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Penn State Wrestling Preview, Part Two

Our wrestling staff (with a new addition!) goes around the horn to tackle some of the big questions headed into the season that kicks off this week.

NCAA Wrestling: Division I Wrestling Championship Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

For part one of our two-part preview, head over here. Now, onto our questions!

Who is Zain's biggest competition for the Hodge this year?

Clay: Kyle Snyder would be, but I don't know how much he'll actually wrestle and I can't see voters rewarding him for wrestling overseas. Given that fact, I think Bo Nickal will emerge at Zain's biggest competition.

Cari: The same two guys who were his biggest competition last year: Snyder and Nolf. Snyder himself said Zain deserved it, and even though he’s one of the best wrestlers in the world (and most fun “heavyweight” to watch in quite some time), he doesn’t wrestle enough throughout the year to make it worth it for him to win again. Unless something freaky happens, Zain should win this again going away – a fitting cap for his senior season.

JP: There are seven criteria considered by the Hodge Committee, which is made up of every past Hodge winner, national wrestling media, a retired college coach from each region of the country and a representative of the national wrestling organizations. Those criteria are season record, number of pins, dominance, past credentials, quality of competition, sportsmanship and citizenship, and heart. Losing a single match usually disqualifies you, and Dominance has lately, and rightly, been measured by Bonus Point wins. Ohio State's All-world everything Kyle Snyder hasn't pinned enough heavyweights (or wrestled enough college matches) to earn more than four of the 45 available first-place votes, last year's 2nd place finisher J'Den Cox has graduated, and Jason Nolf is the only other wrestler who earned first-place votes last year (three). I'd guess Snyder's personal schedule will look similar to last year's and we'll see him periodically wrestle in college, in between prestigious international tournaments.

But my answer's not going to be Nolf, who may see a slight increase in competition quality this year with the arrival of Michigan's Alex Pantaleo & Ohio State's Micah Jordan. I'm going with Illinois' Isaiah Martinez. He's already a 2x National Champion, has only two losses in his career (each via pin to a Penn State wrestler). If IMar goes undefeated, he'll have many, many Bonus Point wins, and probably multiple wins over top-contenders Logan Massa & Vincenzo Joseph (although, sadly, he faces neither in the B1G Dual Season), and the committee could be well justified in awarding him the Hodge over Retherford.

Ben: Jason Nolf. He was 27-0 with 25 bonus point wins last year - and both of his regular decisions fell just shy of major decisions. He's pretty good. But most importantly, the new scrambling rules are tailor made for Nolf. Had the rule been in effect last year, I believe Nolf tech's Joey Lavallee in the 2nd period of the NCAA final, rather than majoring him at the buzzer. Three different times Nolf had Lavallee trapped on his back out of a scramble - but earned 0 points from those positions, because Lavallee successfully clung to Nolf's ankle. This year, that gets called a takedown and swipes get counted. Lavallee and Mikey Kemerer just fell that much farther behind the champ, imo.

Which individual matchup are you most looking forward to this season (featuring a PSU wrestler)? What about non-PSU matchup?

Clay: Well it wooouuuld have been Nick Suriano and Nathan Tomasello but, well, yeah. So given that that's out the window, I'll give you Mark Hall-Zahid Valencia 2.0. Hall was the beneficiary of a (correct) pulling the head gear call in his win over Zahid in March. This time around, he many get that advantage. Of the non-PSU variety, I am still unbelievably intrigued by Tomasello-Suriano.

Cari: I can’t wait to see what happens when Cenzo takes the mat against Imar again. Will the Illinois grappler do what he did to Nolf after the then-freshman 157er pinned him in Champaign? Or will he respond by being tentative and letting Cenzo dictate? That should be a fun one – thought we wouldn’t be able to see it until the Big Ten tournament, as Penn State doesn’t wrestle Illinois in a dual this year. How Cenzo competes against Massa should let us know how it will go.

As far as out of the PSU room (at least, this season), I’m interested to see how NaTo bumps back down to 125 for the Buckeyes – and that January 7 dual meet in Piscataway, where he’ll face Nick Suriano, looks mighty intriguing.

JP: Nolf - Kemerer. Hopefully three times. Kemerer's a Western PA guy with a 61% bonus rate last year and the only dude capable of holding Nolf to regular decisions (he did so twice last year: 4-9 & 2-8). He'll keep attacking, and their bouts will be fun as hell. Beyond PSU, it's Kyle Snyder vs Michigan's Adam Coon. Snyder's the best in the world at 96kg/211lbs and, so far in college, he's shown he's the best in the country even vs guys with a 285lb weight limit. Coon's a 275-pound giant who's returning from redshirt after a R12 finish (from the 4-seed) his TRFR year, and 2nd & 3rd place finishes in 2015 & 2016. Watching Snyder take him down in 2016, snatching one of those tree trunks for legs, was amazing. Can't wait to see fresh Feats of Snyder Strength.

Ben: Cenzo vs IMAR. Both quick twitch. Both strong like bull, with concrete hips. Over/under ties and throws. Revenge/prove the doubters wrong. And we'll be anticipating it all year long, as they likely won't meet up until Big Tens.

Which overall NCAA wrestler are you most looking forward to watching this year?

Clay: The answer is Jason Nolf and anybody who says otherwise is incorrect.

Cari: It’s Jason Nolf. Bo Nickal is my favorite and Zain is a clinician, but Nolf is just so darn exciting on the mat. You never know what he’ll pull. And he hasn’t pinned as quickly as the other two, so we get to watch him wrestle more.

