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Penn State Wrestling: Ironhead Offers an Insider’s View of Cael’s Crew

by on March 13, 2018 5:00 AM


No one offers more insightful commentary on Penn State wrestling than Jeff Byers. The man they call “Ironhead” has been broadcasting PSU’s matches over radio since 1990. And he’s done so with a remarkable passion for the Nittany Lions and a consistent fairness toward their opponents.

So, at this special time of the year for mat enthusiasts, I enjoyed my chance to get a personal recap of the season from Ironhead, to inaugurate our informal “Ironhead Awards,” and to pick his brain about the upcoming NCAA championships.

Despite losing to Ohio State at the Big Ten Championships, can Penn State bring home the big prize from nationals? Well, that odd formula for success is exactly what Coach Cael Sanderson’s Lions did last year.  So perhaps it’s not so crazy to hope that the Nittany Lions will capture their seventh national crown in the last eight years — despite losing the conference tourney.

The following is a condensed version of a conversation that lasted well over an hour. The parentheses contain my comments for the sake of background. Tell us all about it, Ironhead!   

How did you feel about Penn State’s performance at the Big Tens?

Byers: In all honesty, I think Penn State performed well. There were a couple bouts they would love to have back. But I really think it was more that Ohio State went out and had a heck of a weekend. Penn State didn’t get the bonus points that it’s used to, but I think part of that is the familiarity of the Big Ten and the caliber of scouting that goes on. My takeaway is that if Jason Nolf had wrestled all the way through, this would have been a nail-biter right to the end. And I think that’s going to be the case at nationals. Both of these teams are capable of putting up a lot of points, of getting a lot of guys in the finals. And I think with Jason Nolf wrestling all the way through, it’s going to be a very tight team race in Cleveland.

Do you think Penn State’s attacking style of pursuing bonus points has filtered over to other teams? Is Ohio State hungrier for bonus points than, say, three years ago?

Byers: Yeah, I do think there are more teams across the board and more individuals who are driven to get bonus points because of what Penn State has done. I don’t think there’s any question. If you look at a guy like Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State’s four-time Big Ten champion), he’s an outstanding wrestler but I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s putting more emphasis on scoring as many points as he can.  

Do you think Penn State is pretty much the premier school for this new style?

Byers:  I do. And I think if wrestling is going to grow and become more of a fixture in the mainstream of American sports, wrestling a Penn State style is what it’s going to take. People in any sport will attract attention if they are putting up points and if there are moves that make you say, “Wow!” When you see Bo Nickal throw someone to his back or when you saw Vincenzo Joseph with that inside trip last year on Imar (Isaiah Martinez, a defending national champion who was pinned by Joseph), that’s the kind of stuff that’s cool to watch.

Going back to earlier portions of the season, what did you observe at the Southern Scuffle that was significant?

Byers: Shakur Rasheed, you’d have to start with him at the Scuffle, because that was his coming-out party from a national standpoint. He has always had self-confidence, but that certainly affirmed in his mind that the work he was doing was putting him in a good place. Really, both he and Cassar (Rasheed’s top rival for the 197-pound spot in Penn State’s lineup) have shown a tremendous amount of resolve—dedication to themselves, to the sport and to this program. I think Shakur, when he takes the mat at nationals, will be taking part of Cassar with him.  

At the time, you would have thought it was a negative, but the performance Nick Nevills had at the Scuffle is what propelled him to get his season turned around. (Nevills arrived in Chattanooga as the tournament’s top seed, but he was upset twice and finished fourth.) It was not the tournament he wanted to have, and he didn’t look nearly as sharp as he has recently. But I really think coming out of that tournament, he decided for himself that he was going to make the changes needed to have the type of season he wanted. I don’t know that he’s going to beat an Adam Coon (the second seed at the NCAA Championships from the University of Michigan) or a Kyle Snyder (the top seed from Ohio State) at nationals, but he’s certainly going to be in the mix with everyone else.  

Do you know what those changes were?

