photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com
It was billed as one of the biggest matches of the season and probably the most important of this young season, and it did not disappoint as top-ranked Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) took on the number ranked wrestler at 174 lbs Mark Hall (Penn State). The last time the pair was on the same mat together was in March in the NCAA finals when Valencia capped off a perfect season with an NCAA Championship won at Hall’s expense. That loss was the only blip on the radar for Hall who had, to that point, put up a perfect record of his own while attempting to capture a second consecutive NCAA title. Going back a year to the 2017 NCAA semifinals, Hall and Valencia squared off, and it was Hall who emerged victorious on the strength of a controversial point awarded on a “headgear pull” by Valencia. The third meeting between the NCAA champions was one of ten matches on the night when 12th ranked Arizona State traveled to State College, Pennsylvania to battle the top-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions.
The dual started off at 125 lbs, so the Valencia/Hall match ended up being the seventh bout of the night, and at that point in time, PSU held a 21-3 lead over the visiting Sun Devils. As one may expect in such a highly anticipated match, both Hall and Valencia were tentative in the first period, neither committed themselves to a leg attack and as a result, they went into the second period scoreless. Hall broke the tie with an escape in the second period and then added to his lead as he was able to fend off a Valencia attack and turn it into one of his own. Mark would ride out Valencia for the remaining 41 seconds of the first period and a 3-0 lead. Zahid chose down to start the final frame which was fine with Hall. The Nittany Lion would ride out Valencia for the entire third period which netted him another point for riding time to bring the final tally to 4-0. A sold-out Rec Hall was on their feet saluting their 174 lber who will move up into the top spot in the rankings at 174 lbs on Tuesday.
Arizona State did some shuffling around at their lower weight sending out freshman Brandon Courtney at 125 lbs and bumping sixth-ranked Ryan Millhof (Arizona State) up to 133 pounds. Courtney would temporarily move the Sun Devils ahead in the dual 3-0 with his 13-7 decision; however, it would be the only match of the night won by the visitors. With a top-ten opponent bumping up to 133 lbs, true freshman Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State) would receive his biggest test to date in a Penn State singlet. Bravo-Young dazzled with his quick reshots and scrambling ability and even clinched a riding time point which put the finishing touches on a 14-1 major decision for the freshman. The win and its convincing nature showed the rest of the country that you can throw Roman’s name into the discussion of the top 133 lbers in the country.
After a first period Nick Lee (Penn State), we were treated to a battle between ranked wrestlers at 149 lbs with 13th ranked Josh Maruca (Arizona State) meeting freshman Brady Berge (Penn State), who is currently 15th in the country. Though it was Maruca who would fire off the shots, the younger Berge was able to capitalize on two errant attacks and tallied two takedowns en route to a 5-4 win, which was a slight upset and the most significant college win for Berge.
A ho-hum 18-5 major decision by top-ranked Jason Nolf (Penn State) set the stage for a first battle of the evening between top-five opponents when no. 5 Josh Shields (Arizona State) met top-ranked Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State). The two wrestlers are very familiar with each other as Shields, along with Maruca, is a graduate of Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, a suburb of Pittsburgh. He and Joseph both trained, at times, with the Young Guns Wrestling Club while growing up and throughout high school. After a brief feeling out process, Joseph got to Shields’ ankle which led to a scramble in which the Sun Devils back was deemed to be exposed which gave Vincenzo a commanding 6-0 lead. The call was borderline and as one would expect ASU head coach Zeke Jones did not agree and requested a review. After a video review, the original call was upheld, and Joseph’s 6-0 lead would stand. As the match continued, Joseph steadily built onto his lead until he ultimately took an 11-2 major decision, giving the Nittany Lions a 21-3 lead heading into the marquee match between Hall and Valencia.
With the crowd still buzzing from the Hall win fourth-ranked Shakur Rasheed took the mat for the Nittany Lions at 184 lbs and was tasked with facing the final ranked opponent of the evening in Kordell Norfleet (Arizona State), who was 19th in the nation. After a 2-0 lead through the first period for Rasheed, the PSU grappler blew open the match with an escape then a takedown and stall points in the second period. As time expired in the third period a riding time point was awarded to Rasheed who won by technical fall, 15-0. The top-ranked 197 lbs in the land, Bo Nickal (Penn State), needed only 35 seconds to dispatch of Austyn Harris (Arizona State) by fall. A third-period fall by Anthony Cassar (Penn State) put the finishing touches on a dominating 41-3 victory by the host Nittany Lions.
With four returning champions, the emergence of two talented freshmen (Bravo-Young and Berge) and a new title contender at 285 lbs (Cassar), Penn State has put the ready of the country on notice. Unless something unforeseen happens, the race will be for second place, as the Nittany Lions look poised to run away with their fourth consecutive national title and eighth in nine years.