Zain Retherford defeated Missouri's Lavion Mayes in the NCAA finals
NEWTON, Iowa -- The WIN Magazine/Culture House Dan Hodge Trophy has been awarded to the most dominant collegiate wrestler since 1995. Out of an amazing group of four Hodge finalists this year, Penn State two-time NCAA champ Zain Retherford has been named the 2017 Hodge winner, presented annually to the top collegian by ASICS.
"I met Dan Hodge at a National Wrestling Hall of Fame event a few years ago. To win something like this named in his honor is pretty awesome," Retherford said. "This award symbolizes who he is as a person and competitor."
The award, created by Culture House's Mike Chapman, is named after Hodge, who was a three-time NCAA champion for the University of Oklahoma from 1955 to 1957, was undefeated over those three years at 46-0 and pinned an amazing 36 of those opponents.
Retherford won a second straight NCAA title at 149 pounds after completely dismantling competitors at the weight for a second straight year. Retherford has won 63 straight matches over the past two years to move his career record to 95-3. And much like his 2015-2016 run of domination, this year's tally included only two matches in which the Nittany Lion did not score bonus points.
Retherford received 33 of 45 first-place Hodge Trophy votes to win the award known as wrestling's version of the Heisman Trophy. The Nittany Lion junior finished well ahead of two 2016 Olympic medalists -- Missouri's J'den Cox and Ohio State's Kyle Snyder -- and sophomore teammate Jason Nolf, whose domination at 157 pounds this past season was stride for stride with Retherford's stats.
Cox, the three-time champ and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, finished second in Hodge voting with five first-place Hodge votes from the official Hodge Committee 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. Snyder, a two-time NCAA champ, Olympic and World gold medalist, was third in the 2017 Hodge race with four votes, while Nolf received the final three votes.
Cox's third title at 197 featured a 28-0 record with six pins, seven technical falls and seven majors. Snyder, who wrestled only a portion of the college season because he was wrestling overseas in Senior-level freestyle events, had a 17-0 record, with four pins, five techs and four majors at 285 pounds. Nolf had a 28-0 record with 14 pins, eight techs and three majors.
As in past years, WIN Magazine also conducted a national fan vote the week following the NCAAs for the Hodge. Nearly 23,000 unique fans voted with Retherford winning that total with 49 percent of the vote from 11,260 voters, earning him two additional official Hodge first-place ballots. Cox finished second in fan voting as well, with 35 percent of the vote from 8,554 votes. Snyder finished third with seven percent of the total vote with 1,651 fan votes. Nolf was fourth in the fan voting with 1,317 votes for six percent.
Retherford becomes the third Penn State wrestler to win the prestigious award. Two-time NCAA champ David Taylor was a two-time winner of the Hodge in 2012 and 2014, while former Nittany Lion heavyweight and current Maryland coach Kerry McCoy won the Hodge in its third year of existence in 1997.
In a day and age when increased parity seems to rule the day in college wrestling, the manner in which Retherford tore through opponents mirrored the culture and approach that Penn State took in winning six of the last seven national team titles: a culture focused on the output of extreme effort by each wrestler to do their absolute best the entire seven minutes of the each college match as opposed to wins and losses.
Retherford's explanation of his approach to the sport reveals more about how he's able to dominate to the level that he does.
"Dominating is a lot like anything in life, like school or whatever you're doing… you need to be giving your best and not holding back on anything," he said. "You need to keep scoring and looking for the pin. But, giving your best is the most important part of it. If you can pin or tech the guy, then do it. If 2-1 is your best result, then it's your best."
Only two opponents all winter kept Retherford from scoring bonus points. Iowa's 2016 runner-up Brandon Sorensen took the Nittany Lion into the second set of tiebreakers in January before Retherford won 9-8. And one month later, in the National Duals final, Retherford defeated Oklahoma State's Anthony Collica, 2-1. Otherwise, the Benton, Pa., native pinned 17 of 28 opponents for a .610 pinning percentage while also getting seven technical falls and one major decision.
At the NCAA Championships, Retherford was a scoring machine. He had tech falls in his first three matches, pinned Sorensen in the semis, then teched Missouri's No. 3-seed Lavion Mayes, 18-2 in the final. For this NCAA tourney run he was also named Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament.
Retherford finished second to Oklahoma State's three-time champ Alex Dieringer in the 2016 Hodge race. Now winning the Hodge as a junior with a year left, he'll start next season as the favorite to repeat as the 2018 Hodge winner. However, two of the other three finalists will be back as well. Snyder, also a junior, will be going for this third straight title and Nolf has two years left in State College.
Growing up on a small Pennsylvania farm, Retherford said his perspective on life and wrestling goes back to his parents Sarah and Allen and what he learned through long days of physical labor working as a family on that farm.
"Growing up on a farm, I learned to be grateful for everything I've been given. My whole family worked really hard so I learned there was more to life than just wrestling, and that I needed to be grateful for every opportunity," Retherford said. "So I looked at it like this year was the second opportunity I had to win a title. My mindset was to be grateful for the experience, that it was another chance I had to win a title rather than something I had to defend."
As in past years, Retherford will be officially awarded the Hodge Trophy at the team's wrestling banquet on April 9. He then will be publically presented the award a second time at a fall football game in the same Beaver Stadium where Taylor was presented his two Hodges in front of over 100,000 people sometime this fall.