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By Brandon Pelter, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - After a second place finish at the Big Ten Tournament, Penn State wrestling shifts its focus to the event the Nittany Lions have been training for the entire season, the NCAA Championships.
Despite the Big Ten Championships finish, if there's anything the Nittany Lions can take from the experience, it's a clearer picture of what the ultimate goal is.
"I think any time you lose that should clarify a lot of things and kind of help you really focus in on what it is that you want," Sanderson said. "So hopefully that helps, I don't see it hurting us. Losing is never fun, but I think our guys are clear on what they want to do, they want to win the national championship."
The quest for a seventh NCAA championship in the last eight years begins Thursday morning in Cleveland, as the nine qualifying Nittany Lions take on the nation's best.
For some, it's easy to get lost in the brackets and seedings, dreaming up different potential scenarios, but for Penn State, the focus is one match at a time.
"We just look at the path that our kids have and make sure they're ready for that path," Sanderson said. "But we're not too worried about the rest of the tournament and what's going on. It's just wasted energy. We just make sure our guys are ready for what's in front of them.
"I think Zain will always be remembered as one of the great college wrestlers, certainly one of the best Penn State wrestlers for sure," Sanderson said. "He can only add to that this weekend, so he has the chance to go compete for another national championship, a third national title, which is pretty darn special."
Since recruiting Retherford in high school, Sanderson could tell there was something special about the soon-to-be Nittany Lion.
"He always had just that look in his eye that he was different, he was unique," Sanderson said. "He's just a competitor and he believes in himself. I think he has really high standards in all aspects of his life. Academically, he is on the Dean's List each semester and it's easy to let that slide a little bit when you're having the success that he's been having and as busy as he is."
As Sanderson and his staff continued on through the recruiting process, they knew Retherford was special, but it's of course never easy to predict what elite level of success Retherford has reached in his time at Penn State.
"I just think he has always been unique, whether we thought he would be this good or not we were hopeful," Sanderson said. "But to say that a kid would be competing with the potential of winning a third national title as a senior and a four-time All-American and everything else that he has accomplished, that's tough to predict right there."
For Retherford, this weekend isn't about looking back on personal accolades, rather all about doing whatever it takes to take home the team title.
"I think our focus is on how each individual can give their best performance for the team," Retherford said. "That's what I'm thinking about, what can I be doing to give the team the best shot, and that's wrestling the best that I can and scoring points. If I make mistakes that's a good thing I just have to come back from those. Last year I got taken down in the finals, but just the whole time I'm thinking keep scoring points until the last second."
Penn State will be boosted by another returning NCAA national champion in junior Jason Nolf, who took to the mat at the Big Ten Championships for the first time since late January.
After notching a win by fall and major decision, Nolf medically forfeited out of the tournament, but Sanderson is confident the two-time All-American is ready for the NCAA Championships.
"I think we saw the longer he wrestled the more confident he got," Sanderson said. "I thought his speed was great and his shots looked really good and that's what we want him to discover."
Outside of two of five returning NCAA Champions, it will take a complete group effort to win the team title this year.
Among the group of Nittany Lions making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Penn State will rely on Shakur Rasheed at 197 pounds. After finishing second at the Big Ten Championships, Rasheed wasn't exactly pleased with his performance, but has since looked to make a simple adjustment.
"I was very tense and I kind of fell into all the stuff that people were saying like 'I'm the bonus point guy' and things like that," Rasheed said. "I focused on that too much and I realized I need to have fun. I took the tournament way too seriously and then I realized just have fun so I kind of relaxed Sunday because I was thinking just go out there, dance around and have fun and that helped out a lot."
Keeping what most would consider a pressure situation light, is signature to how the Nittany Lions approach not only the postseason, but every match.
I remember my true freshman year I was nervous before my first match and Ed Ruth just told me a joke before I got out on the mat and it calmed me down a lot," Retherford said. "I think jokes are always good and keeping it light this time of year is a good thing."
Session one of six in the three-day NCAA Championships kicks off Thursday, March 15 at noon in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena.
Penn State's Nick Nevills joins his younger brother AJ Nevills (Fresno State) in the heavy weight field. Nick, who earned a No. 3 seed is no stranger to having one of his brother's competing at the NCAA Championships.
"It's cool that he's there, I remember last year I was standing in the tunnel before my oldest brother got to go out and wrestle and now I'll probably get to do the same thing with AJ," Nick said. "It's just cool, my parents are really happy for him, I know he's excited and happy for the opportunity to go out and wrestle and I'm wishing him all the best."