USA Wrestling Penn State closing i...

Penn State closing in on title with five finalists, three No. 1's fall in NCAA semifinals

By Richard Immel, USA Wrestling | March 17, 2017, 7:29 p.m. (ET)

Photo: Jason Nolf (Penn State) returns to the 157-pound NCAA finals with a 13-5 major decision win over Tyler Berger (Nebraska). Photo by

Video: NCAA Championships Athlete and Coach Interviews

ST LOUIS, Mo. – During an upset-riddled semifinal round at the NCAA Division I Championships on Friday night, defending champion Penn State put itself in pole position to bring home the programs sixth national title in seven seasons by sending five wrestlers to the finals.

Three Nittany Lions will appear in the finals for a second-straight year with Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal all securing bonus point victories in the semifinal round.

Retherford, the defending 149-pound NCAA champion, left no doubt in his NCAA finals rematch against Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen, picking up a fall in 2:36 over the Hawkeye standout. Retherford will see Lavion Mayes, one of three Missouri finalists, for the title tomorrow night.

“I felt way too emotionally drained during the season when we first wrestled,” Retherford said of his battles with Sorensen. “Last year in the finals I wrestled free, like I like to wrestle and I think I had more fun that way…You've got to show up every match.”

Last year’s NCAA runner-up Nolf ousted Nebraska’s Tyler Berger by 13-5 major decision to book his second trip to the finals. Like his 149-pound teammate, Nolf will battle a Missouri Tiger for the championship at 157 pounds. No. 3 seed Joey LaVallee picked up late points in his semifinal against Cornell’s Dylan Palacio to book his spot against Nolf.

In the 184-pound semis, Nickal went big against Iowa’s two-time Big Ten champion Sammy Brooks for the second time this season. Nickal tossed Brooks to his back early and got the fall in 1:01.

Nickal will attempt to take down undefeated two-time NCAA champion Gabe Dean of Cornell in the main event of the NCAA finals. Dean navigated to the finals with a controlled 9-3 win over Oklahoma State’s Nolan Boyd.

“As we all know in this room, [Nickal’s] a great wrestler, and you're right, he is very dangerous,” Dean said. “You know, as a senior, having the opportunity to compete for your last national title, I think it's pretty awesome that you get to face a great competitor, and I'm just really looking forward to the challenge that awaits me.”

Two Nittany Lion freshmen scored wild upset wins in the semifinals as Mark Hall toppled previously undefeated No. 1 seed Zahid Valencia of Arizona State at 174 pounds and Vincenzo Joseph downed Michigan’s No. 2 seed Logan Massa at 165 pounds.

The highly-anticipated Hall-Valencia bout lived up to the billing. After the two athletes traded escape points, Valencia appeared to pick up the go ahead takedown with less than one minute remaining. However, Valencia was dinged for an illegal headgear grab and the takedown was wiped from the board. Hall then maneuvered to an inside trip takedown to turn the tables and finish with a 4-3 win.

The 174-pound NCAA final will be a rematch of the Big Ten finals from two weeks ago where Ohio State’s Bo Jordan edged Hall 6-4 in sudden victory. Jordan dived deep into his bag of tricks to upend Cornell’s Brian Realbuto, 11-7, in the other 174-pound semifinal. Jordan trailed 7-2 in the third period before reeling off nine-straight points, including a six-point move as time expired, to get the win.

Joseph implemented similar late-match heroics against Massa by driving through a takedown in the waning moments to steal victory from the clutch of defeat by a 5-4 tally.

The challenge now facing Joseph comes in the form of two-time NCAA champion and three-time Big Ten champion Isaiah Martinez of Illinois. Martinez navigated his toughest test of the season to date from four-time All-American Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin in the semis. Martinez won 2-1 on a riding time point to book his third trip to the NCAA finals.

After an incredible semifinal session, Penn State amassed 121 team points from six All-Americans to take a 31.5-point lead over second place Ohio State. Oklahoma State, Missouri and Iowa round out the top five teams after the first two days of action at the Scottrade Center.

