By Ken Wunderley
Tri-State Sports & News Service
Ten champions will be crowned Saturday at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Tournament, which is being held at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena.
However, one title has already been decided. Penn State clinched the team title for the fourth consecutive year and eighth time in nine years with wins in five of six semifinal matches on Friday.
Penn State enters the final day of competition with 120.5 points, while Ohio State is a distant second with 88.5 points. That’s a 32-point lead with only the medal matches to decide.
The Nittany Lions will have five entries in the finals, including four who have won previous titles, and two in the consolation finals. The Buckeyes have three entries in the finals and only two in the consolation finals.
Jason Nolf, Vincenzo Joseph, Mark Hall, Bo Nickal, and Anthony Cassar earned title berths for Penn State.
Nolf (30-0), a Kittanning graduate, remained unbeaten with a hard-fought 3-2 victory over North Carolina State’s Hayden Hidlay in the 157-pound semifinals.
Nolf, a two-time defending champion and top seed, earned his fourth consecutive trip to the finals. He will face Nebraska’s Tyler Berger (28-3) in the title match. Berger advanced with a 5-3 semifinal win over Iowa’s Kaleb Young.
“Wrestling at this tournament is tough,” Nolf said. “I’ve had a lot of great matches at this tournament, but I’m still focused on one match at a time, not looking ahead, and just trying to do the best I can. That match was probably not the best that I could do, but I gave 100 percent attitude and effort, and that’s all I really ask of myself. Just didn’t have the offense tonight, but I got it done, and I will tomorrow. I’ll be ready.”
Joseph (27-1), a Pittsburgh Central Catholic grad and No. 2 seed, claimed his third consecutive title berth title berth with a narrow 3-2 win over Arizona State’s Josh Shields (30-4), a Franklin Regional grad, in the 165-pound semifinals.
Joseph, a two-time defending champion, will face No. 8 seed Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech in the title match. Lewis (26-2) advanced with a 5-2 upset of No. 4 seed Evan Wick of Wisconsin.
“He’s a good wrestler,” said Joseph of Lewis. “He proved it all year, previous years, and I never really watched him wrestle too much, but it’s going to be a good match. He wrestles hard. I’ll wrestle hard. It’s going to be exciting.”
Hall (30-0) needed double overtime to record a 2-1 victory over Michigan’s Myles Amine (20-4) in the 174-pound semifinals. An escape by Hall in the tiebreaker period was the difference.
Hall, a champ in 2017 and runner-up last season, will face Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia in the finals for the third straight year. Valencia (30-2) advanced with an 11-3 win over Missouri’s Daniel Lewis.
“I think I’m just going to wrestle,” said Hall, when asked about his rematch with Valencia.
“Prepare the same way I did last two days, any other match this year. Just be ready. Rivalries are great for the sport, I think. I remember growing up, you know, watching matches that everyone was looking forward to, all the big names that everyone wanted to see wrestle, right? And they got it two or three times a year, every year. So I’m really excited for that and like you said, we’re just — at the end of the day we’re just competitors.”
Nickal (29-0) earned his fourth trip to the finals with a pin of Princeton’s Pat Brucki (32-2) in the 197-pound semifinals. It was Nickal’s third pin of the tournament.
Nickal, a two-time champion, will face Ohio State’s Kollin Moore in the title match. Moore (23-2) advanced with a 12-4 over Oklahoma State’s Preston Weigel.
“I would say gratitude,” Nickal said, when asked about Saturday’s title match being his final match. “I’ve come such a long way and there are so many people that that have put energy and time and effort into me. My coaches at Penn State and my parents have lugged me around the country since I was really little and I feel incredibly grateful for the people in my life and the things that wrestling has allowed me to do and the places it’s taken me. So I’m definitely excited for the opportunity and very, very grateful.”
Cassar (29-1) earned his first trip to the finals with a 4-3 win over Minnesota’s Gable Steveson (33-2) in the 285-pound semifinals. He will face Oklahoma State’s Derek White in the title match. White (32-1) advanced with a 3-1 overtime win over Lehigh’s Jordan Wood.
“I always envisioned me with my hands up, kneeling on the ground, pointing up to God as a national champion,” said Cassar, when asked how he envisioned his first NCAA Tournament.
“We’ll see if I can finish it tomorrow.”