Welcome to Penn State Wrestling’s 2018-19 Season, which starts this weekend!
Last week, Clay warmed us up and welcomed new fans to our wonderful sport with A Beginners Guide to Penn State Wrestling. If you’re already good with the structure and the rules and the scoring, but could use a little look-see on this season’s lineup, click over there and scroll down to the section labeled Penn State’s 2018-19 Lineup. We’ll be referring to it lots here today.
As Penn State begins its quest for its eight team titles in 10 years, story lines abound:
- 7 returning All-Americans
- 4 returning Finalists
- 4 returning Champions
- 3 returning two-time Champions
- 3(ish) new starters, a few key weight changes, a bunch of elite recruits, and a coaching staff leading the team for its 10th season together
With so much to look forward to watching, let’s take a few laps around the mats and see if we can score some points and have a little fun. Let’s go with seven questions; one for each of Penn State’s team titles so far under Cael.
Q1: Of Penn State’s four returning prior champions, how do you order their odds to repeat, from most likely to least likely?
Ben: Bo, Nolf, Meatball, Marky.
Bo will destroy the field at 197. So will Jason Nolf at 157, except that Hayden Hidlay and Alec Pantaleo are both pretty good. All Our Little Meatball does in March is win, but 165 is once again a brutal meat grinder. Apologies to Mark Hall, but if Zahid Valencia sticks at 174, then 174 is more challenging than the other three weights, by far.
Cari: Nolf (if one-legged Nolf wins handily, how much will a redshirt senior healthy Nolf who’s now married win by?)
Cenzo (because with how stacked his weight’s been, he’s still won the title? Yes please)
Nickal (only because he’s bumped up a weight)
Hall (as long as Valencia’s in that weight, it’ll be tough)
Clay: Nickal, Nolf, Cenzo and Hall.
Bo moved up, but if Tuesday’s media day is any indication he’s plenty big enough and should absolute blitzkrieg a weak 197-pound field.
I expect Nolf to run through 157, but damn if Hayden Hidlay of NC State isn’t really, really good.
Cenzo has his work cut out for him, but when has that stopped him before? Evan Wick, Logan Massa, Mekhi Lewis and others will be coming for that spot.
The Mark Hall we saw last year won’t beat Zahid Valencia, so for his sake I’ll hope he’s added to his game. That being said, Mark’s bonus rate sky rocketed between his freshman year and last year, so who’s to say he hasn’t improved?
Jp: Nickal, Nolf, Cenzo & Hall.
I think Hall can beat Zahid again, and I guarantee Hall thinks he can beat Zahid again. And thanks to the fyre home & home Cael & Zeke Jones scheduled, we get to see it once before the NCAA Finals this year. Myles Amine & Daniel Lewis have kept the scores tight, but there’s another matter of a new 174-pounder this year, which I’ll get to later.
Cenzo’s advantage over the once-again brutal 165-pound field this year, besides his insanely calm confidence and cement hips, might be that he’ll probably get to face most of the top challengers before Nationals. He’ll see Wiscy’s Evan Wick (3rd place last year) and Michigan’s Logan Massa (2017 3rd) and Nebraska’s Isaiah White (2018 R12) in duals. The Southern Scuffle could bring him Lock Haven’s Chance Marsteller (2018 4th) and perhaps the scariest challenger in the field: RSFR and 2018 Junior World Champ Mehki Lewis, from Virginia Tech. He’ll have to hope for the right draw at the Big Ten Tourney to avenge his 2018 dual loss to Iowa’s Alex Marinelli (2018 6th).
I hope somebody covering NC State this year asks Hayden Hidlay how many times he’s re-watched his finals match with Jason Nolf. He was in on a deep double-leg that even Nolf was surprised he didn’t finish:
“Right away he had me in a double leg and I got pretty nervous,” Nolf said. “I don’t know why he didn’t finish it because I thought that I was about to get taken down but I fought out of it somehow, I got my back to center and I got to a couple leg attacks and just kept scoring from there.”
Hidlay’s probably going to look a lot like Myles Martin did at 184 last year and dominate the field except for one guy. Nolf’s that guy. (Pssst, Ben: Pantaleo might not be the best 157 pounder on his own team).
