CLEVELAND - There's Penn State wrestling and bonus points and then there's Penn State wrestling and poise under pressure.
Questions about the team race were often among the first asked to each advancing Nittany Lion, as media members peppered in small corner huddles in the underbelly of the Q. With only the slightest of variation, Penn State answered those questions the same way each time.
"I think when you start thinking about the score too much or things that are outside of your control, you start competing worse," top-seeded Zain Retherford said. "We're just focused on what we can do for the team. Each guy, the best that they can do for the team at the moment is what they can do out on the mat for seven minutes. So that's what we're focused on, not really what's going on around us."
It's that exact mindset that sent the Nittany Lions rolling past Ohio State in the team standings, shrinking a 13.5 point deficit ahead of Friday night's semifinals that saw Penn State emerge with an 11-point lead at the end of session four.
NCAA Championships Team
Standings after Session IV (Finals Participants)
1. - Penn State - 120.5 (5)
2. - Ohio State - 109.5 (2)
3. - Iowa - 86.5 (1)
4. - Michigan - 73.5 (2)
5. - NC State - 68.5 (2)
All five semifinalists did just what they needed to do, earning their spots in Saturday's NCAA national finals in what could be a repeat of last year's thrilling finale.
Meeting fourth-seeded Troy Heilmann from North Carolina, Retherford took just a moment pre-match to soak it all in before recording a 10-4 win to advance to the finals.
"I think before that match I was kind of pacing out there in the center," Retherford said. "I was just thinking, this is my second-to-last folk style match I'll ever get to wrestle in a Penn State singlet."
Third-seeded Jason Nolf then followed with a dominant 16-0 tech fall at the 4:28 mark against Ohio State's No. 7 seed Micah Jordan. Much like Nolf though, there's no reason exhale just yet.
"This is where we want to peak, it's the most important tournament of the year so just feeling good and ready to go," Nolf said. "It doesn't really feel like anything yet. You have to win in the finals."
After No. 3 seed Vincenzo Joseph knocked off Virginia Tech's No. 2 seed David McFadden, the Nittany Lion of course knew it meant another meeting with Illinois' top-seeded Isaiah Martinez in the finals.
"Whenever me and Isaiah wrestle, it's usually pretty exciting match, pretty offensive," Joseph said. "We're both looking forward to it. We know it's going to be a good one, and we're just ready to put on a show."
Penn State wasn't finished, closing out its semifinal showdown with a pair of exciting wins from No. 2 seed Mark Hall and top-seeded Bo Nickal.
Meeting Missouri's third-seeded Daniel Lewis, Hall found himself in an unfamiliar position he doesn't typically get into in the room, after Lewis went in on single leg.
"I'll be honest, I thought he was going to break my leg that first shot," Hall said. "He had a very tight hold on my ankle, and that's how you're supposed to do it. He did everything right. I'm not saying he's a dirty wrestler, he's not."
Throwing his leg over the top to relieve the pressure, Lewis missed, but Hall knew just what he had to do to close it out.
"It's funny before the match, coach Casey, we were talking and he was like, he's going to try and hit that single leg and put his leg over top." Hall said. "And I was like dang I can pin him from there, and it's just crazy that's how it happened, but it's something I had in the back of my head and I was ready to do."
Perhaps more unlikely than what Nittany Lion fans are used to seeing from Nickal, he defeated Michigan's No. 5 seed Domenic Abounader in a surgical 6-3 victory with 1:41 in riding time. Regardless of the final score, simply having his arm raised at the end of the match was of course, most important.
"I think that the second match I wrestled - I wouldn't say tentatively, because I was pretty aggressive, but just more methodical than I normally do," Nickal said. "I got a couple takedowns and was looking for my openings, and he kind of just stayed solid."
For Nickal, the methodical approach was good experience, but not something he anticipates happening again.
"Just to be able to control the tempo and stuff, but it's not really as fun or exciting for me so I don't think we'll be seeing too much of that anymore," Nickal said.
