| Zain Retherford (Penn State) battles Logan Stieber
(Ohio State) at the 2014 NCAA Championships.
Photo: Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
However, his run at NCAA glory would be put on hold for a full year.
Shortly before the start of the 2014-15 college, season Penn State Head Coach Cael Sanderson pulled Retherford aside to discuss the option of taking a redshirt.
“I was getting up for the season, keeping my weight low for 141 and feeling good about it,” Retherford said. “I was planning on starting and then one day at practice, before practice started, Cael just pulled me to the side, sat me on the bench, and told me he felt it was in my best interest this year to redshirt.”
Trusting in the advice of his coaches, Retherford made the decision to take a full year off from NCAA competition and focus on developing his wrestling skillset.
“I didn’t question it. I said alright, whatever you think I should do, that’s what I’m going to do and I just went from there,” said Retherford.
Prior to this decision, Retherford was coming off a true freshman year at 141 pounds where he went undefeated during the regular season.
Of his 27 regular season wins none were more impressive than his 4-2 victory over eventual four-time NCAA champion Logan Stieber of Ohio State. Retherford was the last wrestler to defeat Stieber during his college career.
“I don’t think a lot of people felt that would happen at the time. Coach Cody [Sanderson] would tell me every day that I could do it and I felt that I could, so I was excited. I felt that I was right with these guys and that match helped me fuel my fire, got me real excited for the postseason,” said Retherford.
Entering postseason competition, Retherford believed his goals of becoming a Big Ten and NCAA champion were well within reach.
“The coaches are really good about my confidence and making sure that I am ready. I was doing well in the room. I was even rolling around with guys like David [Taylor] and Ed [Ruth] for fun. I felt like I was doing well and I was ready,” said Retherford.
The freshman standout fell just short of those goals, finishing the season with a 33-3 record and coming in second place at the Big Ten Championships and fifth place at the NCAA Championships.
“The NCAA tournament is a tough tournament. It’s not a joke. At that tournament, it doesn’t matter what your record was prior to that, you have to show up every match. If you don’t show up, you’re not going to do well. It doesn’t matter if you were the national champion the year before or not,” said Retherford.
His freshman year experiences are now one of many driving forces for Retherford as he makes his return to NCAA competition this fall.
“It just fuels your fire when you come up short. I don’t want to settle for that. I’m not happy with that. If it does anything it makes me more hungry,” Retherford said. “Definitely glad I got a taste of it early on. It was a neat thing to experience. I wish I could have done better, but I took a lot from that tournament and definitely applying that to now.”
During his time away from major college competition Retherford took advantage of another wrestling passion, freestyle.
In the summer of 2013 Retherford won a gold medal at the Cadet World Championships for the United States, an experience to which he credits much of his college success.
“I think training for that tournament taught me a lot,” Retherford said. “Going overseas is awesome because you’re so used to seeing the American style and you kind of get wrapped up in it. So, I got to see a glimpse of what wrestling is like in other countries. It was a good experience.”
The past two years Retherford has been a serious contender to make the U.S. Junior World Team, finishing in second place at the Junior World Team Trials in both 2014 and 2015 to two-time Junior World medalist Aaron Pico.
Coming so close to making the Junior World Team is another fuel Retherford has added to his wrestling fire.
“It’s not fun losing ever, if it was to [Pico] or whoever I would lose to, I hate losing. That’s why we wrestle, to win. I want to do my best. I was really excited about representing the U.S. in Brazil on the Junior World team and I fell short of that, so it stinks that I wasn’t able to do that,” said Retherford.
In addition to maintaining his wrestling edge on the freestyle circuit, Retherford has taken his redshirt year as an opportunity strengthen his body and move up in weight to 149 pounds. The change in weight comes as a combination of personal goals for Retherford and overall benefits to the Penn State team composition.
“One thing I was thinking about was freestyle,” Retherford said. “I felt that I needed to gain some size for freestyle stuff, and helping our team too. We have a couple All-Americans that are in the lineup and it was just the best option for me and the right call.”
Retherford will be a key cog for this year’s Penn State squad that is expected to contend for the national title, a role Retherford is welcoming after watching from a distance last year.
“I wanted to be out there wrestling with the guys. It’s like taking an animal that has been in the wild hunting and putting them in a cage for a year. I was eager. Especially watching nationals on TV, that was the hardest part,” said Retherford.
The Nittany Lions return five All-Americans from last year in addition to Retherford and three-time All-American Nico Megaludis coming off redshirt.
“I’m back. Nico’s back. We have five returning All-Americans, which is good. We also have some freshman that redshirted last year that are stepping in the lineup hungry to compete, which is fun because you’ve got a team that is competitive. Everybody just rubs off on each other,” Retherford said.
A national title for both himself and his team are realistic expectations this season. For Retherford, the deciding factor will be work ethic and desire.
“I’ve got to make sure I’m on my toes and I’m wanting to do my best. If you don’t want to be in the office it’s not a good day to go to work. So, I’ve got to make sure I’m hungry every day. Wrestle like you’re desperate to win. Don’t be complacent. I think we are a very competitive team by nature, all the guys want to win, so I’m excited about this year,” said Retherford.
Penn State and Retherford will open the season on Nov. 13 at home against Lock Haven.