Bo Nickal might be getting bored. On Tuesday he said, about his move up to 197:
“I like competing against new guys, being able to wrestle some new faces because when you wrestle the same guys all the time it gets old,” Nickal said. “They just try to hold you off. I’m excited to have some new competition.”
I mean, he’s also getting big. Cael said Tuesday that he’s “over 200 pounds,” and his international aspirations don’t coincide with another year of cutting to 184, so why not go 197 now and get some early prep in on the bigger bodies?
Cael did it: won a couple of titles at 184, before winning a final one at 197. And if we’re setting that as the bar, let’s be specific. Cael went Fall, Fall, Tech Fall, Major, Major for that last title.
Let’s see it, Bo!
Q2: Penn State returns three All-Americans who have not yet been a National Champion. Who do you like to climb higher on the podium (and how high)?
Ben: I’ll take Maverick (ed note: Nick Lee). I don’t see him giving up another cement job to Ryan Diehl this season, and I picture him in the semifinals.
Cari: Rasheed surprised near the end of last season - when it wasn’t even a sure thing he would be the PSU wrestler at 197 for the postseason halfway through the dual meet season. I think at 184, he can make some noise again and finish higher than last year.
Nick Lee is at a loaded weight; he has the potential to go far, but could also find himself on his back again this year.
If Nick Nevills is the starter at heavyweight, I think he’ll make AA again but not much higher than that.
Clay: Methinks Ms. Greene is onto something.
I loved the way Shak wrestled to end the year at 197 and he really should’ve finished off eventual champ Mike Macchiavello, whom he was leading in the third period despite wrestling at just 193 pounds.
He was already a hammer on top and now he’s going to have a marked size advantage. I think Shak could finish as high as second.
I also think a healthy Nevills could move up and we’ll see if Nick Lee can break into that tier of Yianni D, Jaydin Eierman and Joey McKenna.
Jp: Nick Lee is a solid, solid pick. I can’t wait to watch his gas tank this year with new Nationals experience.
But I’ll go with Sugar Shakur Rasheed. Dude absolutely fiended his way to a Southern Scuffle title last year (3 pins, all in under a minute, 2 Majors) before getting dinged up a bit and then running into the biggest of the big boys at 197. He lost to top-seed Kollin Moore in the B1G Finals and earned a 5-seed at Nationals. There he started out Major, Major, before dropping a close 5-4 Decision to eventual champ Michael Macchiavello in the quarterfinals and dropped into the blood round. He did what had to be done to earn his first All-American honors and defeated Penn’s Matty Ice (Frank Mattiace) 6-5, but then faced Moore again the next morning in the consi quarters (another loss, 7-4). He then again showed his resilience and mauled Mizzou’s Willie Miklus 11-3 and sent a crucial extra bonus point to the team.
This year, down at 184, which his own tales of eating last year seem to indicate may be his best weight, I like his chances for improvement. His cradle will go farther, his length will be a bigger nightmare for opponents, and he won’t be slowed by the big ole muscle heads.
The field’s favorable as well, and he’ll get a feel for a bunch of his top challengers in duals and at the Scuffle. He’ll see Myles Martin (Ohio State, 2018 2nd), Emery Parker (Illinois, 2018 3rd) and Taylor Venz (Nebraska, 2018 4th) in conference duals, and will get a great early test on December 2nd, with Lehigh’s Ryan Preisch (2018 3-seed, R12).
There are a bunch of guys on this team that Cael barely has to coach on match day. I watched Cael & Rasheed closely at Big Tens last year and I can’t remember seeing Cael talk to any other wrestlers of his as much as he did to Rasheed, before and after matches. In pressers, you can tell how much Cael likes him, and I think Cael relishes the challenge of coaching him & developing Rasheed’s mindset. I think it’s around the concept of mental calm, something that Cael has said comes naturally for himself but which may not manifest as effortlessly in Rasheed.
Let’s pay close attention to the corner during Rasheed’s matches this year, because I think if he and Cael can work well together, Rasheed can join Penn State’s recent dominance streak and win a Friday night Semifinal bout in Pittsburgh.