The Nittany Lions have eight All-Americans set for Saturday action with eighth-seeded Nick Lee opening the day in the consolation semis and No. 5 Shakur Rasheed and No. 3 Nick Nevills both wrestling for seventh.
Session five begins at 11 a.m. inside Quicken Loans Arena before the NCAA Championship finals kick off a 8 p.m. on ESPN.
Up Next in Session V
141: #8 seed Nick Lee,
Fr. - Consolation Semi.
vs. #2Jaydin Eierman, Missouri
149: #1 seed Zain
Retherford, Sr. - Finals
vs. #15 Ronnie Perry, Lock Haven
157: #3 seed Jason
Nolf, Jr. - Finals
vs. #1 Hayden Hidlay, North Carolina State
165: #3 seed Vincenzo
Joseph, So. - Finals
vs. #1 Isaiah Martinez, Illinois
174: #2 seed Mark
Hall, So. - S Finals
vs. #1 Zahid Valencia, Arizona State
184: #1 seed Bo
Nickal, Jr. - Finals
vs. #2 Myles Martin, Ohio State
197: #5 seed Shakur
Rasheed, Jr. - Seventh Place
vs. #Willie Miklus, Missouri
285: #3 seed Nick
Nevills, Jr. - Seventh Place
vs. #12 Youssif Hemida, Maryland
CLEVELAND - Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson noted last night that today's opening session would prove critical in the team standings. Headed into the evening, the Nittany Lions are still in the thick of the NCAA Championships team race, with five advancing to tonight's semifinal round.
Penn State will also have three additional Nittany Lions in consolations, with eight of an original nine qualifiers still in action headed into session four action, which begins at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
NCAA Championships Team
Standings after Session III (Semifinals Participants)
1. - Ohio State - 80.5 (6)
2. - Penn State - 67 (5)
3. - Michigan - 59.5 (5)
4. - Iowa - 53.5 (2)
5. - NC State - 43 (3)
Top-seeded Zain Retherford was the first Nittany Lion to earn a spot in the NCAA semifinals, powering past Oklahoma State's No. 8 seed Boo Lewallen. Picking up a quick take down, Retherford surged to a 20-2 tech fall at the 5-minute mark.
With two tech falls and a pin across two days, Retherford is only growing more comfortable with each passing session, now Penn State's 10th four-time All-American.
"The bow and arrow last night was the first time I hit it in a while and I hit it a few times that match so it's awesome finally getting some top offense going, definitely a confidence builder," Retherford said.
Third-seeded Jason Nolf followed Retherford into the semifinals for his third consecutive All-America honor, defeating Iowa's sixth-seeded Michael Kemerer in a 6-2 decision.
Among a tight race in the team standings, Retherford noted the mood was actually just the opposite of tense headed into the important day.
"I know coach Cael was keeping it pretty light this morning," Retherford said. "I know our coaches were trying to make us laugh a little bit so it's good, especially when you walk around here and you see a lot of faces that are staring at you, so it's good to smile at these tournaments. Even though we want to win, this is fun, this is the NCAA Championships."
Penn State's No. 3 seed Vincenzo Joseph also has reason to smile, defeating Nebraska's No. 11 seed Isaiah White in sudden victory. It was a matchup he didn't think would happen this year against an opponent he knows all too well.
"I wrestled him twice in high school actually and he beat me both times," Joseph said. "I was kind of really looking forward to that match. I didn't really think it was going to happen this year but it did and I'm grateful for that. It's not like a vendetta type of thing, I'm just trying to see where I've grown as a wrestler because in high school he whooped my butt at Fargo and then he beat me at Ironman, it was an overtime match but it wasn't really that close I was just backing up the whole time."
With the score tied at 1-1, both Joseph and White exchanged escapes in the tie-breaker. As quickly as the sudden victory period began, a Joseph takedown ended it, as he earns his second consecutive All-America honor.
