Aaron Brooks and Myles Amine in the 2022 NCAA finals (photos courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Since the Cael era started over ten years ago, Penn State has captured all but two NCAA team titles, collecting dozens of All-American honors along the way. Such consistent success year-in and year-out have afforded the Nittany Lions a certain aura - one that skirts invincibility. However, the Nittany Lions, like any dynasty, have shown signs of vulnerability during their tenure at the top. Penn Staters are not immune to taking a loss during conference weekend, but their collective ability to "show up" for the national tournament a couple weeks later is uncanny. As Bo Nickal said, "that's what we do."
Every coach knows that a team title is built on the foundation of stellar individual performances. The more stellar performances, the better your chances are on that weekend in March. For Penn State, generational phenoms, the likes of David Taylor and Ed Ruth, Zain Retherford, Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf, have combined for dozens of dependable points at the national tournament. But even the mighty Nittany Lions have had to rely on points from unexpected places during their reign. In the shadow of every team trophy stands the heroics of individuals who rose to the occasion, prevailing over opponents they weren't supposed to. James English comes to mind, a sixth-year wrestler whose first-time All-American finish at 149lbs helped lift the 2014 Penn State team over Minnesota, 109.5 team points to 104.
In recent years, these "heroics" have taken a particular form, characterized by the "flipping" of a result from the B1G tournament. For instance, take Vincenzo Joseph. En route to both of his NCAA titles (2017, 2018), Joseph suffered losses to his eventual NCAA finals opponent, Isaiah Martinez of Illinois, at the B1G tournament. Just this past season, we saw Aaron Brooks reverse the result of his B1G finals against Michigan's Myles Amine to win another NCAA title. These examples beg the question: just how often has Penn State been able to flip match results at the NCAA tournament in the Cael era? Further, when they flip the result, how do their tournaments play out?
We'll answer these questions and more below, as we go through the thirteen times since 2011 a Nittany Lion avenged a prior, B1G tournament loss at NCAAs. Before we get into the individual examples, some overall observations:
#1. Cameron Wade (285) vs. Tony Nelson (Minnesota), 2011
The earliest instance of a match-result flip came in 2011 when Penn State big man Cameron Wade avenged a conference tournament loss at the NCAA tournament. In the B1G semi-finals, Wade fell to future 2x NCAA champion Tony Nelson, 3-0. Nelson would finish as the conference runner-up, while Wade dropped to 5th-place. At NCAAs, Wade reversed the result, beating Nelson via a 4-1 decision to advance to the quarterfinals. Unfortunately, Wade would lose his next two bouts to fall a win shy of All-American honors. Nelson, on the other hand, rebounded to 7th-place. Penn State would go on to win its first NCAA team championship under Cael Sanderson.
Interestingly enough, the Wade-Nelson flip is the only example of the thirteen in which the reversed match result did not translate into a better placement for the Penn State wrestler over their opponent at the national tournament.
#2. Nico Megaludis (125) vs. Zach Sanders (Minnesota), 2012
In 2012, the lightweight class featured a loaded B1G field, characterized by a strong pack-leader in 2010 NCAA champion and returning runner-up Matt McDonough of Iowa, followed by a laundry list of savages from around the conference and country. In his first postseason for the Nittany Lions, Nico Megaludis advanced to the conference semifinal against Minnesota's Zach Sanders, an eventual 4x All-American. Sanders prevailed to the B1G finals 6-2, with Megaludis eventually placing 5th. At NCAAs, however, Megaludis defeated Sanders in a 7-4 quarterfinal bout, culminating in an NCAA finals appearance against eventual champion McDonough. Sanders bounced back for 3rd-place after defeating Frank Perrelli of Cornell in an absolute war. Penn State would win its second consecutive team title.
Of note, both #1 and #2 on our list feature Penn State vs. Minnesota match-ups, with identical B1G results, i.e., 5th-place for the Penn State wrestler and runner-up for the Minnesota wrestler.
#3. Matt Brown (174) vs. Mike Evans (Iowa), 2014
The aforementioned 2014 NCAA team title came down to the finals and, retrospectively, required every victory the Penn State lineup could muster. In addition to the heroics of James English were those of Matt Brown at 174lbs. In an era when virtually every B1G 174lber was separated by one or two points, Brown found himself having suffered two straight losses to Iowa's Mike Evans, first in the B1G semifinals (3-2) and later in the NCAA quarterfinals (5-4OT). Brown would rebound in the consolation, making his way to the 5th-place bout with another chance at Mike Evans. This time, it was Brown winning, 6-3.