Q3: Penn State will have (at least) three new starters in the lineup. Which new addition to the PSU lineup are you most looking forward to seeing hit the mat?
Ben: Give me Brady Berge and his workman-like fundamentals, top, bottom, and neutral.
Cari: The beauty of having so many open slots is there’s so much opportunity for a great debut season this year, when Penn State is so much the overwhelming favorite for the national title!
How to pick amongst the battles at the 125/133 weights, with Brody Teske and Gavin Teasdale both looking like solid upgrades at 125, and Roman Bravo-Young likely making an immediate impact at 133? It’s been a few years since Penn State has had a really solid team player at the low weights, so this’ll be exciting to see.
But my money’s on whomever comes out at 149. Filling the shoes of Zain Retherford will be impossible, but Berge or Verklereen, who’ll face tougher tests in the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club room than they will in competition, should be great to see.
Clay: Give me the Arizona kid. RBY is just fun, man. He’s super slick from neutral, he wants to improve and has all the physical tools to so and he’s competing in the toughest weight class in the country.
He’ll have a hell of a test to become an All-American and if he does so it’ll almost assuredly be a special run through some brutal competition.
Jp: After Tuesday’s Media Day, it’s Roman Bravo-Young!
“He’s been here since June, been home a few times, but he’s done really well,” Sanderson said. “He’s very competitive, really an incredible athlete, great speed, he’s got the tools but he’s got the mindset as well to be very successful. I’m excited, he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch. We’d like to have 10 of those guys where no one is going to leave their seat when he’s about to come up because he’s pretty special.”
That’s quite a few superlatives.
One thing I’ve found while watching Cael build this dynastic juggernaut is that he really likes to watch wrestling, as well as coach it. He likes to be entertained.
The last time he told us we were in for an entertaining treat like this, we got Jason Nolf.
Sounds like Roman Bravo-Young might be the newest Maximus to enter the Penn State gladiator arena.
Q4: Who is your pick for the Hodge Trophy this year?
Ben: The Hodge committee makes the unusual decision of co-awardees, honoring both Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf.
Cari: Nolf. He wasn’t a finalist last year, despite two of his teammates’ appearance near the top (and, of course, Retherford winning it) - but that’s gotta be because of his injury. He’s grown so much as a wrestler from his redshirt freshman season (playing with his food and all that) and is now so dominant in every facet of his game. He’s not bringing the pain, making his opponents cringe like Zain did; and he’s not flashy with the big throws and crazy rolls of Bo Nickal, but he’ll never get caught taking risks - because nothing is risky for him. And he’ll bonus everyone.
Clay: Give me Nolf, but I’m done trying to figure out this silly award.
Jp: A quick reminder of The Hodge Committee’s Criteria:
- Season record
- Number of pins
- Past credentials
- Quality of competition
- Sportsmanship & Citizenship
Note the order of Nos. 2 and 3. Number of pins comes before general dominance. That’s the distinction to watch, and why Jason Nolf will barely surpass Bo Nickal.
Number 4 can be exclusionary for some young studs who might appear on some ‘watch lists’, but even with Spencer Lee & Yianni Diakomihalis, let’s watch for pin percentage among their general Bonus Point wins.
Myles Martin will come in 3rd with a wholly-dominant undefeated season and a second National Championship that will further burnish Bo Nickal’s amazing career credentials.
Q5: Which PSU individual matchup are you most looking forward to this season? What about a non-PSU matchup?
Ben: I can hardly wait for Cenzo to mash Alex Marinelli. But I’ll have to wait until the postseason. Outside of PSU, I’d like to see Stevan Micic and Austin DeSanto (now at Iowa). The last bout gave us gymnastic cartwheels and Brazilian jui-jitsu at the end. A round 3 might feature knives and clubs. Something like Stallone did in Rambo III.
Cari: I can’t wait until Arizona State visits Rec Hall in December, and we can see an early version of what I hope to be the 174 finals again - Zahid Valencia vs Mark Hall. Is Zahid that good that he can win in one of the toughest venues in college wrestling? We’ll see pretty early this season!