Byers:  I think it was more of a mindset. A mindset and a focus on what works for him in training. I think he was not focused on his weight. And in many ways, that’s a good thing — Cael talks all the time about not wanting his guys to be focused on weight. But I think he was not keeping himself big enough to feel the way he should feel when he’s on the mat. He probably only gained a few pounds, but it was the right kind of weight.

Jeff Byers relays the action to radio listeners during the 2018 Big Ten Championships.  (Photo by Jennie Yorks)

Where does the Ohio State dual meet rank on your list of all-time thrills?  

Byers:  The only one that I think would be comparable would be the Iowa dual meet in 1987 or 1988 (Feb. 6, 1988) when Barry Davis and the Hawkeyes came in. Barry Davis had wrestled in the Olympic Games, and he was a silver medalist. He wrestled Tim Flynn in the dual meet, and there was an electricity to that match. Flynn was phenomenal, and I think he ended up losing, 11-10 or 10-9. It was a wild, terrific bout and that whole meet was just back and forth, great match after great match. And this year’s Penn State-Ohio State meet was similar in terms of the star power.  You had an Olympian in that match as well (Snyder won a gold medal at the 2016 Games in Rio), coming back to college.

The Ohio State meet was phenomenal to me. Just because with Jason Nolf injured, it felt like Ohio State had a clear edge. I just don’t remember another dual meet where the crowd was as intense and consistently loud as it was for that Ohio State meet. Years from now, you’re going to be talking about it—“Man, can you believe there was a dual meet when you had all these superstars from both teams competing against each other?” You’re talking about Kyle Snyder, Zain Retherford, Bo Nickal—true legends in the sport.

What was your feeling about Cassar’s bout that night?

Byers:  Anthony Cassar was just so focused for that meet. And what’s ironic is that turned out to be his last bout of the season. So it’s your last chance in the lineup and you go out and knock off the number one kid in the country. We were talking about Rasheed and Cassar earlier, but I think for Cassar — given the disappointment of not competing in the postseason — to have that memory is very, very special. Cassar was just so happy. I had a chance to interview him right after the match because he was the Ridge Riley Award winner. You talk about someone bursting at the seams; it felt like he was literally about to do that. I was just hoping the skin could contain him.

Within this entire year, what made you the proudest to be part of the Penn State program?

Byers: That Ohio State dual meet would be the thing that springs to mind. Again, because they were wrestling without Jason Nolf, and he’s such an integral part of the team. So Carson Kuhn comes out, gets three takedowns in that first period against a former national champion (Tomasello), and completely energizes a crowd that was already waiting for the opportunity to go through the roof. It never slowed down from there. Even in the losses, you were getting everybody’s best effort.

I think it’s always a little more special when you have to face some adversity. I remember when Frank Molinaro won his national title (in 2012). Frank had gotten injured earlier in that national tournament, and he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to continue. Cael pulled him aside and said, “You know, they don’t make movies about guys who are healthy the whole way through. They make movies about the guys who overcome an injury along the way.”

Cael has a remarkable ability to offer key inspirational comments or images, doesn’t he?     

Byers: Cael’s perspective is the reason Penn State is having the success that it is. It’s his ability to generate and sustain the enthusiasm that these kids have — an enthusiasm for the sport, for sure, but I really think it’s an enthusiasm for life. They use wrestling as a metaphor for life. The things you can control are the attitude with which you approach life — or wrestling — and the way in which you prepare and whether others can depend on you. Cael talks a lot with these guys about how they control their own destiny. “You decide what you put in your body. You decide what priorities you’re going to have and how you want to go out and compete.”    

The guys who come into this program are, to a large degree, already buying in to what Cael is talking about. But they have it reiterated day after day to them that they have so much to appreciate. A lot of people would love the opportunity to compete in front of 6,500 screaming fans who truly care about what you’re doing.  And I really think Cael also has an ability to keep these guys calm. If you have a bad day, no big deal. There will be another day, so just keep plugging away. That’s why I think that when Penn State kids have an upset loss you don’t see them getting down in the dumps or kicking trash cans. It’s that ability to put the past in the past and be in the moment that separates this team from a lot of others.

