Cael Sanderson's decision five years ago helped set up Penn State's dominant wrestling run

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson.
  • The Penn State wrestling team has become the nation's dominant wrestling program.
  • A decision by head coach Cael Sanderson five years ago was key to the PSU run.
  • Sanderson elected to redshirt a talented crop of freshman wrestlers.

The hearts of Penn State wrestling fans sank five years ago when coach Cael Sanderson announced retuning sophomore All-Americans Zain Retherford and Nico Megaludis would redshirt the 2014-15 season, along with the entire crop of talented freshmen.

With that decision, Penn State’s streak of four straight national championships was snapped. However, it set up the next four years to be some of the most exciting and successful in program history.

Now, those freshmen — Jason Nolf, Bo Nickal, Nick Nevills, Shakur Rasheed and Anthony Cassar — have wrestled their final dual in a blue-and-white singlet. Although Cassar and Rasheed have confirmed they are applying for sixth years of eligibility, they don’t yet know their status, so they treated Sunday’s 47-3 dual win over Buffalo at Rec Hall as if it was their last.

Widely regarded as the top recruiting class in 2014, this class’s four undefeated seasons, four NCAA team titles, six individual titles, fast falls, new moves and wild hairstyles have not disappointed.

“It’s been an amazing five years,” Nolf said outside of the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex on Tuesday. “I was just talking to my dad on the phone the other day and realized how fast it had actually gone.

“It’s been the best five years of my life. I met my wife and I met some of the best teammates I could ever have met. So it’s been awesome.”

When asked if he’d miss this recruiting class, Sanderson was his typical stoic self, trying to convince reporters — or maybe even himself — that it’s all just part of the cycle and “they did their four years, now it’s time to move on.” Then his expression cracked as he recalled the moment last weekend when he realized Nolf and Nickal had just wrestled their last Big Ten dual.

“Yeah, I’m gonna miss them,” he said.

Penn State's Jason Nolf, top, has enjoyed a stellar wrestling career with the Nittany Lions.

Decision "just made sense:" The decision to redshirt Retherford, Megaludis and all the freshmen in the 2014-15 season “just made sense,” Sanderson said, with All-American Matt Brown at Nickal’s weight, and Dylan Alton given the chance to come back from his offseason shoulder surgery at 157 pounds.

“I think they both would have done well wrestling as true freshmen,” Sanderson said of Nolf and Nickal. “But I think it was the right decision for them to take a year to really put things together.”

The Nittany Lions returned in full force for the 2015-16 season, with freshmen Nolf and Nickal making immediate impacts on the lineup. An early-season injury against Lehigh sidelined Nevills for most of the season, while Cassar and Rasheed were also kept from competition with injuries.

In addition to their dominance on the mat, Nolf and Nickal also won the hearts of Penn State fans with their unique styles and exciting ways of wrestling. Both wrestlers are always looking for the fall, and as the top two pinners in Penn State’s history — Nolf with 58 and Nickal with 56 — they usually got it.

Penn State's Bo Nickal, top, celebrates with head coach Cael Sanderson after pinning Ohio State's Myles Martin during the 184-pound championship match of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 17, 2018, in Cleveland.

Nolf the "artist: “Nolf is like an artist, very creative; you don’t know what he’s going to do out there,” Rasheed said. “Bo, he’s a showman. He likes to put on a show. He’ll go for the things that a lot of people won’t. I think that’s what makes each of them special.”

One of the most exciting falls in Nolf’s career came his freshman year, on the road in Champaign, Ill. As Nolf and Nickal quickly became two of the most dominant wrestlers in the NCAA, chances for them to get big upsets were few and far between. But when presented with the chance against defending national champ and previously unbeaten Isaiah Martinez on the road, Nolf did not disappoint.

The freshman, in his typical workman-like manner, took a low-single leg counter-shot in the second period, and used Martinez’s leg to turn him to his back and pin him in 4 minutes and 56 seconds, breaking the sophomore’s 61-straight match winning streak and silencing the Illinois crowd.

Martinez later got his revenge, defeating Nolf in both the Big Ten and NCAA finals that year. Aside from an injury forfeit against Rutgers last season, Martinez remains the only wrestler to have beaten Nolf in his four-year career.

