At Penn State Wrestling Media Day in early November, Mark Hall downplayed his last match of the 2017-18 season, an 8-2 loss to Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia in the NCAA 174-pound final.
“To me, it was just another match,” he said. “It took me a few days to realize that, but at the end, it’s all it was. It’s just wrestling.”
Fast forward a month and apparently Hall still feels the same way, even as a rematch with Valencia looms on Friday.
That may be true for Hall and the rest of the Nittany Lions, but Penn State fans and media and others around the country think it’s much bigger than just another match.
No. 15 Arizona State is set to visit Rec Hall at 6 p.m. Friday for a match with No. 1 Penn State that will be nationally televised by ESPN2. The marquee matchup, among several intriguing pairings, will come at 174 pounds where a Valencia-Hall rematch awaits.
Hall wasn’t made available Tuesday to the gathered media outside the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, but his teammates and head coach said it’s business as usual for the nation’s second-ranked 174-pounder.
“I think Mark understands and expects to be his best regardless of his opponent. Just because he has Zahid, who is the No.1-ranked guy in the country, it shouldn’t change his effort. His effort should be great regardless of who/where/when he’s wrestling. That’s the way I look at it and the way I think most of our guys look at it,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said.
“Yeah, it’s a big match but every match is big in a certain sense. He’s the top-seeded guy in the weight and he’s one of the guys you have to beat if you want to be national champion. So you have to be your best and that’s the goal. It always is.”
Still, the match takes on added intrigue because at the 2016 NCAA championships, Hall defeated Valencia, 4-3, in the semifinals on his way to a national championship. The fact that Valencia snatched that title away in 2017 has the wrestling world abuzz about the rematch.
“He seems normal. Doing the same things we always do. Seems confident,” 157-pounder Jason Nolf said of Hall.
“I like watching good wrestling and people who are gonna go out there and let it fly and not hold anything back and I think that will be one of the best matchups of the night.”
So, too, does 165-pounder Vincenzo Joseph.
“It’s gonna be a good one, that’s all I got. I don’t doubt Mark … ever. Never will. I think Mark’s gonna come out on top but that’s just what I think is gonna happen,” Joseph said.
Joseph faces a challenging opponent, as well, in No. 5 Josh Shields who, like Joseph, wrestled for the Young Guns Wrestling Club. Joseph went to Central Catholic in Pittsburgh, Shields to Franklin Regional in Murrysville.
“Excited for that one. I haven’t wrestled with Josh in a few years. We would work out on breaks together, another guy I grew up wrestling with, a good friend of mine,” he said.
Sanderson said having the match televised live on ESPN2 is a big deal.
“I think that’s great. Any national exposure like that is great for the sport. I think we’re seeing more and more of that in wrestling, so that’s a good sign. We’re blessed with the Big Ten Network and the exposure that national tournament gets and that’s a good thing for the sport,” he said.
While he agreed that TV exposure is good, Sanderson wasn’t as keen on switching the order of Friday night’s dual so that the final two bouts would be 165 and 174, matchups of No. 1 vs. No. 5 and No. 1 vs. No. 2.
“That’s way too much thinking for me. I get that and they’re using that more and more in wrestling at different events; you have a build-up and then the finale,” he said.
“There are gonna be great matches up and down the lineup. Mark Hall and Valencia, obviously a rematch of the national finals and that’s a big one. We’re a team so we’re not gonna focus on one match.”
OPTIONS AT 125 POUNDS
For now, Devin Schnupp is the starter at 125 pounds. There’s no disputing that he shows marked improvement over last year. He’s even put together a two-match winning streak.
Many have questioned why freshman Brody Teske hasn’t been inserted in the lineup, or even wrestled in an open tournament. Sanderson said Teske had an infection in his knee earlier in the season, but that’s not a concern now. Nor is removing his redshirt.
Sanderson also said that freshman Gavin Teasdale, who announced on Twitter earlier in the season that he was leaving the team and withdrawing from Penn State due to health issues, could return to the team as early as Saturday, when fall semester is officially over.
Teasdale was spotted wrestling with Brady Berge during Nittany Lion Wrestling Club practice Tuesday with the media assembled in the hallway outside the wrestling room.
“He (Teske) might wrestle this weekend in an open. He’s getting ready to go; his weight’s good. Everything’s on the table. We don’t know what we’re doing at 125 yet and that will be something we decide as we move along here,” Sanderson said.
“Gavin Teasdale’s still planning and preparing to be at 125 also. Schnupp’s getting better, coming off two wins. We have options there and we’ll try to make the right decision but it’s really not that pressing for us right now. There’s just no reason for us to rush into something right now. We’re not sure what the best long-term solution is for the program.”
WHO GOES AT 149?
Sanderson talked at length about the competition at 149 pounds, where freshman Brady Berge and redshirt freshman Jarod Verkleeren are vying for the starting job.
Those two have been alternating since Berge defeated Verkleeren at the Keystone Classic on Nov. 18. Berge got the start vs. Bucknell on Nov. 30, Verkleeren vs. Lehigh on Dec. 2.
So, whose turn will it be Friday?
“We’ll probably just flip a coin or draw straws or something,” Sanderson said. “Not sure what we’re gonna do there yet.”
NOTES: The all-time series between ASU and PSU is tied 3-3-1. Each of those seven duals came in a tournament setting. The last time these two teams met, and the only time on either’s campus, was at the 2001 National Duals held on Jan. 21, 2001 at Penn State. … Sun Devil volunteer assistant coach Jamill Kelly and Sanderson were teammates on the 2004 United States Freestyle Team at the Athens, Greece, Olympic Games. Sanderson won gold at 84 kg and Kelly won silver at 66 kg.
Sanderson recalled his relationship with Kelly.
“I’ve always been pretty good friends with him. I wrestled him in high school and he’ll tell you he got cheated by the ref…two more seconds, he had a headlock. There’s some truth to that, not the cheating part, but the headlock,” Sanderson said. “He’s always been a good friend and a great competitor and a good all-around guy. I really like Jamill and he’s a great asset for them there.”