Photo: Nick Piccininni celebrating a win at the 2017 NCAA Championships. Photo by Bruce Waterfield, OSU Athletics.
Nick Piccininni became Oklahoma State’s 34th freshman All-American last season, finishing fourth at the NCAA tournament at a strong 125-pound weight class.
This year, as one of the top-three returning placers at the weight, the New Yorker was invited to wrestle in the 52nd annual NWCA All-Star Classic in Princeton, N.J., to kick off his season. The All-Star Classic is a dual-style event with two of the best competitors in each weight class clashing head-on for bragging rights.
Piccininni’s opponent was set, 2017 NCAA champion Darian Cruz of Lehigh.
“When I got picked, I was pumped. It’s a sick opportunity,” Piccininni said. “To be the one that was picked to go to the All-Star Classic was really exciting. Getting to wrestle the No. 1 guy just made it even better. Starting the season off wrestling the highest competition possible is a good feeling, win or lose, because you can immediately see where you stack up with the best. It provided extra motivation going into the season.”
The match will go down as one of Piccininni’s biggest wins of his young career. The Cowboy trailed 2-1 after the first period as Cruz struck with the first takedown. In the second period, Cruz attempted a cradle that was stopped by Piccininni, who converted it into a reversal and added four back points. The six-point move was ultimately the deciding factor as the Cowboy had his hand raised in an 8-5 victory.
“I felt (the cradle coming). He reached over the top so I knew to look up, attack the hands and post first, and caught him on his back,” Piccininni said. “Anytime you win, it’s a good feeling. Overall, I just took it as a good learning experience for myself and finding out where I need to be. It’s the first match of the year, so I’m looking to improve as the season goes on. It’s a good stepping stone and shows me where I can get throughout the season.”
In the 2016-17 season, Piccininni put together a respectable season as a redshirt freshman, collecting 27 overall wins, with 12 of them coming in dual competition.
Additionally, he won a conference championship in the growing Big 12 Conference to punch his ticket to the NCAA Championships. There, he went 5-2, recording wins over three top-10 seeds, including No. 9 Josh Rodriguez of North Dakota State, No. 7 Sean Russell of Edinboro and No. 10 Jack Mueller of Virginia.
When it was all said and done, he was the nation’s fourth-best wrestler at 125 pounds.
“Last year’s performance gives me confidence, but not too much because you never want to go into a season thinking that you deserve something or that you’re a lock for it,” he said. “You always have to prove yourself. I don’t like to look ahead too much, but it gives me confidence knowing that I’ve been through it already and I’ve been on that mat in front of all of those people. It shows me I can compete with the best of them and that I can win on any given day. It’s encouraging.”
In order to be on the top of the podium at the end of the season, Piccininni is trusting his experiences during his freshman campaign and learning from them in every aspect, which, he said, has made a big difference in his approach to the season.
“It was a little different, going through a whole wrestling season last year,” he said. “There were some ups and downs. It was all about the experience last year and working through those things and knowing how to keep your head on straight.”
Another factor in Piccininni’s improvement is the Oklahoma State wrestling room, which is filled with skilled coaches, successful former Cowboy wrestlers and talented workout partners and teammates.
Those he works closely with as training partners include 2017 Junior World champion Daton Fix, two-time NCAA champion Dean Heil and 2017 All-American Kaid Brock. Not to mention head coach John Smith, who has led the Cowboys to five NCAA team titles and is arguably one of the best American wrestlers ever.
“I’m surrounded by great coaches and workout partners, who are going to help me,” Piccininni said. “I work out with Daton Fix quite a bit and it’s great to have him. He’s a great workout partner and a great talent in the room. There are tons of guys to look up to like Dean Heil and Chandler Rogers and other guys who have been in this position before. It’s an exciting room. If you ever come in and watch, you get to see all of us scrap, and it’s pretty entertaining. We have a lot of good guys and a lot of positive minds on the team, so it’s a great place to be.”
Waiting for him outside of the wrestling room are some lightweight monsters, with the return of Cruz and NCAA runner-up Ethan Lizak of Minnesota. Also back at 125 pounds is Nick Suriano of Rutgers, who competed for Penn State last season before getting injured late in the year. Perhaps one of the most anticipated returners at the weight is 2015 NCAA champion and senior Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State, who is back down to 125 after a season of competing at 133 pounds.
Most of the talk surrounding the 125-pound weight class doesn’t have Piccininni as a favorite to win, but that has no effect on the OkState sophomore.
“I’ll worry about wrestling those guys when I have to, whether it’s Cruz, Tomasello, Suriano or whomever,” he said. “Until then, I couldn’t care less what people say or where they project me to end up at the end of the year. NCAAs is a crazy tournament. Crazier things have happened there. Until we actually get there and wrestle, it’s all a guessing game.”
“I just have to keep working on my skill. I’m constantly striving to get better,” Piccininni said. “I want to be as dominant as possible. That’s all I want. I want as many points on the board as I can get. I just have to stay hungry.”