Ex-Penn State star Zain Retherford gets controversial U.S. men's freestyle wrestling berth

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Zain Retherford, seen here in a file photo while wrestling for Penn State, has earned a berth on the U.S. men's freestyle team.

For the fourth consecutive year, Penn State wrestling will be represented on the U.S. men’s freestyle team as former Nittany Lion Zain Retherford knocked off Yianni Diakomihalis at Final X Rutgers to make his second senior-level world team.

Retherford’s win, however, was not without controversy.

After having won the first match 10-4 in the best-of-three series, Retherford trailed the rising Cornell junior by two when the whistle blew to end the second bout. But after a challenge by Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, in Retherford’s corner along with head assistant coach Casey Cunningham, two points were taken away from Diakomihalis, and Retherford emerged the victor, winning on criteria, 6-6.

Clearly unhappy with the call, Diakomihalis also threw a brick, but the decision was upheld.

Following the match, Cornell coach and State College native Rob Koll signaled that Diakomihalis’ camp would be filing an official protest and petitioning for a third match.

Retherford, however, believes he’s the rightful victor.

“I had a hold of the leg and it’s whatever the refs wanna call at that point,” he told reporters after the match. “I know I put myself in the best spot if I’m rolling to keep hold of the leg and that’s what I did, so obviously it made sense to throw the cube and that was the right call.”

Controversy aside, Retherford and Diakomihalis put on one of the most exciting performances of the event — which determined half the world teams for men’s and women’s freestyle, and men’s Greco-Roman.

The adjustments Retherford made since his 6-4 loss to Diakomihalis at the U.S. Open in April were evident, as the three-time national champ and two-time Hodge Trophy winner showed more offensive aggression, quickly getting in on the first shot of each bout to set the pace. 

The action was seemingly unending in the second bout, right from the start, after a quick double-leg from Retherford resulted in a 4-4 exchange just 10 seconds in. The action never let up, as the “Zain Train” kept chugging. 

“I don’t really have a game plan other than compete hard and have fun and keep circling my feet, keep shooting,” Retherford said after the match. “The more chances you take, the more opportunities you’re gonna get to score; and Yianni’s a great opponent and shooting on his legs is dangerous. But I know I’ve got to take that risk or else I’m not gonna beat him. My thought was to just keep going.”

Other PSU wrestlers: Retherford, who also made the team in 2017, will be the lone Nittany Lion to represent Team USA at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Astana, Kazakhstan on Sept. 14-22. 

Reigning 86 kg world champ David Taylor announced last month that he would not be competing at Final X, as he’s recovering from knee surgery. Taylor was injured on May 6 at the Beat the Streets youth wrestling fundraiser event. Having successfully weighed in Saturday, Pat Downey will represent Team USA this year at 86 kg. 

Frank Molinaro, who represented the Nittany Lions in the Olympics in 2016, lost to Retherford at World Team Trials this year. 

Former Nittany Lion Bo Nickal also fell just short of his goal of making his first senior-level world team, losing twice Saturday to reigning 92 kg world champ J’Den Cox (4-2, 5-0). 

Most of the other half of the world teams will be decided at Final X Lincoln on June 15. Reigning 79 kg world champ Kyle Dake pushed back his match against challenger Alex Dieringer due to injury. 

Results: Here are the rest of Saturday’s results:

Men’s freestyle

65 kg: Zain Retherford over Yianni Diakomihalis 2-0

86 kg: Pat Downey

97 kg: J’Den Cox over Bo Nickal 2-0

125 kg: Nick Gwiazdowski over Gable Steveson 2-0

Women’s freestyle

50 kg: Whitney Conder over Victoria Anthony 2-0

57 kg: Jenna Burkert over Becka Leathers 2-0

65 kg: Forrest Molinari over Maya Nelson 2-1

68 kg: Tamyra Mensah-Stock over Alex Glaude 2-0

72 kg: Victoria Francis over Alyvia Fiske 2-0


55 kg: Max Nowry over Brady Koontz 2-0

67 kg: Ellis Coleman over Jamel Johnson 2-0

77 kg: Patrick Smith over Kamal Bey 2-1

82 kg: John Stefanowicz over Kendrick Sanders 2-0

87 kg: Joe Rau over Ben Provisor 2-0