For Nickal, a loss that still hurts: After winning the Big Ten championship, Nickal was also denied a national title his freshman year, falling in the finals 11-9 to Ohio State’s Myles Martin, whom he had already beaten twice that season.

For Nickal, who had set lofty goals for himself, that loss still hurts.

“I expected to be a four-time national champion, undefeated and win a couple Hodge trophies,” the blue-haired Nickal said when asked if he’d met the expectations he set for himself his freshman year. “And now I only have an opportunity to win one (Hodge), so I think what I learned from that is it’s not really about the accolades and achievements. That’s something you set out in your goals and stuff, but I don’t think that’s the most important thing in wrestling or in life.”

Nickal got his revenge when the two met again in the finals two years later — in what will stand out as one of the most exciting moments in Nickal’s Penn State career.

With Penn State and Ohio State neck and neck, the 2018 NCAA team title hinged on the result of Nickal vs. Martin in the 184-pound final. Martin came out of the gate strong, looking for the big move to hand his team the chance to upset the reigning national champs.

For a few seconds, it looked as if Martin had Nickal on his back. But refusing to let the Buckeye dash his national title dreams again, Nickal elevated his hips, rolled through the position and ended up putting Martin on his back to clinch the team title for the Nittany Lions.

Nickal leaped into his coach’s arms for the iconic photo reminiscent of Kate Winselt and Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Titanic” and, in his excitement, uttered what would become his most famous quote:

“We win team titles at Penn State; that’s what we do!”

Scoring points and having fun: The number of exciting moments in the two seniors’ careers are too numerous to list in full. But over the past four years, Nolf and Nickal not only impressed on the mat, but also helped to create a distinct brand of Penn State wrestling — scoring points and having fun.

For Sanderson, Nolf and Nickal embodied all he wanted Penn State to be for the past four years.

“It has to start with guys who can compete and represent Penn State correctly on the mat, and them being able to do the right things, doing well in school and obviously being good examples — the kind of men kids would look up to,” Sanderson said. “We’re not worried about them ever in any situations and how they would react, and that speaks volumes about who they are — and they’re two of the best who will ever wrestle, I believe that.”

Others also brought excitement: Despite being hampered by injuries, the other three members of Penn State’s 2014 recruiting class also brought their fair share of excitement.

Nevills kept Penn State’s dual streak alive last season when it all came down to him against Lehigh with a third-period ride-out. Then, despite a shoulder injury, Nevills was able to muster up enough strength for a seconds-left takedown in the seventh-place bout against Maryland’s Youssif Hemida to help keep the Nittany Lions’ 2018 team title hopes alive.

Rasheed — who was nicknamed Tarzan due to his long, unkempt locks and wild style of wrestling — became known for his cross-face cradles and ability to pin opponents without hardly breaking a sweat.

Having been impacted the hardest by injuries, Cassar is only now coming into his true form as a wrestler. With or without the sixth year, with the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments on the horizon, it’s safe to say the best is still yet to come from the heavyweight.

An historic duo: For their parts, Nolf and Nickal are on the verge of completing their careers not only as two of the best in Penn State history, but in the history of college wrestling. Nickal is so far 112-3 in his career, and Nolf 109-3. The pair are three-time finalists and two-time national champs, and leading the NCAA as the the top-two in the standings of Most Dominant Wrestler. They are also neck and neck, by most accounts, in the race for this year’s Hodge Trophy — the Heisman of college wrestling.

But only one of them can win it.

“I’m trying not to focus on that because that’s not what matters and that’s not what defines me,” Nolf said. “But, yeah, you do want to win, you want to win everything, but I think any of us would be a good option for it.”

Regardless of who wins what awards or accolades, the past four years of Penn State wrestling have brought no shortage of excitement for its loyal fan base.

Nickal is hoping that more than anything, that is the legacy he leaves at Penn State.

“Aside from winning national titles and stuff, I hope that when I’m done wrestling at Penn State, people will just have enjoyed it,” he said. “(I hope) People will look back on the matches I’ve wrestled and just have brought them some joy and entertainment, and that they were excited about it.”