro and Nolf and cutting his teeth against the best the US has to offer in freestyle. It’s a lofty expectation, but expect him to come out looking much better than his freshman year. If he’s able to balance his technical abilities with his power, he’s going to take home the gold. Expect a more offensive and faster scoring Zain this year that puts up bonus points in the team total.
Hello redshirt freshman Jason Nolf, another PA native this time from Yatesboro. Nolf looks to make his official Penn State wrestling debut after an impressive redshirt year that featured a loss in the Southern Scuffle finals to Nebraska’s 4x national championship qualifier James Green.
Nolf scores quickly and scores often. He’s not deterred by giving up a takedown and has the utmost confidence that he’s going to get the next one. He’s not intimidated by anyone and after another off season facing David Taylor, Zain Retherford and the rest of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, he’s going to come out with even more confidence if that’s even possible.
What to watch for: Nolf has a mean ankle pick that he put on full display in last year’s Southern Scuffle. He’s been learning from the best in David Taylor so look for it to be used liberally this season. He’s also quick to get in on a single at any moment so expect a lot of points as Nolf employs his own version of catch-and-release. His biggest weakness like many underclassmen is his ability to get out from the bottom and while I expect him to heavily favor tilts from the top position, most of his points are going to come from neutral.
Prediction: Nolf enters the season ranked #7 by Intermat. While expectations are high based on his success at last year’s Scuffle, don’t be surprised if opponents start finding some success once there’s some film on him. I expect to see him improve throughout the season, especially getting out from bottom which he was already capable of last year. He should be in contention to make the podium come March with several bonus points along the way.
Without much word as to who will get the go at 165, expect to see a rotation of redshirt sophomore Garrett Hammond (Chambersburg, PA) and redshirt freshman Shakur Rasheed (Coram, NY) throughout the season. Hammond had a pretty good freshman season before a disappointing showing in the B1G tournament that failed to qualify him for the NCAA tournament.
He’s shown signs of promise but much like his high school career he’s plagued by inconsistency. We saw similar mental hurdles overcome by Jimmy Gulibon going into his sophomore season and now that he’s being pushed by Rasheed, hopefully we’ll see the best Hammond has to offer. The only near certainty we have at this weight is that it likely won’t be decided until the B1G tournament.
What to watch for: Just because the Altons have graduated doesn’t mean the excitement of throws is going anywhere. Hammond is not afraid to go big or go home and is constantly looking to hit a headlock. This weight is going to go to whichever wrestler is able to put up points so expect more shooting and scrambles.
Prediction: This weight was our biggest weakness prior to losing Nevills at heavyweight. Whoever gets the go come tournament time is going to be expected to make the NCAA tournament but this is a field poised for some new names to emerge and Dieringer and Jordan to remain on top. Not making the NCAA tournament would be a disappointment but making AA would be a bit of a surprise. Expect 1-2 wins in the NCAAs, hopefully one of which includes bonus points.
While the lower weights are dominated by experienced talent, the middle weights feature a lot of young potential. Redshirt frosh Bo Nickal, straight from Allen, Texas, continues the string of youth. Nickal was putting together a quality Scuffle showing of his own before bowing out early with a medical forfeit.
Nickal was a 4 time Texas state finalist and 3 time champ before coming to Happy Valley. With a full year to develop in the wrestling room with David Taylor, Ed Ruth and the rest of the NLWC he’s been exposed to a lot of top talent in a very short amount of time. Expect him to have learned a thing or two during those sessions.
What to watch for: Nickal showed a nice cradle during last year’s Southern Scuffle. Ed Ruth may have left for the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club but expect some aspects of his cradle to have found their way into Nickal’s repertoire. Nickal is an explosive wrestler and always looking to put his opponents on their backs so expect lots of action and probably a scramble or two.
Prediction: Much like Nolf, expect some initial success followed by a learning curve as opponents start to figure Nickal out. A run for All American is definitely not out of the cards for Nickal but any podium spot at 174 is going to be hard earned. Expect Nickal to contribute to the bonus points total though whether he finishes on the podium or off.
Redshirt sophomore Matt McCutcheon from Apollo, PA takes the mat for the Nittany Lions at 184. Matt was a 2x PA state finalist and 1x champ prior to coming to Penn State. Last year Mouse put together an impressive run in the B1G and NCAA tournaments losing in the blood round and falling just short of the AA.
