All right, fellow wrestling fans. I’ve got good news and good news. But I know you already know about both, so I’ll just remind you briefly of these two items to make you smile a bit more broadly.
The first bit of good news is that Penn State’s wrestling team is a juggernaut that’s wrapped up in a dynasty with a bunch of inspirational character as the adorning ribbon on top. Coach Cael Sanderson and his Lions are reigning over the wrestling world these days, and though we shouldn’t take the future for granted, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the past. Penn State has captured seven of the last eight NCAA team titles, and just within the last two years they’ve won nine individual titles.
The second portion of good news is that your long wait for wrestling thrills is almost over. The new season begins Sunday afternoon with a 2 p.m. visit from Kent State. Sure, we know the men of Cael will triumph in the dual meet, but there is a special buzz surrounding Sunday’s 197-pound bout. That’s where Bo Nickal, ranked first in the country, will meet Kyle Conel, ranked second. Conel entered last year’s NCAA championships as an unseeded wrestler but left with a third place medal after pinning Ohio State’s top-ranked Kollin Moore in the quarterfinals.
Yes, it’s an exciting time to be a PSU wrestling aficionado, and so I decided to let some of your fellow fans share their unbridled enthusiasm. Some are well known for their connections to the Nittany Lions. Others are not — but they love their Lions just as much. Here then are the little capsules of excitement that I gleaned from seven rabid Nittany mat watchers:
JEFF BYERS, WRSC 1390 RADIO PERSONALITY AND LONG-TIME PENN STATE WRESTLING ANNOUNCER
Byers, the radio voice of Penn State wrestling since 1990, achieves an amazing on-air balance. He roots for the home team with unbridled enthusiasm yet is unfailingly fair to opposing wrestlers and sincerely compliments their efforts. And that’s why I described him as “The Maestro at the Microphone” in a February 2017 column.
BYERS IS EXCITED ABOUT THE 2018-19 SEASON BECAUSE…
“I don’t know if we have enough time to go over all the reasons I’m looking forward to this season. The two things I would start with are the fact that you could have a lineup that will be, top to bottom, Cael’s best yet. I think you will have 10 legitimate All-American contenders if everybody stays healthy and continues to progress. I’m not saying you’ll have 10 All-Americans, but I’m saying there will be 10 guys in the lineup who will be in the mix. The other thing is that you’re talking about the senior seasons of two legendary figures in the sport — Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal. When we were talking about David Taylor and Ed Ruth during their senior year, we were talking about how you might never see a tandem like that again. And in terms of accomplishments, Nolf and Nickal are right there, presuming they finish off their careers the way they’re hoping and expecting to.
“I love being around this program, just watching the way these guys compete; the way these coaches coach. And I love going on the road with them and watching the way people react to them — opponents, but in particular, young kids. The time they take to pose for pictures and give a few words of encouragement. That is a big deal. If you are a seven or an eight-year-old kid and you’re getting a chance to see a Bo Nickal or a Jason Nolf or a Vincenzo Joseph for the one and only time in your life and you get a picture with them.
“The energy that’s surrounding the program these days is obviously just incredible. And I don’t know how you can’t pick up on some of those positive vibes and have them translate at least a little bit into your life. And it’s been fun just to be around that aura.”
Jeff Byers is a professional broadcaster, but he freely admits the excitement he feels while watching the exploits of Penn State’s wrestlers. (Photo by Bill Horlacher)
ERIC BERNIER, DIRECTOR OF INFORMATION SERVICES FOR CATA
Bernier, a 1975 graduate of State High, describes himself as “a bad wrestler in junior high and even worse in high school.” But he loves the sport for the qualities it placed into his sons’ lives and for the inspiration he’s gained by watching Penn State’s grapplers. He and his wife, Tracy, have held season tickets for Nittany Lion wrestling since the late 1980s, and the last time they missed a home match was seven or eight years ago when a canceled flight delayed their return home from a trip.
BERNIER IS EXCITED ABOUT THE 2018-19 SEASON BECAUSE…
“I get really excited about each season because of the style that Penn State wrestles. And we have a couple new kids that are going to be in the lineup this year, so I guess I’m most excited to see their style. We kinda know what to expect from the veterans, the kids that are coming back, but I’m excited to see how the new kids wrestle.
“I am excited because of the way these kids represent the school. It’s one thing to be a fan of a winner; that’s easy for everyone to gather around a team that’s successful. But it’s the manner in which they’re successful — they’re able to do it with this certain very aggressive, exciting style. And through all the success, they’re able to do it in a manner that makes you so proud to be a Penn State fan. I’m happy to be there in the stands rooting for them, win or lose, because of the style they wrestle and the way they represent themselves, their school and their community. The coach has done a phenomenal job. You know how hard it is these days for kids to remain humble and dedicated with all the other distractions.”
GEORGE GORE, RETIREE WHO LIVES SIX MONTHS PER YEAR IN STATE COLLEGE AND SIX MONTHS IN FLORIDA
Gore is a 1971 graduate of Penn State and my fraternity brother from Acacia. Although he wrestled for three years in high school (South Williamsport), he summarizes his competitive career in a way that would resonate with Bernier: “I was the worst wrestler in the world, although I enjoyed it.” Gore is one of the most knowledgeable posters for the wrestling forum within the “Lions247” website, and he has attended the last nine NCAA national tournaments with other buddies from Acacia.