I’m also really looking forward to Ohio State’s Kollin Moore. As a freshman last year, he showed a lot of talent and explosiveness – J’Den Cox was just too much for him. He’ll keep the upper weights exciting along with teammate Snyder. 197 is his to lose, and he should be fun to watch as well.

JP: Oklahoma State's Dean Heil. He's a 2x Champ with a 15-2 record at the national tournament. But with the Cael Sanderson at Penn State Era now in Year Nine, the wrestling world is accustomed to--and now expects--offensive production. Gone are the days of appreciation for the mere grinders and 'tough guys.' The name of the game these days is points--scoring lots of them, and Heil often does not. He's posted bonus win percentages of just 40%, 27% & 36% in his three years of attached competition. Heil told USA Wrestling's Richard Immel in March that he wants to 'open up more' and that he 'can escape from anybody and can take em down.'

He also shed some light on his mental approach historically, adding: 'I'll wrestle if you wanna wrestle, but if you're just gonna stand in front of me, I'll just wait for you to make a move.' But the fun part for the future is this: he also said 'I'm still trying to figure out why I'm not scoring as much as I want to, or am capable of doing. That's one thing I'm going to try to fix going into my last year.' Heil spent a lot of time on that podcast talking about fans he reads online who hate the way he wrestles. Young man, if you're reading this, count me as somebody who wants to love the way you wrestle. Good luck opening up this year!

Ben: Zain folding dudes in half, and Bo throwing dudes from double overs, and Cenzo inside tripping guys, and Hall's cement specials - it's an incredibly fun team to watch. But Nolf...he's never boring, that's for sure. Even when he's not inventing new wrestling moves, he's just a joy to watch. I've come to root for his opponent to score an early takedown, so Nolf goes berserk on him, scoring 20 takedowns in a row before pinning the kid. Forget the wrestling - last year his nose wouldn't stop bleeding, so he got his faced wrapped up in what appeared to be a Hannibal Lector mask. A bloody Hannibal Lector mask, as if he'd just enjoyed dining on his opponent, with a side of fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Do you see PSU repeating the NCAA title? Claiming the Big Ten title? Who is their biggest competition for both?

Clay: I'm picking the Buckeyes, but with the least possible amount of confidence. OSU has similarly high firepower with Tomasello, Bo Jordan, Kollin Moore and Kyle Snyder and doesn't have the holes in its lineup that PSU does at 125 and potentially 133.

Cari: Ohio State is the biggest competition. If Suriano hadn’t left, I’d say it wouldn’t be close; but right now, with holes at 125, 133, and 197 (and a question mark at 141), PSU will need to perform at or above seed in order to win this again. They’re the favorites, no doubt (and with good reason) and it wouldn’t surprise me if they lose the Big Ten tournament and win nationals again – but I don’t see them dropping a dual meet this year.

JP: There's no getting around Ohio State as PSU's primary competitor this year. Tan Tom Ryan has stacked all ten Buckeye weights with quality, high-team-point potential wrestlers who are super hungry to unseat our Nittany Lions in the National Tournament. It's a fun team comparison, and the conference competition will probably come down to how high one team's wrestlers can finish behind the studs on the other squad who are likely to dominate. Can Nick Nevills & Matt McCutcheon get to second behind Kyle Snyder and Kollin Moore? Can Micah Jordan & Ke-shawn Hayes do the same behind Jason Nolf & Zain Retherford? Who wins head-to-head in Nickal-Martin & Hall-Bo Jordan? Can Ohio State get substantive points at 165? Can Penn State score at 125, 133 or 141? I'll guess we see something very similar to last year, when brutus took the B1G, but Penn State leveraged the diluted fields and its own crushing dominance to separate itself at Nationals.

Ben: Yes to NCAAs. I dunno about Big Tens, since that's such a short tournament. And sure, Ohio State is PSU's biggest competition, as the Buckeyes are loaded. But I believe in Wrestling God, friends. He is loving and merciful, but also just. And He won't allow Tan Tom Ryan to rest his team for 6 months, waiting for the post-season, while PSU grinds its full lineup through "meaningless" dual after dual, without censure or rebuke.

We’ll go to our new (or renewed?) guy, JP, for last word on this year’s season:

Cael's brought us the themes, we may as well go ahead and use them: this year's gonna be fun! And I'm grateful we get to follow it. While PSU's official competition prior to the New Year's Southern Scuffle is heavily meh (really only the Lehigh dual in Allentown promises multiple top-shelf matchups), the first semester brings with it a bunch of great open tournaments, with varying entry rules. They can be fun to watch True Freshmen, who may or may not end up redshirting, take the mat. Or in some cases now, high school studs; 3x World Champion and HSSR Gable Steveson is scheduled to wrestle in the Daktronics Open this weekend. We'll keep you posted on any expected appearances by young PSU studs Brady Berge, Jarod Verkleeren, Mason Manville and Nick Lee.

But the Scuffle will begin the real meat of the season. After that, we'll know just how good Nick Lee might be, whether Jered Cortez' return from injury could include cutting to 133 again, and just how close Anthony Cassar is to Matt McCutcheon. From there, we'll have a better focus on what March is likely to bring us.

Lastly, I'm also really looking forward to following the college wrestling media. Wrestling's consumers have more available content than ever, and the growing list of content producers is exciting to watch. Here's hoping BSD can continue to participate well in that trend.