In terms of non-PSU, if Nick Suriano was still at 125, I’d love to watch Spencer Lee demoralize him again. But since he’s not, I’d like to see any of the matchups in the Big Ten at 165 - it’s again a deep weight, with a lot of talent in the league.
Clay: I don’t like scary movies or haunted houses, but apparently I do like to be scared shitless while watching wrestling matches. Weird, I know. For that reason I’m picking Evan Wick-Vincenzo Joseph. At times watching Wick last year you wondered how he ever lost a match. He’s 165 pounds with condor-like limbs super slickness on his feet. He could provide Cenzo’s toughest test yet.
Outside of Penn State, give me any one of about 48 different dream matchups at 133 pounds, but if we ever get to see Stevan Micic-Daton Fix I will be forever grateful to the wrestling gods.
Fix beat Micic 10-0 55 kilos (121 lbs) at Junior Freestyle Nationals in 2015 and then Micic beat him in consecutive matches just months later to make the 2015 UWW Junior World Team. So yeah, I’d like to see that again.
Jp: Nick Lee vs. Joey McKenna.
Ohio State coach Tom Ryan pounced hard last offseason in the midst of the Nick Suriano exodus and brought in All-American McKenna as a transfer from Stanford. He practically salivated when Nolf looked to be out, and was grinning like a Cheshire cat when McKenna veteran-savvied Lee for what would be the deciding takedown, at the end of the first period in the dual.
Anthony Cassar, of course, later wiped the fat grin off Tan Tom’s tan face and Penn State extended its dual meet win streak and sent the Buckeyes home sad and deflated, but that bout has really stuck with me through this offseason. Especially when reading my Ohio State friends woof about McKenna not having been taken down at B1Gs or Nationals. I mean, it can be done.
Just look at that beautiful shelf!
McKenna ended up placing 3rd, to Lee’s 5th, and he scored 5 more team points than Lee in the tight team race. His only loss was a 1-0 defeat to top-seeded returning finalist, Bryce Meredith. I even grew to like McKenna more & more through the past year. He’s solid, if unspectacular, in interviews and he seems to be thriving in a leadership role this year.
And his tightwaist looks crazy tight!
And still Nick Lee switched out of it—twice, in the dual!
I guess I want to see the rematch for two reasons. I want to see our young lad all grown up and taking out the senior leader, and I always, always want to see our boys take a fresh piece of Tom Ryan’s tan scalp.
For non-Penn Staters, this one’s easy: it’s Iowa’s Michael Kemerer vs Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia. Kemerer, like Nolf, had a nasty knee injury last year that he wrestled through. They even shared the 6th-place podium step after each medical-forfeited out of their semifinals (Ed note: it was adorable), consolation semifinals and 5th-Place bouts at B1Gs. Two weeks later, Nolf beat him in the quarterfinals, but Kemerer fought back for 3 more wins, before defaulting out of the 3rd-place bout to finish 4th.
This year, Kemerer is not only presumed healthy, but he’s up two weights and is competing at 174. He’s fluid, he has an attacking mindset, he’s not afraid to lose, and he’s good in all three positions. He’ll be a perfect mirror across the mat from Zahid, and if that matchup materializes in Pittsburgh, the fans will win.
Q6: Favorite non-PSU wrestler to watch this season?
Ben: Well it’s gotta be Sam Stoll’s 6 minutes of collar ties. (Kidding, of course.) Give me Kyle Conel - a great kid from a small school who puts it all out there and wrestles without fear. I’ll be cheering for him to make the finals (but lose to Bo).
Cari: Last year this question was easy for me, because I loved both Kyle Snyder and Bryce Meredith. This year, it’s not so cut and dry.
(Ed note: This answer never actually got finished so it must’ve been extremely conflicting).
Clay: JP nailed it. It’s Spencer. It’s really not very debatable for me. Sure, Yianni is fun and Eierman has wild matches, but Spencer Lee is a tiny little wrestling cyborg with bananas strength. Kid is a killer.
Jp: It’s Spencer Lee, all day long and twice on Sunday.
