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What’s Up, Nico? Mega Man Weighs in on Penn State Wrestling

by on November 30, 2017 5:00 AM

The scene was New York’s Madison Square Garden. The event was the 2016 NCAA wrestling championships.  With the final round remaining, some fans felt disappointed that mighty Penn State had already clinched the team title.

But no one associated with Penn State was complaining over a lack of competitive drama. To be sure, nobody in blue and white was selling wrestling tickets in order to see the Broadway show “Hamilton.”    

Everyone already knew that Alexander Hamilton finished second to Aaron Burr in their 1804 duel. But no one knew how Nico Megaludis would fare that night in his championship battle with Iowa’s Thomas Gilman. And that seemed to be nearly as much of a life-and-death matter as Hamilton’s faceoff with Burr. It was Nico’s last chance to win an individual NCAA crown.

In high school, Megaludis racked up a record of 170-1 and earned three Pennsylvania state titles. At Penn State, he was a stalwart in Cael Sanderson’s lineup, but kept falling short in his quest for an individual championship. He placed second at the national finals as a freshman, second as a sophomore and third as a junior. Now his Penn State boosters wanted to see him fulfill the “mega” portion of his last name (“megas” in Greek means “great”) with an individual championship.

‘NICO HAS TO WIN’

Jeff Byers, radio broadcaster for Penn State wrestling, felt a personal burden for Megaludis.

“I remember talking to a couple people that Saturday,” says Byers, “about how it doesn’t matter what else happens tonight, Nico has to win. And I don’t know that I’ve ever been so nervous for a kid going into a match as I was for him. Just because I knew how much it meant to him, how much he had put into it and how uncertain the result was -- because he and [Ohio State’s Nathan] Tomasello and Gilman had gone around and around.”

Byers wasn’t the only one to feel nervous for Nico. Although I had never met Megaludis, I knew his history — so near, yet so far. That’s why I couldn’t resist praying silently for him when I saw him eating at a local Panera a few weeks before the national tournament. No, I don’t typically pray about the outcome of sports contests, but I asked God to enable this young man to do his very best on the national stage. Somehow, Nico’s results at this tournament seemed more important than most athletic endeavors.    

Well, as you probably know, Nico rode off into the sunset with his title in hand, defeating Gilman, 6-3 on March 19, 2016. And I got a big kick out of Byers’ radio call.  “He wasn’t just ‘Ludis,’ the veteran broadcaster told his audience. “He was ‘Mega-ludis’ tonight!"

Nico Megaludis stalks Iowa's Thomas Gilman en route to a semifinal win over the Hawkeye at the 2016 Big Ten Championships. They met two weeks later in the match that brought a national title to Megaludis. Photo by Jennie Yorks. 

*          *          *

Nico graduated from Penn State in May of 2016, but he still resides in State College, competing as a member of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and working as a financial planner. I have gotten to know him personally during the last few months, and I recently enjoyed an in-depth conversation with him. The following are highlights of our interview, including comments on his career and on the 2017-18 team with its “Murderers’ Row” of national champions in five consecutive weights.

Tell me your thoughts about the current Penn State team. There’s never been a team in NCAA history with five returning champions…

Megaludis: It’s pretty unbelievable to get to watch these guys. Some of the things I see, I just shake my head and say, “Wow, how did he do that?” I love watching (Jason) Nolf.  You never know what he’s going to do.  All those guys…they’re crazy.

How would you describe the different styles of these guys?  

Megaludis: Zain (Retherford), he’ll grind you into the ground. He’ll make you not walk for a while. That’s his style. Nolf, I never know what to expect from Nolf. I can never tell what he’s going to do. He’s hit things I’ve never seen in my life — things I didn’t think he could do — and he wrestles hard. Cenzo (Joseph), he hits all kinds of stuff, too, with his throws. He’s got a wild style. Mark Hall is freakishly talented, and he uses it to his advantage. And Bo (Nickal), he’ll go upper body with anyone, and he’ll launch you if he finds that opportunity.

What’s your projection for this year’s team at Big Tens and nationals?  

Megaludis:My projection is that it’s going to be a dogfight. Nothing’s given to us, and Ohio State’s coming in pretty hot. We’re very good at bonus points, and that’s something you’ll see a lot at Big Tens and nationals.

Would you be shocked if Penn State doesn’t win the national title this year?

Megaludis: I won’t be shocked, no. I expect them to win, but I’ve realized over the 25 years of my life that things don’t always go as planned. It comes down to the health of the team. How is our health? How is the other team’s health? Yeah, I expect them to win.

What is your perspective on the transfer of Nick Suriano—the wrestler who followed you at 125 pounds?

Megaludis: Nick is a hungry guy, he’s going to do good things for himself, and he’s a hard worker. The kid is very dedicated. I wish the best for him.

Did you have any unique perspective on the decision that he made to go to Rutgers? You worked with him in the wrestling room a lot.

Megaludis: I don’t know if I can comment on that. But he likes Jersey, and I think one of the reasons is that he wanted to be back in Jersey. Other than that, I don’t know enough to comment.


Nico Megaludis looks for his shot against Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello during a 2016 dual meet at the Bryce Jordan Center. Tomasello won, 3-1, with a last-second takedown. Photo by Jennie Yorks.