“I think there's a lot of ways to describe fun, but we enjoy what we're doing,” said Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson. “They love wrestling. Just because there's a big match on the line, that doesn't mean anything changes. You either love it or you don't, so we just try to enjoy what we're doing, and at the same time prepare these guys to be successful because that's what is the most fun.”

The second-place Buckeyes were able to push two wrestlers into the finals with Olympic, World and NCAA champion Kyle Snyder joining Jordan on the big stage tomorrow.

After suffering an apparent rib injury in his quarterfinal match, Snyder returned unfazed to defeat Duke’s Jacob Kasper 19-6 in the heavyweight semifinals. Like Jordan, Snyder will rematch against his Big Ten finals opponent for the title. Wisconsin’s Connor Medbery successfully defeated Virginia Tech’s Ty Walz for the third time this season, 4-3, to set the rematch with Snyder.

Two Buckeyes came up just short in the semifinals with Big Ten champions Nathan Tomasello and Kollin Moore suffering defeats to opponents they topped in the Big Ten finals two weeks ago.

Tomasello, a 2015 NCAA champion, was previously undefeated and the top seed at 133 pounds before Iowa’s Cory Clark solidified his third-straight trip to the finals with a 7-4 win. Clark broke a 4-4 tie late in the third period, taking Tomasello down and riding him out to ice the match.

Clark will look to end his Hawkeye career with a NCAA title against the red-hot Seth Gross of South Dakota State. Gross became the Jackrabbits first NCAA finalist after he delivered a 12-3 defeat to Oklahoma State’s Kaid Brock.

“I mean every year I've thought I was capable of winning this tournament,” Clark said. “I thought I was the best guy at my weight when I put my best self out on the mat. I think the same tonight. I think the same this year and tomorrow night if I go out and put my best self out on the mat and come out the way I want to there is no question in my mind am I going to win that match.”

Minnesota’s Brett Pfarr turned the tide against Moore in a wildly offensive bout at 197 pounds. The two traded points back-and-forth for three periods with Pfarr getting the better of the third frame to win 13-9.

Ohio State is still mathematically alive to catch Penn State with its two finalists and four wrestlers still alive for third place in the consolation bracket.

Reigning 141-pound NCAA champion Dean Heil was the lone Oklahoma State wrestler to qualify for the finals. Heil continued his winning ways against Rutgers three-time All-American Anthony Ashnault, 4-2. His finals opponent tomorrow will be Virginia’s George DiCamillo who out-scrambled NCAA finalist Bryce Meredith of Wyoming, 10-7, in the semis.

Oklahoma State leads the nation with eight wrestlers earning All-America honors. The Cowboys have six wrestlers still in the running for third place and one booked for a seventh-place bout.

Missouri made a run up the team standings on Friday night with five wrestlers earning All-America status, including Mayes, LaVallee and two-time NCAA champion and Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox moving on to the finals.

In his 197-pound semifinal, Cox dominated from start to finish against Virginia Tech’s Jared Haught, winning comfortably, 6-2. Cox will do battle against Pfarr for the second time this season as he looks to cap off a spectacular career with a third NCAA crown.

Arguably the most surprising upset of the semis came at 125 pounds with Lehigh’s Darian Cruz stunning undefeated Hawkeye senior Thomas Gilman in sudden victory, 4-2. Cruz will take on the suffocating Ethan Lizak of Minnesota for the 125-pound title.

Heil, Retherford, Nolf, Martinez, Dean, Cox and Snyder have all advanced to the NCAA finals with undefeated season records. The grand finale of the NCAA wrestling season will take place tomorrow night at 8 p.m. (ET) live on ESPN.

Session five of the NCAA Division I Championships will begin at 10 a.m. (ET) on Saturday with the consolation semifinals followed by placement matches. The action will be televised live on ESPNU and streamed online on ESPN3. 

