USA Wrestling Penn State's Nick Le...

Penn State's Nick Lee defines consistency, a true leader on a national champion team

By Andy Elder, Special to TheMat.com | March 05, 2020, 9:37 a.m. (ET)

Nick Lee action image by Mark Selders, Penn State Athletics

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists three different definitions of consistency. In part, they read: harmony of conduct or practice; degree of firmness; firmness of constitution or character.

Whichever one you choose, it can be applied to Penn State 141-pounder Nick Lee.

The junior from Evansville, Indiana, enters the 2020 Big Ten Wrestling Championships this weekend at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, New Jersey, as not only the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament, but ranked No. 1 in the country.

His consistency of effort, attitude and performance has elevated him to a place among the nation’s elite. It has also established him as a leader in Penn State’s Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, a place where there’s no shortage of NCAA, World and Olympic champions.

“Nick Lee’s a great leader,” Penn State Coach Cael Sanderson said. “He’s very consistent and he’ll work really hard. He’s got a great perspective. He’s a guy who gets right back up. He’s just one of those guys that it’s very rare that you don’t see him with a smile on his face. That’s great leadership for us. It helps us a lot.”

At 18-0, with 15 of those wins earning bonus points, he is among a handful of contenders for the Hodge Trophy. And Lee looks poised to improve on his consecutive third-place finishes at the Big Ten Tournament, as well as his back-to-back fifth-place finishes in the NCAA Championships.

Despite his marked improvement over his first two seasons, Lee wasn’t even ranked No. 1 at his weight until mid-February. But against then-No. 1 Luke Pletcher of Ohio State, Lee dominated, 8-4, to claim the top spot.

In one of the more anticipated individual matchups of the season, Pletcher struck first with a takedown 30 seconds into the match. After that it was all Lee.

“We knew 141 was a war,” Ohio State coach Tom Ryan said. “Lee is really good. It was a 1-2 matchup. We struck first and he just kept coming. You’ve got to be ready to fight the whole time.”

Lee’s performance was so thorough it inspired some of his older, more accomplished teammates and jolted them from their usual pre-match routines.

“My first thought was if Nick Lee got taken down and he still whooped his guy I can do the same thing,” top-ranked 165-pounder Vincenzo Joseph said. “I was not very even keel. I was kind of jumping up and down and running around a lot. I got a little excited.”

Second-ranked Mark Hall, whose demeanor rarely changes, admitted to getting caught up in the excitement.

“A really good match like that, the anticipation is huge and it'd be near impossible for us not to be jumping around,” he said. “Yeah, it was cool to see. We're excited for him.”

Sanderson has directly attributed Lee’s year-to-year improvement to his consistency.

“The consistency and just being your best all the time is a great tool because then we know what we can work on. We're not going back trying to figure out how do we just get this kid to just give his best effort,” he said.

“We can actually work on a way to finish a single leg if we need to, because the effort’s great. Having a great effort consistently is definitely the best long-term solution to improvement. It's just drip by drip. It’s a small and steady approach that works.”

Lee confirmed Sanderson’s observation and said that as far as he’s come, he still has a long way to go to reach his world and Olympic goals.

“The goal is to get better and better each year. I think I've definitely improved in some areas. I need to improve in other areas,” he said. “The freestyle circuit and college is a little bit different, and how guys compete, but you know at the end of the day it's all the same. You’re just trying to improve your basics every day. So, I think I’ve improved, but I hope to keep improving.”

Lee’s improvement at freestyle was evident in his third-place finish at the senior nationals in December. He posted a 5-1 record and placed third. He had 10-0 wins over Ethan Lizak, Joey Lazor and Frank Molinaro, as well as a 10-6 win over Jaydin Eierman. His loss came to Jordan Oliver, 10-0, in the semifinals. He won by injury default over Yianni Diakomihalis in the third-place bout.

The example Lee provides gives some of his younger, less experienced teammates someone to model.

“Nick always wrestles his hardest and he's always ready to go every weekend,” 157-pounder Bo Pipher said. “He's always consistent, he's always someone who's gonna give his best effort, no matter how he feels no matter what the situation is. So, he’s definitely someone that I look up to.”

Jarod Verkleeren, the Nittany Lions’ 149-pounder, works out with Lee and went so far as to make a postseason prediction about his teammate.

“I wrestle with him every now and then. He's a beast,” he said. “He's gonna win nationals this year. And there's a lot to learn from him. His pace is solid wrestling … it's good, it's good.”

Freshman Joe Lee, Nick’s younger brother, has followed Nick from Evansville to Happy Valley. Like Nick before him, Joe chose to forego his final year of high school to move to State College, complete high school online and wrestle what would have been his senior year with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.

“Nick kind of gave that path to me. After seeing the results he has had like last year and the year before, I knew it was a good decision. He helps me a lot on the wrestling mat and if I ever have a question about anything I just go to Nick. He always has a good answer for me,” Joe said.

“He’s kind of like a father figure to all the freshmen. He seems like he knows it all and he’s smart and he does the right things. He’s an expert on nutrition and eating. He’s the cook of the house but even when he’s not there, I call him and say ‘what should I eat tonight? I have a tournament in three days…what should I eat?’ And he’ll be like ‘oh, eat this, this and this and on tournament day eat this. Do this at practice today.’ He knows what the coaches do and he kind of passes that down to me. He has good insight.”

This week, Nick’s focus turns to himself and the Big Ten tournament, which naturally excites him.

“The Big Ten tournament, in my mind, is probably the toughest tournament in the country, and maybe some weight classes might even be tougher than nationals, depending on where you are,” Lee said.

“Just being ready for every match, that's the exciting part, too, though. You're not going to have any matches that you can overlook. You’ve got to be ready for every single one. So, I think that's kind of the exciting part for me is I really get to show my strength and try to be my best for every match, so that's the exciting part.”