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By Arielle Sargent, GoPSUSports.com
ST. LOUIS - It was a perfect night for Penn State wrestling in nearly every sense of the term perfection, as the Nittany Lions powered to a jaw-dropping 5-0 mark in the 2017 NCAA Championship Finals, only adding on to a previously clinched seventh NCAA title in program history.
With NCAA crowns in six of the last seven seasons including the last two in a row, Penn State brought the 19,657 fans at the Scottrade Center to the edge of their seats and on to their feet in an emotional outing that saw five Nittany Lion finalists earn NCAA championship titles.
Penn State's five NCAA national champions marks just the third time that a DI team has seen five individuals earn NCAA titles, and the first since Oklahoma State did so in 2005.
Having already secured the team title in the earlier session Saturday afternoon, Penn State bolstered its score to a Nittany Lion record-setting 146.5 points, finishing well ahead of second-place Ohio State (110) and third-place Oklahoma State (103).
Among the Nittany Lion national champions, All-Americans Bo Nickal (184), Jason Nolf (157) and Zain Retherford (149) combined for a total of 82.5 points, which would have placed the trio sixth overall in the final team standings.
Penn State also made history with All-Americans, true freshman Mark Hall (174) and redshirt freshman Vincenzo Joseph (165) earning their first titles to become the first freshmen NCAA champions in program history.
Top-seeded Retherford opened Penn State's stunning streak with an 18-2 technical fall at the 6:42 mark against Missouri's No. 3 Lavion Mayes. Unphased by an early Mayes takedown, Retherford built a 6-2 lead with more than two minutes of riding time by the end of the second period before breaking open the scoring in the third period to earn his second consecutive NCAA title as well as both 2017 NCAA Championships Most Outstanding Wrestler and Most Dominant Wrestler honors.
Fellow No. 1 seed Nolf followed with a 14-6 major decision against Missouri's No. 3 Joey Lavallee, using a tricky late takedown to take control of a 6-1 lead heading into the third period. There was no stopping Nolf in the final frame though, as he rolled to his first career NCAA title.
It was third-seeded Joseph (165) who then set deciding tone for the Nittany Lions, pinning Illinois' top-seeded two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez in a matchup that will likely be imprinted in the minds of the Nittany Lion faithful long after tonight. Heading into the third period with 1:05 in riding time and tied at 5-5, Joseph proved calm under pressure, confidently turning Martinez for the fall at 5:25 to send Nittany Lions at the Scottrade Center into a frenzy.
"I was confident going in," Joseph said. "Even after I gave up that first takedown I was, like, they went to review it. I went back, talked to my coaches. First thing I said to them was: I'm scoring soon. I could feel it starting to open up, and I knew I was going to get to my attack soon. Get an opportunity there."
In a rematch of the Big Ten Championship Finals, Hall used a late takedown with fewer than 25 seconds on the clock to defeat Ohio State's No. 3 Bo Jordan to become the second freshman NCAA national champion.
"It's a tough tournament," Hall said. "I've wrestled a lot of places. This is one of the tougher places. There are a lot of people out there. I've wrestled around the world, different people, different countries and the important thing, just have fun. I told myself over and over as soon as the negative thought came into my mind, I replaced it with Jesus loves you, NCAA champion, over and over."
In yet another highly anticipated matchup, No. 2 Nickal (184) battled top-seeded Gabe Dean from Cornell. Keeping it close throughout, Nickal worked from behind with a takedown in the second period, which was challenged but confirmed with :41 left in the frame. Arriving back within one, 4-3 off the escape, Nickal held on for the close victory.
Bonus points and records aside though, long before the streak of five consecutive finals wins and the pure dominance across the last three days, the Nittany Lions have been putting in some serious work, and there's no better place than Happy Valley to train for greatness on a daily basis. As Nickal says, excellence breeds excellence.
"That's what we're doing at Penn State," Nickal said. "So each and every group that we get is top notch. A kid not only as a wrestler but as a person, and I feel that really is what's going to make the difference over the long run. I mean, there's a lot of talent out there but at Penn State, we get the right kinds of people and kids with character. That shows. You see kids coming in like Nick Suriano, Mark Hall, Vincenzo [Joseph], kids coming in, winning at the highest levels."
Training together among a wealth of talent at both the collegiate and international, professional level, the progress is all part of a legacy the Nittany Lions add on to every day, developing closer as true family unit.
"It's competitive," Hall said, reflecting on the atmosphere inside the Penn State wrestling room. "We have days where I might not get a takedown. We have days where some of our best guys are struggling. And it's just because we're all so good. We're so good out here, but when we're in the room it's like you're just another guy. There's no favoritism. We're all one."
For head coach Cael Sanderson, who has now guided the Nittany Lions to six NCAA Championships in eight years at the helm of the program, this one is special.
"I'm still kind of like it's just crazy because usually you have somebody lose or something doesn't go right, and as a competitor your heart is always with the kid that doesn't reach his goal," Sanderson said.
There were no somber moments for the Nittany Lions Saturday night. Instead, there was euphoria and celebration, but most importantly, gratitude.
"I mean our guys are pretty good, as you can see," Nolf said." We've got five guys in the finals back to back to back to back to back. So those guys are definitely some of the toughest guys I get to wrestle. We get to learn each other's - how we wrestle. We're continuously evolving because we're competitive and we want to keep getting better and better and we all just help each other do that."
Reach Arielle at email@example.com or follow on Twitter at @arielle_sargent