How did you feel about those three times of being so close at the NCAA tournament without capturing the championship?

Megaludis: My first year, a lot of people said it was a heck of a run… I was only the 10th seed. I was obviously very upset, but I realized I had done an amazing thing at nationals. (He lost, 4-1, to the top seed, Iowa’s Matt McDonough.) Then in my sophomore year, I fully expected to win. I had already proven myself as one of the top guys. And in the finals match against Illinois (Jesse Delgado), I was controlling the center of the mat and all the positions, and he was out of breath. Everything was going my way, and then I got caught in a move. He won and that was very, very, very tough for me. I did not take it well. Getting second once is bad enough. Getting second twice really doesn’t feel good.

And then the next year, I have a close match in the semis (a 6-4 loss to Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett) and have to battle back to get third. So after three years of not getting what you wanted, it’s frustrating but you have to stick with the plan.

Were there times that you thought it was never going to happen for you?

Megaludis:No, that never crept in my mind. There were some what-ifs, but I wouldn’t let them get to my brain to where I couldn’t accomplish it in my senior year. I put up signs everywhere that said, “I am the 2016 national champion.” I got to look at that every day in my bedroom, my bathroom, on my car’s steering wheel. And when I went back home to Pittsburgh, it was in my room and my bathroom.  

So then when you won the title, how did it feel?

Megaludis: Honestly, it was more of a relief… finally. If I’d gotten second that year, I’d probably have been the person with the most accomplishments to never win an NCAA title. Finally, I got it.

As you look back, what were the keys for you in winning the national title?

Megaludis: I think the maturity was the one big thing, realizing that this doesn’t define me. I did a lot better when I focused on wrestling every single second the way God wants me to wrestle. Just go out there, hustle every single second, do what you want to do, and make your opponent not like wrestling you. And that’s by attacking the whole time.

You mentioned your faith in God. How did it grow as you pursued the championship?

Megaludis: It was a maturity thing. I’ve been through all these things in life, and you realize that it’s an opportunity that God’s given me. I wouldn’t take anything back, even if I didn’t win. There’s a plan for everything and I just realized if I don’t win, there’s a bigger plan for me.

What else did you receive from your participation in Penn State wrestling?

Megaludis: Oh, man. As Dan Gable (legendary coach at Iowa) said, “Once you wrestle, everything else in life is easy.” What wrestling taught me was dedication. If you’re going to do something, there’s no point in not doing it to the best of your ability. That’s what I took with me — I always got good grades in school. (He graduated with a 3.5 GPA in finance.) And now I’m working and I do that to the best of my ability.

Everyone who follows college wrestling has heard about the fun that’s part of Penn State’s success. What makes the program fun?

Megaludis: The type of people that we get — they all love wrestling, they have a passion for it and they want to do it to the best of their ability. We all have a passion for scoring as many points as we can. And it’s a great atmosphere.

One thing that’s legendary in the room is dodgeball. Can you describe a wrestlers’ dodgeball game at Penn State?

Megaludis: Usually it happens about 20 minutes before the start of practice. Our coaches, they will cheat to the highest degree to be able to win. There’s a lot of cheating. And some people have some arms, man.  Some people can throw. It’s funny. It keeps things relaxed. And when it comes time to practice, we make sure we’re going hard for the full amount of time.  

Apart from having fun, how do the coaches minimize stress? It seems to me that Penn State always peaks for the big tournaments.

Megaludis: Our coaches are very good at training — making sure you’re fresh and ready to go. And it’s the philosophy in the talks that Cael gives. He’s like no one I’ve been around, a very good motivational talker.  

Do you remember any of his motivational nuggets?

Megaludis: He always says that “ships are safe at harbor, but they are meant to go to sea.” In other words… if we’re wrestling not to lose, what’s the point? We’re meant to go battle and score points and dominate. We’re not meant to hold back. And when you’re in that battle, you stinkin’ love it. There aren’t many people who get to experience that.  

Let’s talk about your future. What are the things you’re looking forward to accomplishing?  

Megaludis: I’m still competing, so I want to do the best I can in that. Down the road, I’ll want to be the best husband and father I can be. Just be a giving person, that’s something I’ll always work on, to think of others before myself. I’m working with Megaludis Financial with my dad who has been in business for 33 years. We’re part of Northwestern Mutual. We do comprehensive financial planning, so I get to help people accomplish their financial dreams. Everyone is different, so there’s a different plan and approach to help each person meet their goals.

If you look way down the road, maybe 30 years, what do you think you’ll remember from your wrestling at Penn State?

Megaludis: There’s nothing like it. Being around those fans, running out that tunnel. There’s nothing like it, just the energy and the opportunity. How many people get to say they wrestled as part of a national championship team in front of these fans that are unbelievable? I’m one of the people who get to say that.  It’s something that 10, 20, 30 years down the road, I’ll be looking at the dynasty that we had and say, “Wow, I was part of something special.”

Do you think Penn State under Cael might actually reach the status of Iowa under Gable?

Megaludis: Do I think so? Oh, yeah, I don’t think if he wasn’t shooting for that… I don’t think he would be doing it any more. I know the guy, and I expect big things. I think this could be one of the best programs, dynasty-wise, ever.

 



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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