PITTSBURGH – Penn State dominated from start to finish at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships – even if the final round didn't go quite that way.
Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal each won their third individual titles and Anthony Cassar was victorious as the Nittany Lions captured their fourth consecutive team title and eighth in nine years on Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Vincenzo Joseph and Mark Hall finished second for Penn State, which had wrapped up the team championship before the end of the early session on Saturday. That meant the only question was how many individual crowns coach Cael Sanderson's team would take home to Happy Valley.
Penn State had 137.5 points to 96.5 for second-place Ohio State.
“I'll just say we're very happy and proud of this team,” Sanderson said. “Some great competition individually and team-wise. And so being able to win a national championship is very special and something that we're excited about.”
Nolf and Nickal played key roles in the four consecutive championships.
“That's definitely a blessing to be part of such a great team,” Nolf said. “Sometimes you can take it for granted and kind of expect that it's going to happen. But ... at the end of the day, you've got to go work hard for it, and everybody individually has to do their part.
Cassar started the finals off with a 10-1 dismantling of top-seeded Derek White of Oklahoma State at 285 pounds. After a scoreless first period, Cassar caught White on his back late in the second period for a six-point move.
“I felt him (being) hesitant right off the bat,” said Cassar, who was wrestling in his first NCAA tournament. “It was my mat to score and do whatever I pleased to him.”
Nolf claimed Penn State's second title of the night – and his third overall – with a 10-2 major decision of Nebraska's Tyler Berger at 157 pounds.
A Kittanning graduate, Nolf was asked about coaches who had an impact on his career, including former Pitt-Johnstown standouts Isaac Greeley and Jody Strittmatter.
“Yeah, those and my high school coach and my dad and my mom, and I think everybody that I've touched has definitely had an impact on my life,” said Nolf, who went 35-0 as a senior and 121-3 for his career. “And it's hard to say if I didn't have this person would we still do this? I think I'd still be me. But all of my coaches have had an impact in such different ways.”
Nickal, who often is mentioned as a co-favorite along with Nolf for the Hodge Trophy – college wrestling's version of the Heisman – had a surprisingly pedestrian final. He beat Ohio State's Kollin Moore 5-1 in a match that featured little action for long stretches. That's unusual for Nickal, who finished his senior season with a 34-0 record and his career with a 124-3 mark, and won the NCAA's Most Dominant Wrestler award for the season.
Joseph was also seeking a third title, but Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis stunned the field at 165 pounds. Lewis, who e No. 8 spot to beat the Nos. 1, 2 and 4 seeds on his way to Virginia Tech's first NCAA title.
Lewis cradled Joseph for four back points in the second period. Lewis consistently fended off Joseph's attempts for a takedown, then took him down at the end for a 7-1 decision.
Arizona State's Zaheed Valencia beat Hall for the 174-pound title for the second consecutive season. The Penn State wrestler scored the opening takedown and led 3-1 before Valencia got a takedown of his own in the second period. The Sun Devil escaped in the third period, and Hall didn't come close to scoring the match-winning takedown in a 4-3 match.
Valencia avenged a 4-0 loss to Hall in a December dual meet, then used the Nittany Lion's own celebration against him.
“I think a lot of people know what he did after he beat me during the year,” Valencia said. “He did the air guitar. So I thought I'd do it right back and just smash it, smash it in front of his face. Just a little fun.”
The Nittany Lions had two other All-Americans, as Nick Lee placed fifth at 141 and Roman Bravo-Young was eighth at 133.
Notes: Attendance for the finals was 18,950 (fifth most in NCAA history). The six sessions combined drew 109, 405 (sixth most in NCAA history). … Spencer Lee, who was a three-time PIAA champion at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville and wrestled for Young Guns Wrestling Club, captured his second consecutive NCAA title at 125 pounds. … Rutgers' Nick Suriano (133) and Anthony Ashnault (149) each won titles, becoming the first and second NCAA champions in school history. … Cornell's Yianni Diakomihalis (141) and Northern Iowa's Drew Foster joined Lewis and Valencia as the only wrestlers from non-Big Ten schools to capture national titles. … Pennsylvania high schools produced 16 All-Americans – more than any other state – but New Jersey had four champions to two from the Keystone State.