"I knew he was going to keep shooting," Joseph said. "He felt like he could get me on that but I knew he wouldn't so just letting him shoot, getting to my re-attacks and I knew I would score eventually."
No. 2 seed Mark Hall and top-seeded Bo Nickal also followed with a pair of decisions to earn All-America honors and move on to the semifinals.
Wrapping up consolation action for the Nittany Lions was eighth-seeded freshman Nick lee, who posted a 5-0 decision against Central Michigan's No. 10 seed Mason Smith before a 13-5 major decision against Indiana's No. 16 Cole Weaver.
"I feel good, doing it for myself, my teammates and my coaches," Lee said.
Earning some key bonus points for his team for the first time in NCAA Championships action, it was all business as usual for the Nittany Lion.
"That's what we want to do, open up offense, that's what we came here for and it's more fun too," Lee said.
Penn State gets underway in yet another critical session later this evening in Quicken Loans Arena.
in Session IV
141: #8 seed Nick Lee, Fr. - Round 12
vs. #12 Tyler Smith, Bucknell
149: #1 seed Zain
Retherford, Sr. - Semifinals
vs. #4 Troy Heilmann, North Carolina
157: #3 seed Jason
Nolf, Jr. - Semifinals
vs. #7 Micah Jordan, Ohio State
165: #3 seed Vincenzo
Joseph, So. - Semifinals
vs. #2 David McFadden, Virginia Tech
174: #2 seed Mark Hall,
So. - Semifinals
vs. #3 Daniel Lewis, Missouri
184: #1 seed Bo Nickal,
Jr. - Semifinals
vs. #5 Domenic Abounader, Michigan
197: #5 seed Shakur
Rasheed, Jr. - Round 12
vs. #7 Frank Mattiace, Penn
285: #3 seed Nick
Nevills, Jr. - Round 12
vs. Jere Heino, Campbell
By Andy Kuros, GoPSUsports.com Student
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Coming off a stretch of 18 games over the course of four tournaments to start out the year, Penn State will finally get the opportunity to suit up on its home field over the weekend. The Blue and White will most certainly be looking forward to returning home and playing at Nittany Lion Softball Park and Beard Field for the first time this season.
"It's amazing. I think it's what we need," head coach Amanda Lehotak said. "Just to come home and be in front of our fans, our people, our field and what we're familiar with. It's exactly what we need to get the ball rolling here in a real positive way."
Last weekend, Penn State played five hard-fought games in the Houston Tournament, which concluded the team's five-week out-of-state tournament schedule. With the student-athletes of the softball team yelling "We're home!" upon stepping off the bus at 4 a.m. Monday morning in Happy Valley, Lehotak could tell there was an increased sense of energy throughout the team.
"You just get excited," Lehotak added. "We're entering phase two of our season and we finally get to play here at Beard Field. It's a renewing experience. It's nice to be in our facility and be the one everyone is cheering for."
Although the reinvigorated Nittany Lions will hope to use this positivity and energy to improve their play on the field, being at home also means competing in the frigid and unpredictable Pennsylvania weather, something that creates the need to make adjustments after lacing up the spikes in mostly warm climates all winter.
"Now that we're home, we're going to start playing in some really cold weather. Practice almost becomes maintenance," Lehotak said. "It's about how their bodies are feeling and what they need. We'll do even more hitting and watch a lot more film. It will be about trying to keep the healthy kids healthy if we can."
Lehotak also talked about some of the challenges that come with having to practice and play games in the cold weather.
Rain, snow, or shine, however, the Nittany Lions are ready and eager to play.
"Especially with a young team, we need to play. I think right now, if I had to pick between practice or playing, I want to play. We need experience, we need situational work."
"Everyone wants to win so it's frustrating. But it (playing hard) is the only way to get where we want to go," Lehotak continued. "I mean, their hearts are on their sleeves. I've never seen a teem with so much heart."
