PSU returns wrestlers to NCAA’s experienced

By ANDY ELDER

For The Express

UNIVERSITY PARK — For Shakur Rasheed and Anthony Cassar, the lead up to the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships has come full circle from preparing for last year’s tournament.

It’s also 180 degrees different.

Last year at this time, Rasheed was prepping for his first NCAA tournament as the Nittany Lions’ late-season choice as the starting 197-pounder. That meant that Cassar would be watching in Cleveland as a fan.

This year, Rasheed is seeded second at 184, Cassar second at 285 for the three-day tournament that runs from Thursday through Saturday in PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.

Through it all, they have remained friends, and each other’s biggest fan, despite the two of them competing for the same spot a year ago. Each of them has spoken at length about how much more they’re enjoying this season.

“You guys like me and Anthony, huh?” Rasheed said Monday in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex.

“Yeah, that’s my bro. It feels good. If we both win national titles there’s going to be a lot of things you guys are going to be hearing about; laying out in the sun, looking for chicks, everything. It’s going to be real fun.”

Cassar was honest in asking a question about who he would be happier for if each won a championship.

“Selfishly, that would be me,” he said, laughing, “but I want to see both happen.”

If the seeds hold, Cassar would have to win a rematch with Minnesota No. 2 seed Gable Steveson in the semifinals and then another rematch, with No. 1 seed Derek White of Oklahoma State, in the finals.

“I would like to wrestle them both to leave no doubt I’m the best heavyweight in the nation. With these kind of seedings it looks like that may happen and I’m grateful for that,” he said. “If it doesn’t, I just want to be the champ either way.”

Many predict that the seeds will hold at 184 and that would mean Rasheed meeting the man he missed wrestling when he medically forfeited the Big Ten final — No. 1 seed Myles Martin of Ohio State. Rasheed said there’s a lot of wrestling to get through before that could happen.

“I’ve got four matches to get to the finals. That dude’s got four matches to get to the finals. He’s a great competitor and I think that would be a fun match,” he said.

“I would love to win a Big Ten title, but nationals is what matters. Yeah, I’m looking forward to hopefully having a fun match with that kid, but we’ve both got four matches to go.”

A third Nittany Lion received a No. 2 seed, as well, in two-time defending NCAA 165-pound champion Vincenzo Joseph. He fell in the Big Ten finals, 9-3, to Iowa’s Alex Marinelli, the No. 1 seed at NCAAs. It’s the third year in a row that Joseph was denied a Big Ten title. In the last two, he shrugged that off to win an NCAA title.

“It’s not easy to sit here and think, ‘Oh, you know, Big Tens is over with, on to another tournament, just forget about it, pretend it never happened, because it did happen,” he said. “It is in the back of my mind and it motivates me a little bit but it helps me understand too that wrestling is just a sport. Of course, I hate losing; no one likes to lose, but at the end of the day it’s just a sport and you have the rest of your life.”

Penn State also has three No. 1 seeds in Pittsburgh: Jason Nolf (157), Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (197). Nolf and Nickal are each vying for a third championship. Hall will try to win a second.

“My expectations were to become a four-time undefeated national champ. Obviously, that didn’t happen but now I’m looking to be a three-time national champion,” Nolf said. “I have higher expectations for myself than anybody could have for me so I’m not worried about what other people think. I want to win every single match I wrestle in and I want to pin everybody, so that’s kind of my expectation.”

Hall said he expects to see a familiar face in the final — Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia. Hall defeated him on his way to the 2017 title. Valencia defeated Hall in the 2018 final. Hall earned a measure of revenge with a 4-0 win in a dual meet in December.

“Whether I won or lost (in the dual meet), I feel like we’re the best two. It’s going to be us in the finals. That’s what I think,” he said.

Coach Cael Sanderson said his team has set itself up for a good tournament. In addition to the six wrestlers seeded first or second, three others received high seeds as well: Nick Lee (3rd at 141), Roman Bravo-Young (10th at 133) and Brady Berge (12th at 149).

“I think our team’s wrestled very well this year and they’ve set things up, but it’s all about the finish, finishing strong and getting what they want,” he said.

“Expectations and seeds and rankings don’t really mean a lot. Best ranking on paper doesn’t always win; best seed doesn’t always win. Whoever goes out there and scores the most points for the minutes you’re given. We’re excited about the opportunity and I think we’re gonna wrestle really well. We have some gamers on our team and the bigger the match the better some of these guys wrestle and I believe that 100 percent.”

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