By Arielle Sargent, GoPSUSports.com
ST. LOUIS - As the NCAA Wrestling Championships roll along, with each session comes a greater level of intensity as the stakes continue to rise, making each point critical in the team race.
Carrying its momentum into the evening session, top-ranked Penn State claimed wins in five consecutive semifinal matches, using a dominant showing to clinch an even tighter grip on the total team standings.
Dazzling the 18,344 fans packed inside the Scottrade Center Friday night, Penn State continued to dial up the bonus points advancing a total of five Nittany Lions to the finals for the the fourth time in the last six years (2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017).
Three-time All-American Zain Retherford (149) opened the streak pinning Iowa's No. 5 Brandon Sorensen.
"I felt like I had a secure lock and I had his chin," Retherford said. "There is a position where you're either getting back points or lacking for the fall, and I adjusted and as soon as I adjusted I felt -- I heard the ref say, 30 seconds, and I was like I think I have enough time to do it."
Having already beaten Sorensen on the road at Iowa in the regular season, the two also met in the 2016 NCAA finals, both matches that Retherford re-watched in the hotel before heading into tonight's semifinal matchup.
"I felt way too emotionally drained during the season when we first wrestled," Retherford said. "Last year in the finals I wrestled free, like I like to wrestle and I think I had more fun that way."
Next up, two-time All-American Jason Nolf (157) took down Nebraska's No. 4 Tyler Berger, using a strong third period to capture a 15-3 major decision. All-American Vincenzo Joseph (165) followed with a close 5-4 win off of a late takedown against Michigan's No. 2 Logan Massa.
Penn State's momentum only continued to surge as true freshman All-American Mark Hall (174) rallied late to upset Arizona State's previously undefeated No. 1 Zahid Valencia. Tied at 1-1, Valencia looked to move ahead and capitalize on a takedown as Hall's headgear slipped down his face. With the challenge wiping away the takedown, Hall was awarded the penalty point. A stall point and an escape pulled Valencia closer before Hall finished off the thrilling 4-3 decision with a late takedown.
The Nittany Lions wrapped up a truly dominant showing in the semifinals with two-time All-American Bo Nickal (184), who pinned Iowa's No. 3 Sammy Brooks at the 1:01 mark for his third fall of the weekend.
There's no doubt that bonus points have been the key factor separating the Nittany Lions from the rest of the team contenders all weekend long.
"It's definitely something that we stress to the team, just going out there and using all seven minutes that we have and just score as many points as you possibly can," Nickal said. "So that's something that we try to do and that our coaches definitely let us know how important that is. It really makes a difference in the team race."
For Nickal though, that's simply who the Nittany Lions are as individuals, and led by head coach Cael Sanderson, Penn State's all-out approach to every single opponent is focused on rising to the occasion, leaving everything on the mat at any given time.
"All we have to do is wrestle seven minutes," Hall said. "We don't dictate what the ref says. We don't dictate the things going on around us. The only thing we can control is how we're going to compete, and at the end of the day, that's what got us five in the finals."
For Penn State, the result has been big time bonus points, with 28.0 in NCAA Tournament action alone, including four majors, eight techs and six pins.
As individual as it seems though, the Nittany Lions are just as committed to each other as a team, keeping things light, loose and ultimately just having fun.
"I think there are a lot of ways to describe fun, but we enjoy what we're doing," Sanderson said. "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."
In addition to Penn State's five Nittany Lions competing in the finals Saturday night, Nick Nevills will continue in the consolation semifinals, which begins Saturday at 11 a.m. ET on ESPNU. Saturday evening's finals will begin at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
NCAA Championships Standings - (Finalists/Consolation
1 - PENN STATE - 121.0 (5/1)
2. - Ohio State - 89.5 (2/4)
3. - Oklahoma State - 86.0 (1/6)
4. - Missouri - 81.5 (3/2)
5. - Iowa - 74.0 (1/4)
149: #1 Zain Retherford, Jr. - Finals Round (All-American)
Retherford vs. #3 Lavion Mayes, Missouri
Jason Nolf, So. - Finals Round (All-American)
Nolf vs. #3 Joey Lavallee, Missouri
Vincenzo Joseph, Fr. - Finals Round (All-American)
Joseph vs. #1 Isaiah Martinez, Illinois
Mark Hall, Fr. - Finals Round (All-American)
Hall vs. #3 Bo Jordan, Ohio State
184: #2 Bo
Nickal, So. - Finals Round (All-American)
Nickal vs. #1 Gabe Dean, Cornell
285: #5 Nick Nevills, So. - Fifth round consolation