Brothers Jacoby and Caleb Fitzgerald had never been to a Penn State wrestling match before, but as wrestlers themselves, it’s always been something they wanted to do.
They got that chance on Saturday, joining Sullivan County High School teammate and friend Nathan Higley for the 2 1/2-hour trek up to State College to watch the No. 1 Nittany Lions beat the No. 7 Hawkeyes 28-13 in front of 15,998 at the sold-out Bryce Jordan Center. The win extended Penn State’s win streak to 44 straight dual matches.
The Nittany Lions were able to create a considerable home-arena advantage over Ohio State last weekend in the intimate, 6,500-seat Rec Hall, so the annual BJC match offers another sort of advantage. Pulling in 10,000 more fans opens up access to one of the best shows in college wrestling.
And with fire shooting out of the light fixtures above the mat and the blue and white light show illuminating up the arena — oh, not to mention the some of the best wrestling in the country — Saturday’s match certainly didn’t disappoint.
As Rec Hall typically only has standing-room-only tickets available for duals, the BJC event allows more wrestling fans, like the Fitzgerald brothers and Higley, to experience a match.
Kody Young, who drove 3 1/2 hours to the match from his home near Erie, where he’s a graduate assistant coach for Mercyhurst, came up to support his brother, Kaleb Young, who’s wrestling for Iowa.
The Youngs grew up in Punxsutawney, about 90 minutes from State College. Kody Young said his cousin and other family members were bringing a bunch of elementary wrestlers who are big fans of 2016 PIAA champ Kaleb.
“The bigger venues, especially for younger kids, to come be able to access and see where they can go, their goals, their dreams, that they can be on this stage, it really helps, being here in person,” Kody Young said. “You can watch it on Big Ten (Network), but being here in person, a big arena like this, it really changes your view on things.”
Unfortunately for those young fans, Kaleb did not get the start, as it was his teammate Joey Gunther who suffered a quick pin by Mark Hall.
That didn’t change that just the possibility of getting to see their hometown hero wrestle on the big stage has inspired these young wrestlers.
“I think it really changes things, it makes you see where you can go if you work hard,” Kody Young said.
Nicholas Burkey, a seventh-grader who wrestles for Hollidaysburg’s junior high team, was attending Saturday’s match with his mother and friend as a birthday present.
He got inspired to experience more Penn State wrestling after attending his first collegiate dual meet a few weeks ago, when the Nittany Lions took on Minnesota at Rec Hall.
Burkey said he was looking forward to the match, and to picking up some new moves from the Penn State wrestlers.
When asked if he was ready to try to hit a spladle like Bo Nickal, he replied with a laugh: “Maybe on Sunday.”
Even though the BJC has the size advantage, there is still something about Rec Hall that the Nittany Lions like better.
“Rec Hall is our home base, so anytime we can, we wrestle at Rec Hall,” PSU head coach Cael Sanderson told the media on Thursday. “But we want to move over here every once in a while just to give more people the chance to get into a match. So maybe in the future, we’ve talked about it back and forth, about maybe moving more matches over to the Bryce Jordan Center but, you know we just love Rec Hall so it’s hard to leave there.”
The match: As for the match itself, Penn State got wins from Corey Keener (decision, 133), No. 8 Nick Lee (decision, 141), No. 1 Zain Retherford (6-2 decision, 149, over No. 2 Brandon Sorensen), No. 2 Mark Hall (pin, 174), No. 1 Bo Nickal (pin, 184), Shakur Rasheed (major decision, 197, over No. 7 Cash Wilcke ) and No. 6 Nick Nevillis (decision, 285, over No. 3 Sam Stoll).
Hall and Nickal got their pins in a combined time of just 1 minute, 50 seconds.
Some would say the back-to-back pins came at the perfect time for the Nittany Lions. They had just watched 165-pound No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph suffer his first loss of the season to No. 7 Alex Marinelli.
Joseph held a two-point lead 12 seconds into the final period. He got into an upper-body tie up with Marinelli and went for his inside trip. Marinelli made sure he wouldn’t succumb to Joseph by body-locking the Nittany Lion to the mat for a takedown and six near-fall points. It came too late for Joseph to rally in the 9-6 loss.
“I thought Vincenzo wrestled really well outside of relaxing in that position,” Sanderson said. “Marinelli is a tough kid.”
“I think we started a little slow but the guys rallied,” Sanderson added. “The guys wrestled really well at the end there. Every match is a big match in this atmosphere. It was good to see these guys step up.”