The Nittany Lions were well represented on Wednesday at both the coaches and wrestlers press conference prior to the beginning of the 2019 NCAA Tournament which begins on Thursday.
Clay: First up was the pre-tournament presser for the wrestlers which included Penn State’s Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal in addition to Yianni Diakomihalis of Cornell, Myles Martin of Ohio State and Derek White of Oklahoma State.
While the presser left us with little in the way of earth-shattering news, Nickal and Nolf both shared their insights on what it’s like to go through the tournament one last time as well as other challenges they’ve faced along the way.
“The change of weight was something that, I think, just kind of happened naturally,” Nickal said of moving from 184 to 197. “I don’t like cutting weight too much. I moved up from 74 to 84 and 84 to 97. So it’s something that I’ve never really been afraid of.”
Nolf, meanwhile, has been the massive favorite throughout the year to win his third championship at 157 pounds.
“I don’t really think I have to overcome that assumption, but I’m not focused on what others are saying and what other people think,” he said. “I’m focusing on my first match and I take it one at a time. I think 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.”
As for competing in his last college tournament, Nickal said he expected it to be strange but that hasn’t been the case.
“Coming into this, I thought there would be a different feeling, but there really hasn’t been a different feeling. I think that just has a lot to do with the fact that I’m going to continue to compete after this. This isn’t my last time ever wrestling, so I’ve got a lot more matches to go, a lot more tournaments to go. I’m just excited for the opportunity like every single match that I get.”
The two proceeded to joke back and forth regarding their competition for the Hodge Trophy (wrestling’s equivalent of the Heisman).
Q. Bo and Jason, you guys are kind of the leaders for the Hodge Trophy, and I just wonder if there’s a friendly competition between you two this seen going for it? BO NICKAL: What are you talking about? The Hodge Trophy. I’ve heard of that, I think. But, no, I don’t think that there’s any, like, friendly competition. We’re just both out there trying to do our best. Me at least. I don’t know about you.
JASON NOLF: That’s all we talk about. (Laughter)
Jp: I’m not a regular at these kinds of things like Clay is. I’m part nervous wreck and part kid in a candy store. So after watching Clay ask a few questions, and listening to a few answers, I mustered my courage and tried to see if Nolf or White might let slip that they, too, look at brackets a little bit like fans do.
It didn’t work.
Q. Derek and Jason, you both mentioned that you’re just focused on the first match. When the brackets come out, we fans and media go crazy. We love it, eat it up, spend a bunch of hours poring through all the possible matchups. Do either of you allow yourself to look beyond that first match in the bracket to see who you might face in the round two or the quarterfinals? DEREK WHITE: No, I really don’t look forward later in the bracket. You never know what’s going to happen. I just take it one match at a time.
JASON NOLF: Yeah, what he said.
Thankfully, another reporter and my new best friend Yianni Diakomihalis, brought it back around and didn’t leave my inquiry hanging.
Q. Yianni, we were talking about the brackets coming out and everybody looks at them. Aside from 41, do you look at this as a fan at all and look at the brackets and what might happen? And if so, do you have a favorite weight class other than 41? YIANNI DIAKOMIHALIS: This was much harder for me last year because as a kid I watched nationals every year. I grew up watching NCAAs. It’s what I did. Brackets came out, it’s, like, oh, let’s see who’s wrestling. I remember last year brackets came out and I started doing it. And I’m, like, I’ve got to stop; I’m in the tournament now. You know what I mean?
So second time through I have a better idea of it. But obviously I like to see how my Cornell guys are going to do and where our guys sit in the bracket. But once it starts I’m not going to put any mind to it. Just let it play out as it goes and see how that goes for me.
When the coaches came out, I was a little more hopeful. I still waited to until after Clay and other more experienced reporters asked their questions. Both to warm my own courage up, and to give me some time to read the podium a bit.
First impressions: Cael, Tom Brands & Tom Ryan were identical to what I’d remembered of them. They seemed really warm toward each other, too, which was cool. I think I saw Brands pat Cael on the thigh after they sat? Did anybody else see that?
I’m still too inexperienced in John Smith’s okie-doke manner and delivery, but he looked really sleepy-eyed.
Keith Gavin continued his trend of impressing me every time I consume some new content of his; it was nice that this time that content was live human interaction. I loved his silky deep voice and easy-going delivery. He really exuded confidence and comfort in his own skin.
He’s a super easy guy to root for, and I’m really excited to watch Pitt’s five wrestlers this weekend.
I’d been thinking about what to ask Cael for 3 months now. I had a bit of success in Madison Square Garden in 2016 by focusing on psychology, so I thought I wanted to go that route again.
We’ve noticed Bonnie Epstein in more team photos this year, and I wasn’t exactly clear on what her role is with the wrestling team, so I tried asking Cael:
Q. Coach Sanderson, we’ve heard a lot of wrestlers mention mental toughness as the biggest strides they’ve made since they came into the Penn State program. We’ve seen Bonnie Epstein travel with the program a lot more this year or I have in photos. I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about her role with the team and how she helps your wrestlers improve the psychology and the mental part of their game? CAEL SANDERSON: Bonnie’s been traveling with us for a while now, I think more than just a couple of years. I have all the confidence in the world in Bonnie. I met her when I was competing a long time ago, and when we had the chance to bring her on staff we did.
But just really honest, good advice. And I think -- we love having her and she’s very good at what she does. But she’s a counselor slash -- if you call her a sports psychologist she’d slap me. I don’t know why. Still don’t understand. It is counselor, whatever, it’s all the same thing to me. But she’s very valuable to us and she’s part of the family and we love having her, yeah.
After that Cael struggled with a new question about his opinion of the conference tournament and whether that opinion has changed, and things started to wind down.
But I got one last one in:
Q. Coach Gavin and Sanderson, what are the chances we could see a Penn State-Pitt home-and-home dual series the next couple of years? KEITH GAVIN: Yeah, I’m good with that. They have a tougher -- because the Big Ten schedule -- we only have six teams in the ACC. So our schedule is a lot easier to work out. So I know those guys have a much tougher deal with that.
CAEL SANDERSON: I think there’s been talk of that. But it’s something that we’ve -- we wrestled Pitt every year, I think, the first however many years I was at Penn State. So it’s not anything, any stretch of the imagination, obviously.
I think I’d be pretty psyched to both watch Keith Gavin continue to grow the Pitt program, and to see them wrestle Penn State in some duals here in the next couple of years.
Also be sure to bookmark our 2019 Nationals Stream for all our wrestling coverage this weekend.