The #3 entry is the only case on our list in which a Penn State wrestler suffered losses to an opponent at both the B1G tournament and the NCAA tournament, before garnering the last laugh at NCAAs.
#4. Jimmy Gulibon (133) vs. Bradley [Ryan] Taylor (Wisconsin), 2015
In 2015, the "you've got a plan?" season, Penn State fell to its lowest performance at NCAAs under Cael Sanderson (6th-place) when many of their hammers took redshirts. James "Jimmy G" Gulibon, meanwhile, was holding down team pride at 133lbs. A returning NCAA qualifier, Jimmy G advanced to the B1G semifinals against Wisconsin standout Bradley (Ryan) Taylor in a #2-vs-#3 seed match-up. Taylor, the 2-seed, defeated Gulibon 7-5 in sudden victory before falling in the B1G finals. Jimmy G would "semi-slide" to 6th-place.
Fast forward to the NCAA quarterfinals and it was again a Gulibon-Taylor match-up, this time to All-American. This time, that match was settled in regulation, 9-4 Gulibon. Gulibon would eventually finish in fifth place, while Taylor was able to advance out of the bloodround to finish seventh.
#5. Jordan Conaway (133) vs. Bradley [Ryan] Taylor (Wisconsin), 2016
The following year, it was returning All-American Jordan Conaway manning the 133lbs weight class for Penn State, while Jimmy G moved up to 141lbs. By the time the B1G tournament came around, Conaway was on a collision course with the aforementioned, fellow All-American Taylor of Wisconsin. Taylor defeated Conaway twice at conferences, earning a 10-5 decision in the quarterfinals and a 5-4 decision in the consolation finals. With two straight wins, Taylor may have felt like he had broken the spell from 2015. Surely he had separated himself from Penn State. Unfortunately for the Wisconsin Badger, Penn State magic would have its day. In the NCAA Round of 16, Conaway avenged his two conference losses to Taylor, 8-5, en route to a 6th-place All-American finish. Taylor would fall just short of another All-American honor in the round of 12. Penn State returned to form to win its fifth Sanderson-era team title.
On a trivia note, Bradley Taylor is the only B1G opponent on the list to be the victim of two different Penn State wrestlers. #5 is also the only case in which a B1G opponent earned two wins at the conference tournament over a Penn State wrestler before losing against them at NCAAs.
#6. Jimmy Gulibon (141) vs. Javier Gasca III (Michigan State), 2017
Two years after his first B1G-NCAA flip, Jimmy G entered the B1G tournament and suddenly found himself caught in the unexpected storm of California-native Javier Gasca III of Michigan State. Gasca surprised spectators with his run to the B1G finals, which included a fall over Jimmy Gulibon in the quarterfinals. Gulibon would slide to eighth place, with Gasca finishing as the conference runner-up. Gulibon, however, had the last laugh when he dominated Gasca in the opening round of NCAAs to the tune of an 18-3 technical fall. Gulibon would finish his final NCAA tournament in the round of 12, while Gasca bowed out with an 0-2 record.
Jimmy Gulibon is the only Penn State wrestler on this list to have successfully flipped match results against two different B1G opponents (see #4 above).
#7. Vincenzo Joseph (165) vs. Isaiah Martinez (Illinois), 2017
2017 was a strong year of downloads for Penn State, epitomized best, perhaps, by Vincenzo Joseph's postseason run. Squaring off against 2x NCAA champion and then-2x B1G champion Isaiah Martinez of Illinois by way of California, Joseph represented himself with dignity in an 8-5 semifinal loss at the B1G tournament. Martinez would go on to win his third of an eventual four B1G titles, while Joseph won the consolation bracket for third place. At NCAAs, Joseph pushed himself into the finals to set up a rematch against IMAR. In a shocking turn of events, Joseph hit a now-infamous inside trip to pin Martinez and earn Joseph's first NCAA title.
#8. Mark Hall (174) vs. Bo Jordan (Ohio State), 2017
The third instance of Penn State magic in 2017 came at 174lbs, involving two quality wrestlers in Mark Hall and Bo Jordan of the Ohio State. Advancing to the B1G finals, Hall and Jordan battled in sudden victory, with Jordan coming away with the 6-4 SV decision.
Their next meeting was again a close affair, this time in the NCAA finals. In a match that may be most known, now, for the "no-call" takedown against Mark Hall, it was the Penn State wrestler prevailing in regulation, 5-2.
