As the door closed on the 2013/14 season, the Penn State wrestling program found itself at a crossroads. It might seem preposterous given that they were fresh off their fourth consecutive team title, but there was no denying they would look a lot different the following season.
It was, after all, the end of an era. David Taylor and Ed Ruth had risen to the ranks of bonafide stars during the Nittany Lions’ surge to the top of the collegiate wrestling world. They perfectly encapsulated Cael Sanderson’s new Penn State style. Relentlessly aggressive, and unfathomably dynamic, they scored points every way imaginable. Their suite of leg attacks and arsenal of pinning combinations made them some of the most dangerous wrestlers not just of their era but all time.
Taylor and Ruth’s departure wasn’t just a matter of replacing the 51.5 team points the pair had combined to score at the national tournament that season. It was about reestablishing Penn State’s newfound identity.
Penn State was facing an uncertain future, but Cael and company weren’t ones to rest on their laurels. They hauled in the top ranked recruiting class in 2014, an eight man group headlined by Nick Nevills, Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal. No one expected the trio to step in and replicate the success of the wrestlers who’d transformed Penn State into juggernauts, but the hope was the team wouldn’t drop off too much during their stay.
2015 was the transition year everyone expected it would be. With Nico Megaludis and Zain Retherford redshirting, Penn State willingly conceded their chokehold on the NCAA tournament. Matt Brown was their lone champion that year as the team idled to a sixth place finish. Matt’s long awaited victory was the undoubted highlight of the season, but Jason Nolf gave fans something to look forward to when he reached the Southern Scuffle finals as a redshirt freshmen.
With 2015 out of the way, Penn State had their eyes set on reclaiming their crown. Leading the way was Zain, whose only losses during his maiden campaign had been to Logan Stieber and Mitchell Port, but right behind him were the trio of freshman, Nevills, Nolf and Nickal.
It didn’t take long Penn State’s new 157 and 174 pounders to announce themselves to the wrestling world. Jason pulled off the upset of the year by pinning Isaiah Martinez in Champaign, IL, while Bo Nickal beat a pair of top five wrestlers before emerging victorious in of the most entertaining matches of the year against Brian Realbuto in the Southern Scuffle final.
They’d only been wrestling for Penn State for a few months, but Nolf was already vying for the position of most creative wrestler in the country. With a limitless bag of tricks and the ability to seize opportunities others couldn’t even envision, he lit up the scoreboards with assured ease.
Nickal meanwhile was every bit as dominating as his teammate. He was dynamic from neutral, with an unstoppable cross ankle pick and the chops to go upper body with anyone. He was crushing on top, and, like Jason and Ed Ruth before him, seemed capable of locking up a cradle from any position.
And, while neither earned NCAA titles that year, with Jason losing to I Mar for the second time and Bo shockingly falling to the 11th seeded Myles Martin, Penn State successfully recaptured their team title, due in large part to the duo’s contributions. Despite losing, they walked away from that tournament with a reputation as some of the sport’s brightest stars. Any questions people might have had heading into the year had been answered. Jason and Bo were the real deal, and suddenly Taylor and Ruth didn’t seem as irreplaceable as everyone had thought.
Nickal and Nolf stormed out of the gates in their sophomore year. Racking up bonus point victories at a rate only equaled by teammate Zain Retherford, they paced the Nittany Lions to another undefeated dual meet record. Their evolution as wrestlers was nothing short of fascinating. Whether it was fine-tuning existing techniques or innovating new ones like Nolf’s now famous Winn-Dixie, they kept finding ways to improve upon an already magnificent product. They brought the Rec Hall crowd to their feet with regularity, and even had a few Hawkeye and Buckeye fans begrudgingly offering praise.
Come March they collected their first individual national championships. Nolf made quick work of a bracket in which he was prohibitive favorite, powering to a title on the back of two techs, a pin and two major decisions. About an hour later Nickal completed the coup of the tournament, defeating two time champion Gabe Dean in a final pretty much no one expected him to win. When the dust settled it was Zain who walked away with the Outstanding Wrestler award, but Bo and Nolf were right behind him with the second and third most points scored in the tournament.
Along with Zain, Nickal and Nolf paced the team in the 2017-2018 season, with the latter two notching 16 pins each over the course of the season. Things were looking rosy as March approached, but an injury in the dual against Rutgers put Jason’s season in jeopardy. He recovered in time to appear in the Big 10 tournament, but after injury defaulting out of the tournament questions swirled if he’d be able to go all the way at NCAAs.
He didn’t look as imperious as usual in the opening stages, but a tech fall over Micah Jordan in the semis and a measured 6-2 victory over Hayden Hidlay earned Jason a second straight national championship.
It was an extremely meaningful victory, not just for Jason, but for his team as well. When he wrestled his final match the season prior, he’d done so knowing Penn State had already locked up the team race. This year, however, the Nittany Lions were neck and neck with hated rivals Ohio State as the 2018 tournament neared its conclusion.
It all came down to the 184 pound final. Were Bo to earn his third straight win over Myles Martin he’d secure the title for Penn State. If Myles managed to hand his nemesis another loss it would give Kyle Snyder a chance to seal the deal for Ohio State in the 11th hour. With every college wrestling fan in the country watching Bo and Myles Martin renewed their rivalry on the grandest stage, with not just an individual championship on the line, but a team title as well.
It turned out to be one of the greatest moments in NCAA wrestling history. With 47 second left in the first period Myles Martin went for a double leg and, despite being initially stood up, managed take Bo to his back after a brief scramble. Images of their fateful match two years earlier flashed through every fans’ mind, but Bo kept his hips high and rolled through, reversing the position. Less than five seconds later the ref slapped the mat. Bo Nickal was NCAA champion, Penn State was as well. When interviewed after the match he made clear to all who were listening that when a wrestler comes to Penn State, “They win big matches. They win team titles.” With another championship under the belts Nickal and Nolf prepared for their senior seasons, an opportunity to win more big matches and bring Penn State their eighth title in nine years.
After a thrilling end to their junior years, Jason and Bo’s final campaign was comparatively uneventful. Both started the season number one, and were rarely tested en route to their third championships. They combined for 53 points at nationals en route to their third titles, a total which would have been good enough for ninth in the team standings. Their haul, combined with that of their teammates, gave Penn State their eighth title under the Sanderson regime. And, while collegiate wrestling’s greatest honor, the Hodge trophy, is yet to be decided, it’s clear it will go to either Jason or Bo. With Bo having recorded his highest ever pin total of 18, and Jason reaching the 15 mark for the third time, their senior seasons will be remembered as some of the most dominant in NCAA history.
In the end, Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal did more than just replace Taylor and Ruth. They forged an indelible legacy all their own. During their five year stint in Happy Valley Bo and Jason combined to go 237-6, with 197 bonus point wins, 119 pins and three national championships apiece. They came to epitomize the Penn State way, scoring points by the boatload with aggression, flair and creativity. Their love of wrestling was abundantly clear, and they shined the brightest in the biggest moments, playing an instrumental role in ensuring Penn State never slipped from its position atop collegiate wrestling. They’ll depart Penn State having secured their place among the all time greats. Right up there with their coach Cael Sanderson, and a pair of Nittany Lions no one was supposed to be able to equal.