Complete brackets and match-by-match results for this event can be found on

March 16-18 at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Mo.

Team Standings
1. Penn State 121
2. Ohio State 89.5
3. Oklahoma State 86
4. Missouri 81.5
5. Iowa 74
6. Minnesota 60
7. Cornell 57.5
8. Virginia Tech 53.5
9. Nebraska 50
10. Illinois 41.5

Final Matchups

125 lbs. – No. 4 Darian Cruz (Lehigh) vs. No. 6 Ethan Lizak (Minnesota)
133 lbs. – No. 4 Cory Clark (Iowa) vs. No. 2 Seth Gross (South Dakota State)
141 lbs. – No. 1 Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) vs. No. 6 George DiCamillo (Virginia)
149 lbs. – No. 1 Zain Retherford (Penn State) vs. No. 3 Lavion Mayes (Missouri)
157 lbs. – No. 1 Jason Nolf (Penn State) vs. No. 3 Joey LaVallee (Missouri)
165 lbs. – No. 1 Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) vs. No. 3 Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State)
174 lbs. – No. 5 Mark Hall (Penn State) vs. No. 3 Bo Jordan (Ohio State)
184 lbs. – No. 1 Gabe Dean (Cornell) vs. No. 2 Bo Nickal (Penn State)
197 lbs. – No. 1 J’den Cox (Missouri) vs. No. 2 Brett Pfarr (Minnesota)
285 lbs. – No. 1 Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) vs. No. 2 Connor Medbery (Wisconsin)

Semifinal Results
125 pounds
No. 4 Darian Cruz (Lehigh) dec. No. 1 Thomas Gilman (Iowa), 4-2 SV1
No. 6 Ethan Lizak (Minnesota) dec. No. 10 Jack Mueller (Virginia), 7-0

133 pounds
No. 4 Cory Clark (Iowa) dec. No. 1 Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State), 7-4
No. 2 Seth Gross (South Dakota State) maj. dec. No. 3 Kaid Brock (Oklahoma State), 12-3

141 pounds
No. 1 Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) dec. No. 5 Anthony Ashnault (Rutgers), 4-2
No. 6 George DiCamillo (Virginia) dec. No. 10 Bryce Meredith (Wyoming), 10-7

149 pounds
No. 1 Zain Retherford (Penn State) fall No. 5 Brandon Sorensen (Iowa), 2:36
No. 3 Lavion Mayes (Missouri) dec. No. 7 Max Thomsen (Northern Iowa), 4-2

157 pounds
No. 1 Jason Nolf (Penn State) maj. dec. No. 4 Tyler Berger (Nebraska), 13-5
No. 3 Joey LaVallee (Missouri) dec. No. 7 Dylan Palacio (Cornell), 8-5

165 pounds
No. 1 Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) dec. No. 4 Isaac Jordan (Wisconsin), 2-1
No. 3 Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) dec. No. 2 Logan Massa (Michigan), 5-4

174 pounds
No. 5 Mark Hall (Penn State) dec. No. 1 Zahid Valencia (Arizona State), 4-3
No. 3 Bo Jordan (Ohio State) dec. No. 2 Brian Realbuto (Cornell), 11-7

184 pounds
No. 1 Gabe Dean (Cornell) dec. No. 4 Nolan Boyd (Oklahoma State), 9-3
No. 2 Bo Nickal (Penn State) fall No. 3 Sammy Brooks (Iowa), 1:01

197 pounds
No. 1 J’den Cox (Missouri) dec. No. 4 Jared Haught (Virginia Tech), 6-2
No. 2 Brett Pfarr (Minnesota) dec. No. 3 Kollin Moore (Ohio State), 13-9

285 pounds

No. 1 Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) maj. dec. No. 4 Jacob Kasper (Duke), 19-6
No. 2 Connor Medbery (Wisconsin) dec. No. 3 Ty Walz (Virginia Tech), 4-3