#8 is the first of five instances on our list that is characterized by matchups in the B1G finals and NCAA finals, the most dramatic cases. Regarding the 2017 team performance, Vincenzo Joseph and Mark Hall were two of five individual national champions for Sanderson's Nittany Lions with the team earning its sixth NCAA team title.
#9. Vincenzo Joseph (165) vs. Isaiah Martinez (Illinois), 2018
A year after staking his claim to the throne, Vincezo Joseph found himself pitted in a full-blown rivalry with Isaiah Martinez, setting the stage for Penn State lightning to strike twice. At the B1G tournament, IMAR seemed to take control of the series, defeating Cenzo 4-1 to join the exclusive 4x B1G champions club heading into IMAR's final NCAA tournament. Fortune, however, favored the Lion at NCAAs. In a complete reversal of their B1G final, 2x NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez lost to Vincenzo Joseph by a 4-1 decision, as Joseph captured a second NCAA title of his own.
The Cenzo-IMAR matches (#7 and #9) are the only examples on our list that involve the same two wrestlers. Joseph is also the only Penn State wrestler not named Jimmy Gulibon to be featured twice on this list. Martinez ties Wisconsin's Bradley Taylor with two appearances.
#10. Robbie Howard (125) vs. Malik Heinselman (Ohio State), 2021
The 2021 season featured three instances of a Penn State download, tying the 2017 mark. The first case involved two young contenders in the B1G - Robbie Howard and Malik Heinselman of tOSU. The two top-20 wrestlers met at B1Gs in the unassuming consolation semifinals, with the older Heinselman advancing, 5-2. Heinselman would finish in fourth place, while Howard settled for sixth place at the conference meet. Sure enough, the two would be lined up for the first round of the NCAAs. This time, it was Howard winning a 6-4 decision. When the tournament concluded, Robbie Howard finished in the top-16 while Heinselman finished a round behind in the round of 24. Although he was a couple wins away from All-American, could Penn State have found a 125lber at long last?
#11. Nick Lee (141) vs. Jayden Eierman (Iowa), 2021
The 2021 NCAA finals featured two Penn State downloads, both of which came down to the wire. Although Iowa won the team race, Penn State got some consolation in defeating two Hawkeyes for individual titles. The first match-up was at 141lbs. Enter Nick Lee - a man hunting feverishly for his first NCAA title, wrestling a powerful style in his pursuit. He faced the funky Missouri-transfer Jayden Eierman in the B1G finals and lost a close 6-5 decision. Lee would get his rematch when it all counted, the NCAA finals. In a low-scoring, high-output affair, Lee chased down a game Eierman. His effort paid off in a thrilling sudden victory flurry that found Eierman driving in, standing tall with an underhook - right into a perfect inside-trip by Nick Lee.
#12. Carter Starocci (174) vs. Michael Kemerer (Iowa), 2021
A similar story played out at the 174lbs class. Penn State's Carter Starocci previously fell to Iowa's Michael Kemerer in the B1G championship final by a definitive 7-2 score. So when they squared off in the NCAA finals, it was Starocci's opportunity to pull off the upset. In another high-action, but low-scoring bout, the two wrestlers went to sudden victory after trading escapes and flurries in regulation. When Kemerer hit a fake, Starocci bit on a reshot, built on the double-leg and finished a clean takedown to win his first NCAA title and to the elation of the Penn State crowd.
#13. Aaron Brooks (184) vs. Myles Amine (Michigan), 2022
As you may have heard, Penn State won the 2022 NCAA team title this past season, again hitting the high mark of five individual NCAA champions. In InterMat's NCAA preview video, I picked the Olympian Myles Amine of Michigan to win the natty - knowing that he had a dangerous, defending NCAA champion in Aaron Brooks to look forward to, a man who he had just defeated in sudden victory for the B1G title.
"It's like they use the B1Gs to download you," I recall saying. And sure enough, so it was. In the season's rubber match, Aaron Brooks prevailed in regulation, putting together a perfect match against Amine, scoring the first takedown, collecting riding time going into the third period, and earning a huge reversal to put himself too many points away from Amine. An escape and late takedown were not enough as Brooks won 5-3.
I hope you enjoyed this Friday the 13th dive into the archives! Of course, it goes without saying that there are plenty of examples of Penn State wrestlers going 2-0 or 0-2 against opponents between B1G and NCAAs - this list simply focused on instances in which Penn State wrestlers were able to flip a match at the big dance. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that B1G foes should take their bouts against Penn State at the conference tournament with caution. Beware Penn State magic in March.