The Nittany Lions will host the Kent State Golden Eagles to kick off their home slate this weekend. The three-game series will begin with a doubleheader on Saturday at 1 p.m.
By Maria Evangelou, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With its final meet of the regular season this weekend, the Penn State women's gymnastics team is seeing its hard work pay off in preparation for Big Fives.
"The quad meets we've been competing in the past few meets have symbolized the energy that we're going to have," head coach Sarah Brown said. "Being on the floor with four teams has a whole different vibe to it, and I can even speak back to the double duals as a way to help prepare us for post-season going into the Big Fives and Big Tens."
In addition to three consecutive season-best scores, Brown has spent the past year really getting to know her team and watching them progress into the cohesive squad they are becoming.
"I think at the beginning of the year we were still trying to figure out all of the athletes, and each week we were doing something different and we were making progress, but it still hadn't come together yet," Brown said. "Multiple times I've said 'this was our most complete meet, but I know we have more in us' and then I say it again. It's been great to watch them grow."
The key to Brown is observing the gymnasts and seeing what needs work and where their heads are at.
"We check in with where our energy level is after each event, whether it's good or bad, and then channeling the energy that we need moving to the next event, because one doesn't depend upon the other," Brown said. "I think for some of the athletes that's helped them to break it down a little bit, and makes the meet feel not so big or overwhelming, but helped them realize that in this moment, 'this is the energy I need.' Once we started zoning in on that, I think right around the GW meet is when things started to take off for us."
Penn State's meet against George Washington on February 24 marked the team's second meet of the season tallying a score of above 196.000-or-higher. The meet also consisted of individual season highs for Nittany Lion gymnasts on vault, floor, and all-around.
"I think we've always known our potential, but it's cool to see that every single week we've gotten a little bit better," junior Gianna LaGuardia said. "It's definitely building our confidence, so we can go into Big Fives feeling pretty confident."
Against Ohio State on February 9, LaGuardia finished third on vault with a season-high 9.875 after taking some time off from competing to nurse a foot injury.
"I think confidence has a huge thing to do with it," LaGuardia said. "It means a lot to do really well in one meet, and when I came back from an injury, it wasn't even muscle memory, it was just believing that you have it. At this point in the season, you just have to know that you have it in you. The whole team's confidence is so helpful."
"Gigi really hit her stride," Brown said. "She had an ankle injury and was out for a couple of meets on vault and we were only able to put up five. Having her back has brought so much confidence to the lineup, just knowing that she's a great vaulter and taking the pressure off of the five lineup. She loves competing for this team and she's doing an amazing job right now. She's giving everything I could've asked for."
Another factor in composure in competition and a confidence boost, a few switch-ups of rotations and routines has helped keep the gymnasts on their toes and ready for various potential set-ups they may face.
"We pretty much have had every rotation possible right now except for starting on floor," LaGuardia said. "That's really nice going into Big Five and Big Tens, so we're prepared for pretty much any scenario at this point."
This weekend's Big Five Meet will consist of a bye rotation, meaning the Nittany Lions will experience an extra rotation where they won't be competing. The five rotations instead of their usual four will be a new experience for the team this season. Another change the Penn State squad has integrated into their routine is an adjustment in the beam lineup, now leading with two freshman followed by two sophomores.
"You never know what you're going to get with freshman," Brown said. "Obviously Lauren [Bridgens] and Alissa [Bonsall] had a really great start to their season, and both of them have had bumps along the way, but they're in a really good place right now. Kourtney [Chinnery] has been consistent for us on vault which is great, and I couldn't be prouder of Ava [Verdeflor] for stepping up in the beam lineup in the middle of the season. It's not often that you change the lead-off on beam, and that you put a brand new person in in the middle of the year. We are a young team, but I think the more they compete with each other, the more confident they get."
The Nittany Lions have built from a 194.275 in the season-opener to a season-best, a 196.675, against BYU last weekend.
