History is being made this season for Penn State wrestling, as seniors Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal pin their way to the top of the record books.
Both recently notched their 100th career wins, and Nolf now holds the all-time pins record for Penn State with 54, with Nickal not far behind with 51. As the pins rack up, so do the accolades — the wrestler of the week honors, the Hodge watch lists, etc. — but the pair couldn’t seem to care less.
“I just pin guys because I want to pin them,” Nickal said, “and that’s pretty much it.”
Added Nolf, with a slight shrug: “I just want to pin everybody I wrestle and score a lot of points.”
Ahead of the Southern Scuffle at the start of the year, Nolf had no idea he was just three pins shy of tying Penn State’s all-time falls record until told so by reporters. He ended up tying, then breaking, that record at the Scuffle, where Nickal achieved his 100th win.
“We hear these things for the first time when they announce them on the loudspeaker,” head coach Cael Sanderson said.
Sanderson recalled standing next to Nickal and being surprised when the announcement of his 100th win came over the PA system. With Nickal’s 97 percent career winning rate, Sanderson had assumed he hit the 100 mark a long time ago.
But, as athletes wrestle fewer matches than they did in the past, even 10-15 years ago, it’s more difficult to achieve that accolade.
“I said, ‘Did you take a year off or what?’ You only barely got to 100,’ ” Sanderson remembered, joking with his wrestler. “Because he’s only lost a couple matches.”
The next time the Nittany Lions were in action, against Big Ten foe Northwestern, Nolf recorded his 100th win in the form of a major decision over the third-ranked wrestler at 157 pounds, Ryan Deakin. That win, along with his technical fall of Wisconsin’s Devin Bahr a couple days later, earned Nolf a bundle of honors: USA Wrestling Athlete of the Week, Big Ten Wrestler of the Week and Penn State Student-Athlete of the Week.
“They’re so exciting, and they make the sport fun,” junior Mark Hall said of his teammates. “They’re the example of Penn State wrestling, I believe. They’re the guys who go out there and score points, they’re always looking for bonus points, they’re the Hodge frontrunners — right? — so they’re the Heisman finalists of wrestling. It’s a pleasure to have those two to look up to.”
Undefeated this season, with 100 percent bonus rates, the two-time national champs are heavy frontrunners and neck and neck for the honor to be named this year’s most outstanding college wrestler — the title held by former teammate Zain Retherford for the past two seasons. But just as with the all-time pins record, Nolf and Nickal don’t let themselves get caught up in earning awards — even the Hodge Trophy.
“I’m not doing things for external reasons,” Nolf said. “I’m doing it because I want to be the best and I want to wrestle the best I can.”
By being the best wrestlers they can be, Nolf and Nickal are helping out their team, not only on the scoreboard, but also by leaving a legacy for the younger wrestlers to carry on the same mentality of scoring a lot of points and having fun, long after the two hang up their blue and white singlets.
“When you see guys like Jason Nolf out there lighting up the scoreboard, I want to do that, too,” freshman 149-pounder Brady Berge said. “It’s awesome to be able to train with him every day and have him help me and give me tips.”
The leadership qualities and presence that Nolf and Nickal have extend off the mat, as the two bring a sense of playfulness to the atmosphere around them, and are always reinforcing the message of having fun and not taking wrestling too seriously.
Nickal bought Hall a game of “Rick and Morty” Monopoly for his birthday, the day of the Northwestern match, and as soon as the match ended and the wrestlers got back to their hotel rooms, they all played a round. During warmups, while some of his teammates are running sprints to get ready, Nolf can be seen in the corner, casually dribbling a basketball.
“You got to let Nolf be Nolf, and when it’s time to go, he works really hard,” Sanderson said.
The season is still far from over, with eight duals and two major tournaments left for Nolf and Nickal to continue tacking on the pins and setting the bar even higher for future Nittany Lions. Their next test is at 1 p.m. Sunday against Nebraska at home, when Nolf will have another opportunity to show why he’s the top wrestler at 157 pounds, when he faces No. 2 Tyler Berger, and Nickal takes on No. 11 Eric Schultz at 197 pounds.
Nolf and Nickal’s abilities to block out outside noise like rankings, social media and publicity, and putting emphasis on enjoying the sport and consistently getting better is something Sanderson said he saw in the two back when he was recruiting them. Although he said it was impossible to predict they’d experience this kind of success, the coaching staff always had high hopes for them.
“I think they both just enjoy life; they’re going to get the most out of life. They do it the right way,” Sanderson said. “They’re not getting the most out of life by hanging out in bars or doing silly college kid type of stuff. They’re competing in everything that they do, they both have very high aspirations. They want to by Olympic champions, they both want to be successful in their careers and their lives and in their families.”
Whether it will be Nolf or Nickal who ends his career with the most pins is anyone’s guess. But for the two wrestlers, the pins record wouldn’t even cross their minds if reporters didn’t bring it up to them every Tuesday.
“No, I haven’t talked about it. I don’t really think it’s a huge focus. We just want to wrestle our bests,” Nickal said. “I want to pin everybody, but I can’t control how many guys he pins. I hope he pins every single kid the rest of the year. That’s what’s best for the team.”
As for whether they’d settle the score once and for all with a “death-match” tiebreaker if they end the season with the same number of pins, Nickal didn’t seem too interested.
“No, probably not,” he added.