Sadly, we’re seeing fields abandon his weight class, a phenomenon Penn State fans are familiar with (see: Pain, z and now Nolf, Jason). I guess we can still hold out hope that OkSt’s Daton Fix might stay down and give him a go, but mostly we’re probably going to be left watching him destroy lesser opponents who will have difficulty providing decent counterpoint to his greatness.
None of which changes my answer.
Q7: PSU is a heavy favorite for the NCAA title. Who is their principle competition, and can PSU recapture the B1G crown?
Ben: The Big Ten tournament is always tricky, since it’s such a shallow field. But if this 2018/19 PSU squad stays healthy, and maximizes its individual potential - something that’s incredibly difficult, but has become so routine under Cael’s leadership that we take it for granted - then nothing and no one is stopping our Nittany Lions. They’re rolling over and through everything put in front of them.
Cari: Last year was the best shot to upset Penn State before Nolf and Nickal leave - and thanks to a move the latter has done since he was a kid, Ohio State’s hopes were dashed before the final two bouts on Saturday. This year, most of their competition is gone so it’ll take massive upsets for them not to win; the closest, I guess, is still Ohio State...but that won’t be close. I predict more bonus points for Penn State in the NCAA tournament than all but two other squads.
Clay: It’s Iowa. The Hawks don’t bother me too much as they don’t have Penn State’s upside and they have much more downside. But faced with choosing Iowa or injuries, Iowa is the more tangible opponent.
Lee looks like he could roll to a 25-point tournament. Who knows what Austin Desanto gives them. Maybe Max Murin could do something at 141? Pat Lugo could win a wide open field at 149. Kaleb Young looks good at 157. Alex Marinelli had a great tournament a year ago in Cleveland and Fat Mikey could make noise at 174. I’m not big on Cash Wilcke who is apparently now part of a Duran Duran cover band (don’t ask), but Jacob Warner could have a strong season at 197 and Sam Stoll shot up the rankings (zing!) to No. 1, though I doubt he finishes there.
PSU should win both tournaments, but the Hawkeyes do have some firepower.
Jp: I’m extremely ready to beat this drum all season long: Retake the B1G!
Whereas the Nationals are all about the high-end firepower that places high on the podium and scores Bonus Points, the B1G Tourney’s shallower pool requires lineup breadth be added to that firepower. Ohio State has had very few significant lineup weaknesses the past two years they’ve won the B1G.
In the 2017 B1G Tourney, both teams placed 7 wrestlers in the Top-3, but Ohio State won the firepower battle also, with key head-to-head victories at 174 & 184 that Penn State reversed a few weeks later at Nationals.
In 2018, the Buckeyes only failed to place one weight in the Top-3. Penn State had 3 (and one of them was injury-defaulting Nolf).
That’s not the case this year, for either squad. With Cael raving about RBY at 133; Nickal & Rasheed swapping weights; and two extremely capable wrestlers at each of 149 (each a former age-group world medalist) and 285 (one a 2x AA, the other an age-group world teamer), PSU’s lineup is broaaaad. The mystery Spring winner of 125 will be just icing on the cake.
It’s time. #RetakeTheB1G
At Nationals, there will be an extremely intriguing race for 2nd, 3rd & 4th. Many offseason pundits are lauding the Buckeyes again, but my lineup math says Iowa’s ceiling looks higher. I think their second five weights are all gonna be high AA’s, with Cash Wilcke leading the surprise train. Marinelli is top-3 caliber (even if only a regular top-6 finisher), Jacob Warner can probably beat everybody but Nickal and Kollin Moore, Sam Stoll could clinch (get it?) a title and what if Michael Kemerer is the fourth-best P4P wrestler in the country, behind Nolf, Nickal & Spencer Lee? (Ed note: He isn’t.) I won’t woof like that about Kaleb Young or Pat Lugo at 157 or 149, but those fields aren’t full of landmines. Spencer’s a lock, and he’s taken Austin DeSanto under his wing for pretty much a full year now.
Anyway, it’s the preseason, the time for puffery.
