EAST LANSING, Mich. - Penn State wrestling highlighted a productive 2018 Big Ten Championships with three individual champions and a total of nine NCAA qualifiers.
Although the Nittany Lions fell short to Ohio State in the team race, there's still plenty of time for adjustments to be made with a little less than two weeks until the NCAA Championships in Cleveland, Ohio.
"I think the guys wrestled well," Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson said. "These are matches they've got to win if they want to be national champions in a week and a half. We just have to make a few adjustments. I think Ohio State just wrestled really well. They won the tournament."
Senior Zain Retherford earned Penn State's first individual crown, once again defeating Iowa's Brandon Sorensen in a close 2-0 decision helped out by 1:36 seconds of riding time.
"Zain got us started in the finals," Sanderson said. "Nick Lee won the match before and he got bonus points too. Sorensen is a tough kid. They have wrestled a lot. It was a low scoring match But Zain did what he needed to do out there and I'm happy for him."
With the score locked at 0-0 at the end of the first period, Sorensen chose down to start the second, something Retherford remembered from his earlier regular season meeting against the Hawkeye.
"He's hard to hold down," Retherford said. "I'm usually looking to turn there and he's countering a lot of things, doing a lot of little things. He's good on bottom."
Retherford opted to select bottom to start the third period, where his escape secured his third Big Ten Championship. The win also marked the 89th consecutive victory for Retherford, who broke a record held by a former Nittany Lion already in the building, Maryland's head coach Kerry McCoy.
Sophomore Mark Hall's title bout was equally as close, as the Nittany Lion earned his first Big Ten Championship.
"It feels pretty good, finally," Hall said with a wide smile. "It only took me two years."
Hall was trailing 2-1 with 1:45 left in the third period after Michigan's Myles Amine's reversal. He wouldn't be down for long as Hall escaped to lock up the score, 2-2, before capitalizing on a speedy take down to pull away for good.
"You could tell when he was looking to go score and when he wanted to go score, he went and scored," Sanderson said. "It's another one of those weights in the Big Ten where a lot of the top guys in the country are here so I thought Mark's wrestling really well."
For Hall, it all came down to staying focused long enough to finish.
"He's a little funkier, but I'm funky myself so just keep putting him in positions where I can get him uncomfortable," Hall said. "Finishing my shot was really important. Making him work for his. You don't see it but that takes energy. Making him work for his stuff, keeping my head on straight."
Nittany Lion fans would hardly get a moment to breath as junior Bo Nickal and Ohio State's Myles Martin were tied up, 2-2, until the halfway point of the second period. With more than a minute in riding time already secured, Nickal built up his advantage, earning a 7-4 win for his second title.
Although surrendering a take down to Martin, Nickal is ready to move on, closing out the Big Ten Championships at 3-0 win one pin.
"I was just a little disappointed in that last period," Nickal said. "Other than that I feel like I wrestled solid in the whole tournament. I guess I try to be hard on myself, be critical so that way I can improve. Overall I feel like I wrestled pretty well. I just have to go get on my offense a little more and that's what I'm going to be working on until nationals."
Earlier in the afternoon, Penn State saw its possible chances of capturing the team title boosted early, as senior transfer Corey Keener captured a dominant 11-3 major against Purdue's No. 21 Ben Thornton to punch his ticket to the NCAA Championships as Penn State's ninth qualifier.
"I thought Corey wrestled really well," Sanderson said. "This morning, that was a big match for us. It was one of those - and he got bonus points too, which was huge. If there was any chance we could come back we were going to need a bunch of bonus points. He got us rolling with that. I'm really happy more than anything, just that he wrestled really well because we wanted the last match of the Big Ten Tournament to go well going into the nationals."
Ask any Nittany Lion though, and while grateful for an opportunity to compete at the Big Ten Championships, it's back to work, with the focus now firmly on the season finale. The finale of course is the NCAA Championships, which kick of March 15th.