Matt found an inner confidence towards the end of the season that helped him pull off some big wins, but he needs to overcome his timid style and ratchet up the offense. His early years are reminiscent of our previous 174 pounder while he was figuring out how to put it all together for an eventual national championship. McCutcheon has a mean streak in him and needs to find that balance between setting up his offense, wrestling aggressively and inflicting pain.
What to watch for: It takes him awhile to set it up, but when he gets it going his low single to a double is a thing of beauty. Expect him to have worked on finishing it in the off season making it more potent. He also likes to work an arm bar from top and if he can be a little meaner and forceful with it he’ll start getting back points for it. He liked throwing legs last year but it seemed more for comfort than for points. If he’s able to wrestle more confidently expect him to go for more points with that arm bar.
Prediction: 184 is a rough field making a podium finish one hell of an accomplishment. I really do see a lot of Matt Brown in McCutcheon and expect to see Cael take the same approach that finally got Hulk Hands over the hump. Expect to see him wrestle his style up until the Scuffle, then open up his offense taking more risks and spending less time setting up shots before finally settling in to a comfortable middle ground prior to the B1G tournament. With the talent at this weight across the country the B1G may not benefit from the number of auto qualifying spots it’s used to for the NCAA tournament but expect Matt to make the NCAA tournament and repeat his 2014-2015 tournament performance putting together some sound matches and getting a couple wins.
In his redshirt senior season, the California Kid Morgan McIntosh (Santa Ana, CA) looks to capture the national championship that has eluded him so far in his career. Smack is a 2x All American and looks to avenge his disappointing 3rd place at last year’s NCAA tournament.
Morgan is an absolute beast of a wrestler. If you were to assemble a 197 pounder from scratch you would end up with McIntosh. He’s a mountain of muscle that likes to inflict pain on his opponents and punish them for daring to step on the mat with him. When Matt Brown describes you as the toughest wrestler in the country, that’s saying something. Unfortunately Morgan has been his own worst enemy in his previous NCAA showings, suffering disappointing losses to opponents he should have been able to beat.
What to watch for: Pain. Lots and lots of pain. Morgan is athletic enough to hit everything from a blast double to his preferred ankle picks, but when he gets you on the mat is when you’re in for a world of hurt. His signature turn from the top position is a bow and arrow that he uses to practically bend his opponents in half until he gets the fall.
Prediction: This is Morgan’s year. His early career seemed plagued with self-doubt despite his overwhelming athleticism. Last year he wrestled one bad match at the wrong time and it cost him a title. Don’t expect that to happen again. He’s confident, he’s focused and he’s going to put up a lot of bonus points and a pile of broken opponents on his way to a championship.
In the biggest surprise of the 2015 season so far, meet 2x PA state champ Jan Johnson from Mohnton, PA. When Nevills went down this offseason to what’s purported as a season ending injury, Cael hit up James Franklin for the walk on state champ who quickly realized that wrestling and football are two drastically different sports.
Jan Johnson has a mountain to climb and it’s not going to start off easily as he faces Ty Walz of Virginia Tech in his first weekend of collegiate wrestling. He’s talented but unfortunately he has a lot of time in the room to make up for and will be facing a field of more physically matured wrestlers.
What to watch for: Progress. The expectations for Jan are low going into the season as he serves as an emergency replacement for Nevills, but he has potential. He has a lot of talent to work with in the room that will hopefully be bringing him up to speed quickly and let’s not forget Jimmy Lawson was able to find success at heavyweight despite missing time pursuing football.
Prediction: Hopes aren’t high for production from heavyweight this year, but in a weight class that’s usually won by 2 points or less outside of the top contenders, who knows what can happen. Look for a steep learning curve out the gate as Jan learns the hard way how hard it is to carry 285 pounds on your back when taking shots and trying to get out from bottom at this level. If he’s able to learn from his mistakes and heed the advice he gets from the coaching staff and the room, he might have a puncher’s chance at making the NCAA tournament at a weight class that the B1G usually auto qualifies more wrestlers than not for the NCAA tourney.
So now that you know what you’re looking for, make sure to follow the wrestling team as they kick off their season on Friday night against Loch Haven followed by a trip to Blacksburg for a quality early season test against the Hokies on Sunday.
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