"With every meet, we've gotten better with our scores, and a lot of that is coming from our mentality in the gym," sophomore Kristen Politz said. "Not just trusting yourself, but believing in your teammates, and that's shown in every meet. Everyone has had each other's back and we've had incredible scores individually and that's created better team scores each weekend. Ultimately, we've gotten more confident getting out there and giving it our all."
comes down to confidence for the whole team," LaGuardia agrees. "Seeing what we
do in the gym finally paying off in a meet is great. Some days you have a bad
day in the gym, and that weekend you see where it's coming from. The work in
the gym definitely shows."
Even with a couple of consecutive wins, the Nittany Lions know they are capable of reaching higher. They see their challenges ahead, and approach them with unity and confidence.
"Post-season is definitely different than
regular season, but if you try not to make it seem bigger than it is you can
stay more focused," Politz said. "But the excitement makes it that much more
powerful in the post-season, so I'm super excited to experience it for the
second time and hopefully let my nerves go a little bit more than I probably
did my freshman year now that I've had that experience."
Against BYU, Politz achieved her personal season-best on uneven bars, but isn't letting the recent accomplishment get in the way of her focus.
"If anything, we just take the confidence we've had from that meet, and we can definitely improve on floor and vault for sure," Politz said. "That momentum that we built on our bar rotation was incredible, so hopefully we can keep going up from that. Ultimately, it was a really great meet for us, and especially a meet so far away with less fans. Being back in our home area should be super exciting."
By Tom Shively,
GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The stakes were high. The stage was set. The game was hanging in the balance.
As had happened so many times this season, Penn State junior guard Teniya Page found herself with the ball in her hands late in the game with a chance to win it for the Lady Lions.
She wasn't able to complete the play, but had another chance in the closing seconds of overtime with the Lady Lions down one. She put up a contested three, which fell short, as did Penn State's bid to reach the second round of the Women's NIT.
The Lady Lions were quelled by Radford, 63-62, on a night that the Blue and White didn't play its cleanest basketball but still had chances to win late.
Despite coming up just a few inches short, the Lady Lions put themselves in position to earn a victory with a strong third quarter star, spearheaded by Alisia Smith. Smith had six quick points at the beginning of the frame and 11 on the night.
"I took a different approach coming out [after halftime]," Smith said. "In the first half, I didn't play too well but I tried to make up for it in the second half."
Smith was one of three Lady Lions in double figures on a night that no one player emerged as a dominant scorer.
Penn State turned the ball over 21 times, leading to 19 Radford points. The offense rushed itself a tad at times, leading to difficult passes and some hard catches on the offensive end.
"John Wooden had a famous saying: 'Be quick but don't hurry,'" Washington said. "I thought there were times when we hurried rather than playing at a fast pace."
The game did provide opportunity for some valuable playing time for youthful Lady Lions, including freshman Sam Breen, who had four rebounds in six valuable minutes off the bench.
"Sam is someone I think that over the course of the latter half of the season has really improved," Washington said. "Her confidence has really improved so that we're able to put her out there in moments and games like this and have those be productive minutes. Her knowledge of the game has really improved so that she can contribute in doses in games like she did today."
Breen is just one example of this young Penn State team, one with no seniors on the roster. It's games like these, in a postseason atmosphere with high stakes in a down-to-the-wire game, that allow a young team to grow.
"A lot of people who were returning didn't have a lot of experience or a lot of minutes on the floor, myself included. We know what we can do now and we look forward to building on that next year," redshirt sophomore Amari Carter said.
With the book now closed on the season, the Lady Lions can turn their attention to the offseason and 2018-19. It's only a matter of time before this team returns to championship form, and the youthfulness of this team will lead to an aggressive veteran team next year and beyond.
"When I look back at the recent history [three straight Big Ten championships from 2012-14], one thing we had in common with all those teams was senior leadership," Washington said. "One of the things this season does for us is that it gives our juniors an opportunity to understand coming into next year how hard it is to contend and how much work it takes."
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