Coming off a season in which they reclaimed the National Title for the fifth time in six years after a one- year hiatus, several Penn State wrestlers have been finding success in the summer freestyle circuit under the banner of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. Let's catch up with some familiar names and a few faces that may be less familiar.
The last time ZPain was in a Penn State singlet, he was rolling through the 149lb weight class like a hot knife through butter, en route to an undefeated national championship season in which he was statistically the most dominant wrestler in the nation last year. With his national championship came an automatic berth to the Freestyle Olympic Trials back in May and Retherford, who wrestled in the 65kg (143.3lb) was quite impressive. He drew reigning 70kg world bronze medalist James Green( 70 kg is not contested at the olympic game.) In the preliminary round Retherford dominated Green. He fell 8-6 in the quarters to four-time NCAA Champion Logan Stieber, but went on a run in the losers' bracket to take third place and cement his spot on Team USA.
Since then, the 2012 Cadet World Freestyle Champion has been training on-and-off with the rest of Team USA, and with the second-place finisher at trials Aaron Pico being out with an injury currently, is a heartbreaking injury to our own Frank Molinaro away from competing in Rio de Janiero next month. When he's not on the mat, Zain has been taking part in one of his other favorite hobbies, crushing fruit.
Already an overwhelming favorite for the national championship next year, Retherford has only increased expectations with his performance at trials and subsequent training with the best wrestlers the nation has to offer.
Nolf came up one match short of getting that automatic berth to the Olympic Trials, but that has not slowed down a wrestler known for his unmatched pace and tempo from having a great summer. At the Junior World Team Trials in May, Nolf dominated a challenger bracket filled with big names, beating Jojo Smith, former top five pound for pound recruit Logan Massa, and Nittany Lion teammate Vincenzo Joseph in succession to capture the challenger bracket before falling to wunderkind and future Penn Stater Mark Hall in the best 2 out of 3 finals, 10-0 and 10-6.
With the news that rival Isaiah Martinez has decided to move up to 165lb, Nolf becomes the favorite in a 157 weight class that should be one of the deeper in the country next year. No matter how deep or talented the weight is, it will be tough to bet against a motivated and hungry Jason Nolf following his losses to Martinez in the Big Ten and national finals.
Just like his classmate Nolf, Nickal ended his season with a loss in the national final and missing out on his chance at Olympic trials. Nickal also competed at Junior World Team Trials, and despite his 86kg weight class not featuring the depth of talent that Nolf's did, Nickal still looked mighty impressive in capturing the challenger bracket before falling to Arizona State blue-chipper Zahid Valencia by scores of 8-2 and 2-1. Despite freestyle not fitting his strengths as a mat wrestler as well as folkstyle does, Nickal looked like someone that could have a future in international freestyle competition after his college days are over.
There are a lot of moving parts in the 165/174/184 weight classes looking ahead to next year, and it will be interesting to see who ends up at what weight, though it seems like a fairly safe bet that Nickal will stay at 174. It will be another deep weight class, and Nickal will not be the clear-cut favorite that Retherford and Nolf will be, but expect him to start the season ranked at the top of his weight and contend for the national title he came so close to last year.
If you follow wrestling closely, Mark Hall is not a new name. If you are a Penn State fan and only casually follow the Nittany Lion Wrestling team, his name is one you need to know. Hall, the #1 P4P recruit in the nation for the class of 2016, has only increased the already large hype surrounding him with a stream of great performances. Coming off his unprecedented sixth Minnesota state title, Hall entered the last chance qualifier for the Olympic trials and despite being a high school senior, prevailed in a 74kg bracket that included former Gopher standout Dylan Ness, four-time undefeated PIAA state champion and current Lock Haven Bald Eagle Chance Marstellar, and the other half of the Valencia duo, Anthony, to claim his spot at trials. Hall was not satisfied with just making it to trials, as he went 2-2 against the best the nation has to offer including a win over the aforementioned Logan Massa.
After the trials, Hall, whose twitter name is the Penn State appropriate @wreckhall, went back to the junior circuit where he has been nothing short of dominant. He captured the title at Junior Freestyle Nationals at 74kg, a weight that was undoubtedly the deepest and most talented in the tournament with a fall over Logan Massa. Two weeks later he topped Nolf to make the Junior World Team, and later in May he topped Iranian Ahmad Bazrighaleh in the Beat the Streets event in Manhattan. In June he was named as an alternate to the World Cup team. Though he did not see the mat in the World Cup, the experience of being apart of such an important meet will be sure to pay dividends for him down the road. Hall will conclude his freestyle season by chasing a world title at the Junior World Championships in Poland from October 7-9.
It is unlikely that Hall is in the Penn State lineup next year, as a redshirt year and possibly even a grayshirt and then a redshirt year have been mentioned as possibilities for Hall. This much is clear: Whether we see Hall in the 2016-2017, 2017-2018, or 2018-2019 seasons for the first time in a Nittany Lion singlet, the moment he steps out on the mat he is a national title contender. Get excited Penn State fans, because he's a special talent.
Penn State's embarrassment of riches in the middleweights continues with rising redshirt freshman Vincenzo "Cenzo" Joseph. Joseph, a top ten P4P guy out of high school, exceeded expectations on the freestyle circuit this offseason. At Junior Freestyle Nationals, Joseph finished third in the deep 74kg weight class, picking up notable falls against All-American Jojo Smith and Anthony Valencia, with his only loss coming in a very respectable 8-4 decision to Mark Hall, the only match that Hall did not win via fall or technical fall. He followed that up with a second place finish in the 74kg challenger bracket, with his only loss coming on a 5-2 decision to Jason Nolf, and another win over Anthony Valencia. The fact that his only losses in these two prestigious tournaments were to a teammate and a future teammate speaks volumes about the talent that Penn State is accumulating in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex.
It seems more than likely that Joseph will be the starter for the Lions at 165lb, though he will be challenged by returning R16 national finisher Geno Morelli. If Cael Sanderson really wanted to prove he owns the wrestling world, he could bump Bo Nickal up to 184 lbs, and Joseph to 174, making room for Mark Hall to wrestle at 165lb and creating a lineup where, barring injuries, a 6th title in 7 years could be a mere formality. That, however seems unlikely at this point, so except to see Joseph as the guy who brings Penn State back out from dual meet intermissions at 165lb.
Midsummer look towards the lineup
There are a lot of moving pieces in the potential Nittany Lion lineup for the 2016-2017 season, such as will it be Cortez/Gulibon or Gulibon/Cortez at 133/141lb, whether Hall will be in a Penn State singlet come this winter (don't hold your breath) and how the 184lb and 197lb weight classes will shake out, as those two weights will be decided by a combination of improvement over the summer and some injuries healing up. However, for fun, I see the first-choice lineup for the season working out like this:
125: TR FR Nick Suriano
133: RS SO Jered Cortez
141: RS SR Jimmy Gulibon
149: RS JR Zain Retherford
157: RS SO Jason Nolf
165: RS FR Vincenzo Joseph
174: RS SO Bo Nickal
184: RS JR Matt McCutcheon/ RS SO Shakur Rasheed
197: RS SO Anthony Cassar/RS FR Kellan Stout
285: RS SO Nick Nevills
That's surely a lineup capable of bringing home the hardware once again, and will be worth the price of admission at Rec Hall all winter long.