Penn State's Vincenzo Joseph pinned Isaiah Martinez of Illinois (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
ST. LOUIS -- Penn State sent five wrestlers into the finals at the 2017 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Scottrade Center in St. Louis Saturday night ... and all five came off the mat with individual titles.
The five Nittany Lions who made up something of a Murderers' Row by winning five consecutive championships: Zain Retherford at 149 pounds, Jason Nolf at 157, Vincenzo Joseph at 165, 174-pounder Mark Hall, and, in the marquee match-up, Bo Nickal at 184.
Arguably the most thrilling for Penn State fans was Joseph's pin of Illinois' Isaiah Martinez ... the only pin in the finals.
At 165, Vincenzo Joseph, the third-seed from Penn State, pinned the two-time NCAA champ and top seed from the Fighting Illini in the third period to avenge two previous losses to Imar. The match went back and forth between the freshman and seasoned junior, until Joseph put the Illini onto his back for the pin.
Joseph had his praise for Martinez.
"He's a phenomenal wrestler," Joseph said of Martinez. "He's a bully on the mat. And this time I was definitely ready for that. I was coming right back at him."
At 149 pounds, defending champ Zain Retherford of Penn State held onto his title -- and a 63-match win streak (the nation's longest) -- with an18-2 technical fall over No. 3 Lavion Mayes of Missouri. The Tiger made a splash with an early takedown, but the Nittany Lion did all the rest of the scoring in the match, racking up 12 unanswered points in the third period via a trio of 4-point nearfalls.
Retherford addressed the way the Penn State wrestling room operates by saying, "It's what we do every day in our room, have fun with it, compete hard, and learn. So it's hard to show up in practice and be a different person than match day, just being that same person consistently every day. I think that's what happens."
Nolf, the top seed at 157, ended his perfect 26-0 season with a 14-6 win over No. 3 seed Joey Lavallee of Missouri. The Nittany Lion, who was runner-up in the same weight class last year, scored takedown after takedown, including four in the third period.
Nolf talked about the one-upmanship going on with his teammates, especially Retherford, trying to outdo each other, saying, "Yeah, I mean our guys are pretty good, as you can see. We've got five guys in the finals back to back to back to back to back. So those guys are definitely some of the toughest guys I get to wrestle."
Penn State's Mark Hall won the NCAA title as a No. 5 seed (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
In a rematch of the 174-pound title bout at the 2017 Big Ten Championships, Penn State true freshman Mark Hall -- the No. 5 seed -- avenged that conference loss to Ohio State's Bo Jordan, the No. 3 seed, 5-2. There was no scoring in the opening period; in the second, Hall scored his first of two takedowns, the second coming in the closing seconds of the NCAA finals.
"It's a tough tournament," Hall said after his title win. "I've wrestled a lot of places. This is one of the tougher places. There's a lot of people out there. I've wrestled around the world, different people, different countries."
Nickal kept the Nittany Lion momentum going to close out the evening. After being a runner-up at 174 at last year's NCAA finals, Nickal moved up to 184 pounds, and took on two-time defending champ Gabe Dean of Cornell who was on a 45-match win streak. Nickal denied Dean a third title -- and snapped the streak -- with a 4-3 win in the finals.
Nickal was very respectful of Dean after his upset win. "Hats off to him, because he's a strong dude, good technique, holds good position. It was hard for me to get to my angles and positions but I capitalized when I needed to."
At the end of the competition, Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said, "They're the best of the best. And I'm just grateful that they're coaching with me and we're working together. We love what we do. And we trust each other and we have a great staff. And I think that it's the kids trust the coaches and we're here for the kids. It's not about me. It's not about Coach Casey. It's not about Cody.
"I'm still kind of like it's just crazy because usually you have somebody lose or something doesn't go right, and as a competitor your heart is always with the kid that doesn't reach his goal. And so this is very special."
No other team with more than one finalist had the same perfect outcome as the Nittany Lions. Of Missouri's three finalists, only one left with a title... while Ohio State wrestlers were 1-1 on Saturday night.
J'den Cox of Missouri claimed his third NCAA title (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
While Mizzou's Lavion Mayes and Joey Lavallee came out on the losing end of their matches at 149 and 157 respectively, top-seeded J'den Cox scored a total of three takedowns to defeat second-seeded Brett Pfarr of Minnesota, 8-3, to win his third NCAA title and extend his win streak to 48 matches. Although Cox -- who won a bronze medal in freestyle at the 2016 Rio Olympics -- has concluded his collegiate mat career, he is discussing the possibility of becoming a middle linebacker for the Missouri Tiger football team.
"I'm honored to have accomplished another great feat, not only for myself but for my school, for my teammates and for my family," said Cox after his latest championship. "And I'm very proud of the way I represented every single one of those for myself, my team and everything to the program, my family. I'm proud I represented them throughout my years wrestling in college and I'm just really proud of the outcomes."
Ohio State's Kyle Snyder repeated as NCAA champion (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
As for the Buckeyes ... while Bo Jordan was runner-up at 174, top-seeded Kyle Snyder -- 2016 Olympic gold medalist and defending heavyweight champ -- earned a 6-3 win over No. 2 Connor Medbery of Wisconsin. The big Buckeye, who weighed in today at 226 pounds, lifted the 264-pound Medbery and brought him to the mat for a first-round takedown. The Maryland native managed to score a second takedown in the second period to win the title despite having injured his ribs during the quarterfinals against Minnesota's Michael Kroells.
