CLEVELAND — Zain Retherford hasn’t spent much time considering his place in the college wrestling world or even his Penn State legacy.
On Friday night, the Nittany Lions senior allowed himself a moment of reverie.
Shortly before his 92nd straight win propelled him into the finals of the NCAA Wrestling Championships — where he’ll try for his third title when the tournament concludes on Saturday — Retherford looked around a packed Quicken Loans Arena.
“Before that match, I think I was kind of pacing out there in the center,” Retherford said. “I was just thinking, this is my second-to-last full-style match I’ll ever get to wrestle in a Penn State singlet. Just make the most of it.”
Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello, left, controls Arizona State's Ryan Millhof during a 125-pound weight class match at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Cleveland.
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Retherford (149 pounds) beat North Carolina’s Troy Heilmann 10-4 to spark Penn State’s 5-for-5 performance in the semifinals and cue its surge to the top of the team standings.
The Nittany Lions, who’ve won six of the last seven team titles, also got wins from defending champions Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (184) to take a 120½-109½ lead over Ohio State.
It continued the Nittany Lions’ torrid streak of 16 straight semifinal wins in the NCAA tournament since 2015.
“Sounds great, right?” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “That’s not a lot, either, 16. There’s 10 weight classes in each year.”
Iowa, Michigan and North Carolina State round out the top five with 85½, 73½ and 69½ points, respectively.
The Buckeyes led by double digits after the first three rounds and sent six wrestlers into the semis. But they went just 2-for-6 with 184-pounder Myles Martin and reigning Olympic champion Kyle Snyder (285) advancing to the finals.
After Buckeyes Nathan Tomasello (125), Luke Pletcher (133) and Joey McKenna (141) dropped their semifinal bouts, Nolf stepped onto the mat against Micah Jordan (157) with a chance to seize the lead for the Nittany Lions.
Wearing a chunky brace on his right knee because of an injury sustained on Jan. 28 that ended his regular season, Nolf dominated Jordan from the opening whistle. He snagged an early takedown and repeatedly tilted Jordan to his back for nearfall points to complete the 18-0 technical fall in just 4:28. Nolf will battle NC State’s Hayden Hidlay — a central Pennsylvania native — in the 157-pound finals after Hidlay edged Michigan’s Alec Pantaleo 3-2.
“I was pretty confident in my top game today,” Nolf said. “And it just worked out.”
The Buckeyes aren’t out of it but they’ll need big results from stalwarts Snyder and Martin on Saturday.
“It sucks that those guys lost, and I felt it when they did lose,” Martin said after he beat Virginia Tech’s Zach Zavatsky 8-4 to set up a 2016 finals rematch with Nickal. “But I tried not to get caught up in it a whole lot because I’ve still got to do my part for the team as well.”
Like Retherford, Snyder will also compete for his third title. He’ll face Michigan big man Adam Coon after Snyder beat Duke’s Jacob Kasper 10-5 and Coon edged Oregon State’s Amar Dhesi 4-2 in the semis.
If Retherford wins his third title, it’ll come at the expense of a friend. Lock Haven’s Ronnie Perry became the first No. 15 seed to make the finals when he beat Princeton’s Matthew Kolodzik 5-3 and trained with Retherford over the summer.
Joseph beat Virginia Tech’s David McFadden 3-1 to set up a rematch of last season’s 165-pound final with Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez. The Illinois senior will try to win his third title after edging Iowa’s Alex Marinelli 5-2 in the semis.
Meanwhile, two former 125-pound champions were bounced in the semis by youngsters making their tournament debuts.
Rutgers sophomore Nick Suriano, who withdrew from last year’s tournament the night before with an injury, became the first NCAA finalist in program history with a 2-0 win over defending champion Darian Cruz of Lehigh. He’ll face Iowa freshman Spencer Lee for the 125-pound title. Lee pinned Tomasello, the 2015 champion, in 6:05.
South Dakota State’s Seth Gross pinned his way into the finals where he’ll face Michigan’s Stevan Micic at 133. Wyoming Bryce Meredith will close his career with a championship bout against Cornell freshman Yianni Diakomihalis at 141.
Hall will battle Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia in a matchup of unbeatens at 174. NC State’s Mike Macchiavello will face Virginia Tech’s Jared Haught for the 197-pound title.
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