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Nickal looking to cash in again with second NCAA title

Bo Nickal cruised to a Big Ten title (Photo/Richard Immel)

He is college wrestling's most dynamic competitor.

A home-run hitter who is never afraid to go for broke.

An explosive wrestler with a high-octane, big-move arsenal who can transform a close bout into a match-ending fall in the blink of an eye.

When the three-day NCAA Championships kick off on Thursday in Cleveland, keep a close eye on Penn State 184-pounder Bo Nickal.

You don't want to miss seeing what he does next.

His matches are a highlight reel waiting to happen.

Nickal takes a perfect 26-0 record into his third national tournament and he's the clear-cut favorite to capture his second straight NCAA title.

"I love wrestling -- it's fun for me to go out there and put on a show," Nickal said. "My matches are never going to be boring. I'm not going out there to win 3-2 -- that's not enjoyable for me. I'm going out there to attack and score points continuously and work for a fall. That's how you're supposed to wrestle."

Nickal will lock you in a cradle or a spladle, launch you with a high-amplitude throw or lift an opponent high off the mat with a double-leg attack and plant them on their back.

There is nobody more dangerous in the 330-man NCAA tournament field than Bo Nickal.

Bo Nickal with teammate Jason Nolf (Photo/Juan Garcia)

As entertaining as he is on the mat, Nickal is a colorful character off the mat as well.

The junior from Allen, Texas goes by the handle of @NoBickal on Twitter, where he has more than 12,000 followers.

During Penn State's preseason media day, Nickal's sarcasm, wit and sense of humor were on full display when he was asked about what he had done over the summer.

"I probably focused the most on improving my dodgeball game," Nickal said with a straight face. "I focused on all the different areas, whether it's catching, dodging, throwing, ducking, dipping, diving. All those areas are really important. I've definitely put a lot of time in as far as the dodgeball is concerned."

When he's not playing dodgeball, Nickal has also invested his share of time into the sport of wrestling. He's part of a Penn State program that finds enjoyment in a tough, grueling sport.

"We have a great bunch of guys on our team and we definitely like to have a lot of fun," he said. "But when we're at practice, we're there to work and go hard and get better and improve."

The wrestling mat is like a second home for him.

"I look forward to it every time I step on the mat -- it's my favorite thing to do," Nickal said. "My favorite part of every day is going to practice. My favorite part of the weekend is getting to compete. It's awesome every time I experience that."

Nickal, as expected, made a huge splash right away as a Penn State freshman.

He stormed into the NCAA finals at 174 pounds against another talented freshman, Ohio State's Myles Martin.

Nickal was favored, but Martin hit a huge six-point move midway through the match en route to earning a stunning 11-9 victory.

The setback to Martin drove Nickal that summer and provided plenty of motivation entering his sophomore season.

"Hating to lose is something that when I think of Bo Nickal, he's extremely competitive," Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. "Because that's the case, he's always going to continue to improve."

Nickal and Martin both bumped up to 184 last year. Nickal downed Martin 8-2 in a dual meet before Martin came back to defeat Nickal 6-4 in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.

Bo Nickal defeated Cornell's Gabe Dean in the NCAA finals (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

But Nickal rebounded to win his first national title, knocking off two-time NCAA champion Gabe Dean of Cornell in the finals.

"Being back in the finals, it wasn't really about redemption or anything like that," Nickal said. "I just tried to stay confident and consistent. It's definitely always fun and exciting to achieve your goals, so that was enjoyable."

Martin, 27-2 this season, is expected to be Nickal's toughest challenge at the NCAA tournament.

Nickal sits atop the NCAA tournament's 184 bracket as the 1 seed. Martin is on the bottom of the 33-man bracket as the 2 seed.

Bo Nickal topped Ohio State's Myles Martin in the dual meet and in the Big Ten finals (Photo/Richard Immel)

Nickal rolled past Martin by a 10-2 major decision in the dual meet this season before edging him 7-4 in the Big Ten finals.

"I just try to treat every match the same and wrestle to the best of my abilities," Nickal said. "There is always something to improve on and I'm always working to get better.

Nickal was asked after winning Big Tens about having opponents targeting him and continually looking to knock him off.

"I feel like that every match," he said. "Everybody I wrestle is going to give me their best effort. So I just have to go out there and give it my best effort every match."

Nickal is part of a loaded Penn State roster that boasts five returning NCAA champions.

The Nittany Lions placed second to Ohio State at the Big Ten tournament, but returning national champion Jason Nolf was pulled out of the tournament before the semifinals as a precautionary measure. Nolf had just come back from a knee injury he suffered in late January.

With a close team race at nationals expected between No. 2 Penn State and No. 1 Ohio State, bonus points could be a determining factor for who prevails in Cleveland.

You can count on Nickal and his wide-open, attacking style to generate his share of bonus points for the Nittany Lions.

"You can't put too much pressure on yourself," Nickal said. "You need to go out there and wrestle like you always do. You have to trust your training and just wrestle like you are capable."

Penn State has won six of the last seven NCAA team titles.

"This team definitely has an opportunity to do something special," he said. "We have a chance to keep it rolling and we're excited to see what we can do."

Craig Sesker has written about wrestling for more than three decades. He's covered three Olympic Games and is a two-time national wrestling writer of the year.

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