Left and right photos by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
Since the award’s debut in 1995, only three men have won the Hodge Trophy at least twice with only two having done so in consecutive years. A close vote in 2016 denied Zain Retherford (Penn State), the 2017 Hodge winner, a chance to join Cael Sanderson (Iowa State) as the only three-time winners, but he will be the favorite to match Ben Askren (Missouri), who won in 2006 and 2007. Retherford is also hoping to become the second Nittany Lion to win two Hodge Trophies after David Taylor claimed the honor in 2012 and 2014. This award is one of the few aspects of Division I wrestling that isn’t all about March. Certainly, a national title is a prerequisite, but a perfect season is almost always needed as well. With an outstanding field returning, any slip-up could cost Retherford a chance to repeat his Hodge win.
Criteria for the Hodge Trophy includes record, number of pins, dominance on the mat, past credentials, quality of competition, sportsmanship/citizenship and heart.
Darian Cruz, Lehigh, 125
While Cruz has a chance to be perfect going into the NCAA tournament, the likely presence of Nick Suriano (Rutgers) and Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State) will make it tough for him to win another title. Even if he does, his bonus rate is unlikely to stack up with the other contenders. Cruz would need a big year to get into contention.
Dean Heil, Oklahoma State, 141
A senior going for his third consecutive national title will always receive some consideration for the Hodge, but Heil would have to greatly increase his dominance to be a legitimate threat.
Nathan Tomasello, Ohio State, 125
Another senior and past champion, Tomasello’s bonus rate wasn’t as high as many of those on this list before he decided to cut back down to the lowest weight. Given he is expected to be on a limited schedule as well, it would be difficult for him to do enough to claim the Hodge.
Vincenzo Joseph, Penn State, 165
Normally, Joseph would be a good candidate for the Hodge, but the combination of several looming matches against tough competition, a handful of contenders that are better historically in regards to bonus, and a few that are seniors going for title number three makes it difficult to envision a path for him to win the award.
Seth Gross, South Dakota State, 133
With Cory Clark (Iowa) and Tomasello out of the way, Gross is the favorite at 133. He also finished seventh in the NCAA’s Most Dominant Wrestler standings a year ago and had 11 pins against DI opponents. If his bonus rate continues to climb and some of the favorites stumble, he could be in the mix.
Kollin Moore, Ohio State, 197
All of Moore’s losses last year were to the top two wrestlers at the weight, both seniors. His high-octane offense should keep his bonus rate high, but no previous titles, a lack of a high-profile opponent to knock off, and just six falls last season all make it hard to envision Moore jumping ahead of some others on this list. Still, he is a good candidate to have a dominant season which could set him up for a Hodge run in 2019 or 2020.
Zahid Valencia, Arizona State, 174/184
Whether he goes 174 or 184, Valencia will have a chance to upend a defending champion. Considering he had just one loss a year ago and 13 falls, it isn’t a stretch to see him ending the year perfect which would put him in the conversation. However, with so many contenders that already have at least one title, he will probably need some help to win the Hodge.
Mark Hall, Penn State, 174
Finishing ninth in both the most dominant standings and falls against DI opponents is great and Hall being a defending champion helps, but wrestling an upgraded schedule from his first-semester redshirt slate in 2016-17 could hurt those numbers or, at least, keep them from progressing much. While another title wouldn’t be surprising, Hall has already beaten both of his biggest potential threats at 174 and trails to some of the others on this list in past accomplishments. It is hard to see him getting the votes even if he does remain perfect, which isn’t a given.
Zain Retherford, Penn State, 149
What makes Retherford such a good candidate for the Hodge Trophy is that he checks all the boxes. He hasn’t lost since the 2014 NCAA tournament. He had just two decisions and only one major decision in 28 matches last season, racking up 17 falls and seven techs along with one forfeit. Zain now has two national titles and three All-American awards sitting on his mantle, matching or exceeding what any other contender can claim. That means for anyone to clearly beat him, they’d need to do so outside of the first four criteria. Even with all that, Retherford did have a scare last season when Brandon Sorensen (Iowa) took him into the second set of tie-breakers during their match in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. One loss would likely put the Pennsylvania native, or anyone else for that matter, out of the running this year and Sorensen returns, but Retherford does lead the series 4-0. He is the favorite.
Kyle Snyder, Ohio State, 285
Despite a limited schedule and just four pins, the world and Olympic champion finished third, behind Retherford and J’den Cox (Missouri), in the Hodge voting a year ago. Snyder’s dominance is without question and he lights up scoreboards the way few heavyweights ever have. The fact that he finished in front of Jason Nolf (Penn State) in last year’s voting may be a tip as to where he stands heading into 2017-18. Many would see Nolf’s dominance numbers, second only to Retherford, and pin rate as a reason to put him in front of Snyder, but heading into last season, Snyder had already won an NCAA title while Nolf had not. Now that both are NCAA champions, the calculus could change, but at least some voters were willing to put Snyder ahead of even Retherford last spring. There could be a wave of support for Snyder given all he has accomplished internationally, this is an award voted for by human beings after all, especially if Retherford trips up.
Jason Nolf, Penn State, 157
With all that said, Nolf may be the Hodge favorite if Zain were to lose, despite finishing behind Snyder in the 2017 race. Retherford got 33 of 45 first place votes over a three-time NCAA champion (Cox) and Snyder. This suggests that the bulk of the voters for this award value pins and dominance above all else when considering multiple perfect seasons. If those 33 voters were forced to vote for someone other than Retherford last year, it is a safe bet they would have migrated to Nolf in large numbers. The Penn State junior had 14 falls and finished second in the NCAA’s Most Dominant Wrestler standings while winning just two decisions. Both of those non-bonus-point victories, over Michael Kemerer (Iowa), were comfortable. There can be a senior-bias in awards like this which could make a Nolf/Snyder race close, but unless something crazy happens, Jason will be an excellent candidate by year’s end.
Bo Nickal, Penn State, 184
Still searching for his first perfect season, Nickal makes this list’s top five largely because he has proven the ability to pin any opponent at any time. The Hodge Trophy is an award that favors pinners and history tells us that if one contender far outdistances the rest in this category, he will likely win. Nickal would have to put up something historic to do so given that Retherford and Nolf are no slouches in this category, but if anyone is going to go on a pinning spree this season, it would be him. His 17 falls in 26 victories a year ago was the highest percentage among the contenders. While several potential matches with Myles Martin (Ohio State), who accounts for two of Nickal’s three losses over the past two seasons, lessens his chances to go unscathed, Nickal has the ability to do so. If he does, watch his pin count closely.
Isaiah Martinez, Illinois, 165
The only wrestler in the top five that didn’t win an NCAA title in 2017, Martinez is another senior looking for his third championship. The story would be easy to sell if he were to run the table. Though Illinois and Penn State don’t meet in a dual this season, Martinez could get a chance to avenge his NCAA finals loss to Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) at both the Big Ten tournament and in Cleveland. If he does so to complete his second perfect season, it might convince a few voters to send their votes his way. Martinez is a little underrated when it comes to bonus point production, despite finishing 10th in the most dominant standings a year ago. Still, he is a long way behind the Penn State trio and trailed Snyder as well in that statistic. Losses can do funny things to wrestlers, though, and a highly motivated IMar could lay waste to the field in his final go around. If he starts putting up big numbers early, watch out.