When asked about that injury -- and being able to lift Medbery as he did to get the takedown -- Snyder replied, "Yeah, that was a cool take-down. I don't think I ever lifted Connor up like that in practice or any matches. So that's good. Means I'm getting stronger."
Darian Cruz topped Ethan Lizak to win the NCAA title (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The 125-pound title match featured a battle of childhood rivals in the Valley Elementary League in Pennsylvania. No. 4 Darian Cruz of Lehigh defeated sixth-seeded Ethan Lizak of Minnesota, 6-2. The match was tied through much of the second and third periods until Cruz scored a takedown with 21 seconds left ... then added to his lead with a last-second takedown -- his third of the match. Cruz becomes Lehigh's first NCAA champ since Zack Rey won the heavyweight title in 2011.
Asked about having some history with Lizak going back to an early age, and Cruz responded, "I definitely have doubt. The kid whooped my butt at Scuffle and he was beating me up at the mat. But so, of course, there's a lot of doubt. And I think you need to have that drive, and you've got to be a little bit scared and nervous to dig deep and push yourself. So, yeah, of course there's a little bit of doubt."
At 133 pounds, the third time was the charm for Iowa's Cory Clark. The fourth seed, in his third appearance in the finals, grabbed his first title with a 4-2 win over former Hawkeye teammate Seth Gross, the No. 2 seed who had been at Iowa until two years ago, but now at South Dakota State. Gross had led into the third period when Clark scored a reversal with one minute left. After getting that elusive championship, Clark playfully flipped assistant head coach Terry Brands onto the mat.
"It's incredible to finally get this done," said Clark in the after-match press conference. "I've had two years in a row where I spent a week … weeks in my basement just pouting, just being a baby, just not doing, not in a good spot. Not doing the right things.
"And today I can look forward and know in two weeks I won't be in my basement with my headphones turned all the way up and crying two weeks from now. You know? So that's a good thing."
Two high school rivals from the Cleveland area faced off in the 141 pound finals. Top-seeded Dean Heil of Oklahoma State successfully defended his NCAA title -- and completed his season undefeated -- by defeating No. 6 seed George DiCamillo of Virginia, 6-3. The Cowboy scored a takedown with 45 seconds left in the third period to extend his lead.
"Last time I wrestled George in an official match, aside from the Scuffle, was my freshman year in high school," said Heil in talking about his history with DiCamillo. "He's just another opponent. After I thought about it, just going in to today, there's nothing to worry about, it's just another match. I've been here. He hasn't. I think that's why I had the upper hand."
Penn State had entered the finals already knowing it had nailed down the team title earlier on Saturday, for its sixth championship in seven years. At the end of the night, the Nittany Lions had racked up 145.5 points. Ohio State placed second with 110 points ... and Oklahoma State was third with 103 points. In fourth place in the team standings was Iowa, with 97 points, followed by Missouri with 86.5.
There were 19,657 fans in the stands for the finals, the second-largest attendance figure for Session 6 in NCAA Division I history. (The all-time record of 19,715 was set in St. Louis in 2015.)
One year from now, wrestlers and coaches and fans will descend on downtown Cleveland for the 2018 NCAAs to be held at Quicken Loans Arena.
125: No. 4 Darian Cruz (Lehigh) dec. No. 6 Ethan Lizak (Minnesota), 6-3
133: No. 4 Cory Clark (Iowa) dec. No. 2 Seth Gross (South Dakota State), 4-3
141: No. 1 Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) dec. No. 6 George DiCamillo (Virginia), 6-3
149: No. 1 Zain Retherford (Penn State) tech. fall No. 3 Lavion Mayes (Missouri), 18-2
157: No. 1 Jason Nolf (Penn State) maj. dec. No. 3 Joey LaVallee (Missouri), 14-6
165: No. 3 Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) fall No. 1 Isaiah Martinez (Illinois), 5:25
174: No. 5 Mark Hall (Penn State) dec. No. 3 Bo Jordan (Ohio State), 5-2
184: No. 2 Bo Nickal (Penn State) dec. No. 1 Gabe Dean (Cornell), 4-3
197: No. 1 J'den Cox (Missouri) dec. No. 2 Brett Pfarr (Minnesota), 8-2
285: No. 1 Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) dec. No. 2 Connor Medbery (Wisconsin), 6-3
Team Standings (Top 25):
1. Penn State 146.5
2. Ohio State 110
3. Oklahoma State 103
4. Iowa 97
5. Missouri 86.5
6. Virginia Tech 63.5
7. Minnesota 62.5
8. Cornell 60.5
9. Nebraska 59.5
10. Michigan 47.5
11. Illinois 43.5
12. Lehigh 40
13. Wisconsin 39.5
14. Arizona State 39
15. Virginia 29.5
16. South Dakota State 28.5
17. NC State 26
18. Northern Iowa 25.5
19. Rutgers 24.5
20. Edinboro 20.5
21. Rider 20
21. Wyoming 20
23. Central Michigan 19.5
24. Stanford 16
25. Princeton 15.5