Speaking of...Ohio State’s questions are louder than their ceilings, and loudest at their bookends, now that Nathan Tomasello and Kyle Snyder have expired their college eligibility. Will Malik Heinselmann come off redshirt at 125 and, if so, can he win 4 matches at nationals? Judging from their wrestle-offs, the Buckeyes need super-recruit Greg Kerkvliet to graduate high school early and get to Columbus right now at 285. I think Martin’s a title lock, and Moore is top-3. Mckenna probably too, depending on what Nick Lee and the deep 141 field has to say about it. But can Pletcher realistically hope to get back to No. 4 again with the infusion of Suriano, Fix and the young studs Bravo-Young and Cornell’s Vito Arujau? As noted, 149 looks navigable in a post-Zain world, but won’t the top studs have seen enough film on Micah Jordan to know they can ride him? Perhaps more intriguingly, given the choice (one of folkstyle wrestling’s many superiorities over freestyle), will Micah choose bottom in the second or third period once he reaches the national quarterfinals?
Hot on their heels are Oklahoma State (with lots of lineup breadth) and Michigan (with more top-end firepower, if a little less breadth). That’s a really broad and powerful top 5.
Rounding out the top 10/11, in some order, should be Arizona State, Lehigh, NC State, Mizzou, Va. Tech & Minny.
They’re all going to be fun races to watch unfold.
Bonus Content: 2018 Preview Review & Analysis
Last year, the four of us asked and answered similar questions. Predictions are extra fun when you add in post-facto review and analysis. Let’s see how we did.
Q1: Which of PSU’s five returning champs is *least* likely to repeat?
We all picked Cenzo. We all lost. Thanks, Cenzo!
Q2: Which PSU wrestler is a darkhorse to make the podium in March?
Clay & Jp picked Nick Lee, who finished 5th. Cari went off the grid a bit and picked a former AA as a darkhorse in Nevills, who repeated, at 7th. Ben tried to wish the Corey Keener homecoming story true, but it was not be, as Corey won one match, but got decked twice and finished R24.
Q3: What new addition to the Penn State lineup are you most looking forward to seeing hit the mat?
Ben & Clay each chose wisely in Nick Lee, but Cari was the real prognosticator, openly wondering if Rasheed could take out McCutcheon at 197. He did, and earned his first AA. Jp lost biggest, picking the 717’s Austin Clabaugh, who he never got to see actually take the mat (PSWC says he went 1-2).
Q4: Who is Zain’s biggest competition for the Hodge this year?
Three of us lost big here, because our top picks all each lost a bout and disqualified themselves from second-place contention. Jp picked Isaiah Martinez, who, well, Cenzo! Ben picked Nolf, who, well, injury. Cari picked Snyder, who got Coon’d in the dual. Clay narrowly avoided picking Snyder and instead went with eventual second-place finisher, Bo Nickal. Winner!
Q5: Which individual matchup are you most looking forward to this season (featuring a PSU wrestler)? What about non-PSU matchup?
A lot to unpack here. But with this matchup question, everyone’s a winner. Cenzo-IMar, Hall-Zahid, Nolf-Kemerer. Snyder-Coon. All were extremely entertaining bouts for fans. Lineup choices and injuries robbed Clay & Jp of NaTo-Suriano.
Q6: Which overall NCAA wrestler are you most looking forward to watching this year?
Lots more winning. Ben picked Zain (undefeated, 3rd title, 2nd Hodge). Clay & Cari picked Nolf (2nd title, defeated the field and injury), and Cari added Kollin Moore (B1G Champ, 4th-place at Nationals). And Jp morbidly picked Dean Heil, wondering if he could indeed “open up more” in the new era of offensive attacks. The 3x AA, 2x Champ, sadly, could not, and he finished 2-2 and off the podium for the first time in his accomplished career.
Q7: Do you see PSU repeating the NCAA title? Claiming the Big Ten title? Who is their biggest competition for both?
As framed, hard to call out winners & losers, but let’s just say that Ben’s prayers to Wrestling God were heard and that Justice was served upon the hated enemies from Columbus.
In dramatic and joyful fashion.
Let’s do it all again, ok?