GORE IS EXCITED ABOUT THE 2018-19 SEASON BECAUSE…
“Well, it’s obviously, the stars, meaning Nolf and Nickal. It will be exciting to see them go out on historical terms, probably four times in the finals and three times as champions. That’s amazing. But it’s also going to be fun to see a lot of new faces, and that’s not something we’ve seen before. I heard the other day that of the 10 weights, there are five new starters in those weights. Now that includes Nickal going up (to 197 pounds) and Rasheed coming down (to 184)…. But this is probably the most complete team that Cael has had.
“I don’t want to ruin your story, but I think next year is going to be even more exciting. You heard everybody say, ‘When Taylor and Ruth graduate, Penn State is coming back to earth.’ And, of course then came Nolf and Nickal. Now they say, ‘When they graduate, they’re coming back to earth.’ I’m interested to see if they come back to earth. I kinda think they won’t.”
MARY HERSHEY, RETIRED CHEMISTRY TEACHER, STATE COLLEGE HIGH SCHOOL
Hershey is married to Bob Hershey, another of my Acacia fraternity buddies. She calls herself an “accidental wrestling fan” because she and Bob acquired season tickets from a family member. But regardless of her entry to the club, Mary is all in with Penn State wrestling. “A lot of women don’t like to watch it, none of my friends,” says Hershey. “But the team is so competitive and the crowd is so electric and energetic that it’s very hard not to get excited.”
HERSHEY IS EXCITED ABOUT THE 2018-19 SEASON BECAUSE…
“Penn State’s always been competitive. It’s just that they’ve gone into the stratosphere these last few years. These young men seem like they love their sport, they’re ultra-competitive and they wrestle at 110 percent. My favorite is Bo Nickal — no one is more fun than him to watch. Jason Nolf is a neat, gentlemanly guy. They’re all remarkable. If you can’t get excited about these national champions who are coming back, I don’t know what else could get you excited.”
Jason Nolf. (Photo by Alex Bauer | Onward State)
RICH LORENZO, FORMER PENN STATE ALL-AMERICAN AND HEAD COACH FROM 1978-1992
Lorenzo is a beloved figure throughout our region — appreciated for his humble and kind demeanor and respected for his success as a Lion wrestler (fourth at the 1968 NCAA Championships) and coach (produced 53 All-Americans). Earlier this month, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame announced that Lorenzo will be inducted into the Hall at ceremonies next spring. But with all his years in the sport and all the honors he has gained, Rich remains enthusiastic about the sport, especially the team led by Cael Sanderson.
LORENZO IS EXCITED ABOUT THE 2018-19 SEASON BECAUSE…
“The style of Penn State wrestling that we have now, the way they go out and really try to score points and make it exciting for the fans and for themselves. If I had to put my finger on one thing and say it’s the most important, it’s the aggressive attitude of the coaches here at Penn State and the kids they’re recruiting.
“There’s going to be a lot of great matchups. In wrestling, there’s so much parity now. I’m just waiting for it to happen and get into it. Right off the bat, you’ve got the Conel kid at 197 against Bo Nickal. So the kid who finished third and beat Moore from Ohio State is going to wrestle Bo, who’s a two-time national champion. So it’s going to be interesting to see what happens. Neither one will take a step backwards, so you know the fur’s going to fly.”
Bo Nickal (Photo by Alex Bauer | Onward State)
LLOYD RHOADES, RETIRED MANAGER OF CENTRAL SERVICES AT PENN STATE’S OFFICE OF PHYSICAL PLANT
Rhoades, inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2012, has made huge contributions to the sport for more than 40 years as an official, coordinator and coach. He organized the Bald Eagle Elementary Wrestling Club in 1978, and he served as its head coach for about 30 years. Those who wonder how Bald Eagle Area High School became so dominant in the late 1990s (the 1998-99 team was ranked first in the nation) need only look to the name “Rhoades.” Lloyd got those wrestlers started during their grade school days; brother Dick polished their skills as varsity head coach.
RHOADES IS EXCITED ABOUT THE 2018-19 SEASON BECAUSE…
“First of all, the continuation of the careers of the great wrestlers that have been there a couple years — Vincenzo, Bo, Jason and others. I mention those three because they’re current national champions. But the other thing that will be really exciting is watching the new guys coming in who will be establishing themselves nationally. And Penn State certainly has a cadre of great wrestlers coming in this year. The three lightweights (Gavin Teasdale and Brody Teske at 125 pounds; Roman Bravo-Young at 133) are going to be a lot of fun to watch.
“We only made it to maybe one dual meet last year because my wife, Eileen, was fighting cancer. She was getting chemo treatments and wasn’t able to go to the matches. But we were blessed with great doctors and the blessing of the Lord and she’s gotten through it. We didn’t watch a lot of Penn State wrestling in person last year, so we’re real excited to be going back this year.”
JOHN RODGERS, EXECUTIVE COACH AND OWNER OF DALE CARNEGIE FRANCHISES IN PA AND OHIO
Rodgers became a National Prep All American in 1978 while wrestling for Mercersburg Academy, and he continued his career while studying at Taylor University. A native of Mifflin County, Rodgers has lived in the State College area for 30 years and closely followed the Nittany Lion wrestlers.
RODGERS IS EXCITED ABOUT THE 2018-19 SEASON BECAUSE…
“I just enjoy watching Cael Sanderson and Casey Cunningham and Cody Sanderson coach teams. They put a relentless pressure on their opponents that is just so fun to watch, relentless pressure. I just enjoy watching all of them, how they interact with different wrestlers. Cael has a calm quiet intensity. And I enjoy watching Cody and Casey talk with the different wrestlers. One (Casey) takes the upper weights and one (Cody) takes the lower weights. It’s fun to watch how they relate and connect, how they instill this attitude of relentless pressure. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”