Do you think we’re ready for a Creamery ice cream flavor that’s named for Cael?

Byers: I think it’s long overdue.

Do you have any nominations?

Byers: We’ve kicked it around on our local morning radio show. I like “Cael Crunch,” but we’ve had a couple of others. “Cael’s Pick” was one because the ankle pick was the move he was best known for in his career.  We’ve had some people who want “Cauliflower Cael,” but I don’t think that’s going to go over well.

Can you think of the funniest thing you’ve experienced with the team this year?

Byers: Matt McCutcheon is just a truly wonderful kid with a wonderful approach to wrestling and life. And he’s also got a great sense of humor. When we go on these road trips, there’s a group text message to everyone that lets people know when the bus is going to leave, when we’re going to make a stop and so on. And Pat Donghia is the sports information contact for Penn State wrestling who is on the bus with us. Pat is known to make the occasional sarcastic contact, and Matt McCutcheon — I think this started last season or maybe two years ago — will remove Pat from the group. And it’s usually early in the trip. So you’ll get a notice that says, “Pat Donghia has been removed from the group,” and Matt always add a note that says, “Sorry about him, guys.” And then, inevitably, Pat finds out that he’s been removed and gets added back in. But it happens every road trip; it’s just one of the funny things that I look forward to seeing.  

This team is fun to be around. They’re constantly going back and forth with the coaches about dodgeball. The coaches will cheat to win at the dodgeball games, and when they get called out by the kids, of course they deny it. And the kids love giving Jake Varner (an assistant coach and Olympic gold medalist) a hard time for eating. Jake is a pretty good eater, so there are constant comments about how long we’ve got to stop to let Jake get all the food he wants. It’s a fun team, it’s a loose team, there’s no doubt about that.

You mentioned Matt McCutcheon. I’m wondering about him being a three-time NCAA qualifier and this year ending up as a third string wrestler, partly because of injury. How has he handled the disappointment?

Byers: To be honest with you, that’s one thing that impresses me as much as anything that Cael has been able to establish with the culture here. The way with which, pretty consistently, the kids deal with disappointment and truly do put the team first. That’s one of the things that’s easier said than done. I think it is hard to not be down and be a little mopey if you are not achieving your goals. And for a kid like Matt, who was a three-year starter and an outstanding wrestler in his own right, it would have been easy to kind of go through the motions. And that’s not what he’s done. I would say Matt is every bit and maybe more of a leader than he’s ever been. To have three guys — Rasheed, Cassar and McCutcheon — of that caliber at one weight is truly remarkable.

Ironhead ponders a response during recent interview. (Photo by Bill Horlacher)

Shifting gears, I’d like you to evaluate the fan base. Have you seen any heart-warming things or are you seeing signs of the fans getting spoiled by so much success?

Byers: By and large, I think the fans are appreciative of what they are able to enjoy right now. For the long-time fans, they really have a keen sense of appreciation for what they’re seeing — Penn State’s success and the way they are succeeding with kids who are great representatives off the mat. For me, and I think for Cael, too, one of the more rewarding things is when you see a Devin Schnupp wrestle for seven minutes and come up short and get a standing ovation from the fans. We have seen consistently that this fan base will wildly applaud a loss if they feel like their kid gave his best.

Do you ever find yourself getting just a little bit spoiled by all this success?

Byers:  I don’t think so. I’m telling you, there are times when I’m on that bus and literally pinching myself. I would be thrilled just to watch this coaching staff and this group of athletes from up in the stands. I really would. So to be able to be on the bus rides with them and get to know them a little bit, it’s a treat. Of course, I’m like everybody else; I want to see the team win. That makes it more fun and more enjoyable. But this group of wrestlers, families, coaches is just an exceptional group of people. Even if they weren’t winning at the clip that they are, it would still be a tremendous joy to hang around these guys.

To this point, we’ve barely mentioned the name of Zain Retherford. What’s your take on Zain?

Byers: I have run out of superlatives to talk about Zain. He is the closest thing I can think of to perfection in what you would want in a student-athlete. He is devoted to God, and he is a family man. He will go back home unannounced to his parents on a weekend when he knows they will be busy on the farm. He will put in 14-hour days and then just come back to campus. Cael talks all the time about consistency. Well, there’s not a person I’ve met in my life that is more consistent than Zain in the way he approaches life and wrestling. He is always upbeat, he is always humble, he is always willing to help, he’s got a good sense of humor. And in terms of his wrestling, he might not be as spectacular as a David Taylor or a Jason Nolf or Bo Nickal, but I don’t know that there is anybody who has ever gotten as much out of his ability as Zain Retherford. I guess the fact that he now has the longest win streak in Penn State history is a testament to that consistency.

Let’s do the “Ironhead Awards” and finish with a couple quick predictions...

  • The Ironhead Award for Valiant Effort in One Bout:  I would probably give it to Nick Nevills for the dual match against Kyle Snyder, even though it was a 15-10 loss. But with everything that was at stake and with Snyder having defeated him by major decision the previous season, I would give it to Nick. I would also be hard-pressed to give it to Cassar for that same dual meet with his performance against Kollin Moore. And then there’s Bo Nickal’s two wins over Myles Martin. I think Myles Martin is one of the most improved wrestlers in the country this year, and Bo has beaten him twice, pretty comfortably.  

  • The Ironhead Award for Valiant Effort Throughout the Season: I would probably give it to Zain. When you are the target — and there are a lot of good wrestlers and a lot of good coaches who are scouting Zain — it’s one of the hardest things to still go out and dominate. Outside of the two bouts with Sorenson (Brandon, Iowa’s 149-pounder), Zain’s gotten bonus points in every match he’s wrestled this year.

  • The Ironhead Award for Greatest Off-Mat Contributor: Matt McCutcheon just jumps to the forefront for me because he’s a guy that really does bring a lot of joy to the team and is just a wonderful kid, a wonderful leader, someone that the team genuinely looks up to.

  • The Ironhead Award for Most Overlooked Contributor: Mark Hall is another guy who has taken a big step in his dominance and overall wrestling ability. So, it would either be Mark or Vincenzo. Jason and Bo are just so dynamic and they get noticed for their pins and the big moves. And obviously Zain gets accolades for his dominance. Cory Keener is coming along and is a solid wrestler — and appreciated for what he is. I think Nick Lee is very appreciated for coming into the lineup; same thing with Shakur Rasheed. And Nick Nevills is appreciated. But as for Mark Hall and Vincenzo Joseph, I guess it sounds ridiculous to have two freshmen national champions described as overlooked or under-appreciated. But it’s tough to get noticed when you’re on a team that has five national champions. But both of them probably deserve more attention since they both have the chance to do something that’s never been done at Penn State — to win four national championships.

As for your predictions, how many individual champions will Penn State have at Nationals this year?

Byers: This is tough, but I will go with three. I think they could win as many as six, but if you pin me down, I would say three is my expectation.

How will Jason Nolf perform; how will his knee allow him to wrestle?

Byers: That is a really good question. Jason is just such a determined kid that I think he is going to perform really well. I think the knee has come along nicely — in large part because of his determination and the work of trainer Dan Monthley. I think Jason will perform better than anybody could reasonably expect. And I have unreasonable expectations of him just because of who he is. I really think there is a good chance he’ll win the national title. He is a guy who can will himself to do things that most people wouldn’t be able to do.

Finally, name the top three teams in order.

Byers: I will go with Penn State, Ohio State, and I really think North Carolina State is going to sneak in there as number three — although Missouri’s got a really good tournament team. I think both Penn State and Ohio State will have eight all-Americans. I think Penn State will have four or five in the finals and Ohio State will have three or four. Both teams will rack up bonus points in those early rounds. It’s going to be very close, and I won’t be surprised if the margin is only a couple points when it’s all said and done.


Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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