Final X 2023: The Nittany Lion Wrestling Club vs Everyone
Final X 2023: The Nittany Lion Wrestling Club vs Everyone
Penn State Wrestling fans have a lot to cheer for at USA Wrestling's Final X, as the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club has 8 men's freestyle members competing.
A glance at the scheduled matches slated for Final X, presented by Tezos, yields a plethora of Nittany Lion Wrestling Club members. Fans of the NLWC will have ample opportunity to cheer for their favorite team at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on June 10, when Team USA determines their representatives for the 2023 Uww World Championships in men’s and women’s freestyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling.
As the NLWC trains in State College, PA using the same facilities as Penn State University's Nittany Lion wrestling program, and as many of the same coaches and wrestlers of the NLWC are also current or former members of Penn State's NCAA program, it comes as no surprise that there is a good deal of overlap between the fan bases of the two clubs. Indeed, the Venn Diagram of those two fan bases resembles that of a total eclipse.
Penn State wrestling fans, many of whom are also NLWC fans, are no strangers to watching their athletes compete at the pinnacle of competition, as the Nittany Lion's NCAA wrestling dynasty was strengthened last March with the addition of the 10th PSU team title in the last 13 years.
But while PSU’s current reign as the top collegiate folkstyle team of the era is undisputed, the other team in Happy Valley under the tutelage of coach Cael Sanderson has only just begun to claw its way to the top of its respective arena of competition, that of domestic men’s freestyle wrestling.
And just as Penn State are favorites to repeat next season and earn their 11th NCAA team title of the Sanderson Era, the NLWC are expected to cement and extend their more recently achieved position as the top domestic club. A look at the slated Final X matchup below will confirm that expectation as valid.
57: Thomas Gilman, Nittany Lion WC vs Zane Richards, Illinois RTC
61: Vito Arujau, Spartan Combat vs Nahshon Garrett, Lehigh Valley WC
65: Yianni Diakomihalis, Spartan Combat vs Nick Lee, Nittany Lion WC
70: Zain Retherford, Nittany Lion WC vs Tyler Berger, Pennsylvania, RTC
74: Kyle Dake, Nittany Lion WC vs Jason Nolf, Nittany Lion WC
79: Jordan Burroughs, PRTC vs Chance Marsteller, NYC RTC
86: David Taylor, Nittany Lion WC vs Aaron Brooks, Nittany Lion WC
92: Mike Macchiavello, Wolfpack RTC vs Zahid Valencia, Sunkist Kids
97: Kyle Snyder, Nittany Lion WC vs J’den Cox, Cliff Keen WC
125 Gable Steveson Gopher WC vs Mason Parris, Cliff Keen WC
For those counting at home, eight of the 20 men's freestyle competition at Final X are members of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. Two weight classes will feature two NLWC members facing off against each other (74 and 86kg), guaranteeing at least two members of 2023 World Team will hail from Happy Valley.
Additionally, returning medalists Snyder, Retherford and Gilman favorites to win their Final X matchups, which would give the NLWC five starters. Furthermore, a Nick Lee upset over the reigning 65kg world silver medalist, Yianni Diakomihalis, is not unthinkable which would give the NLWC an astonishing six men’s freestyler world teamers.
The only weights in men’s freestyle that won’t feature an NLWC club member at Final X are 61, 79, and 92kg, hence the 'NLWC vs Everyone' copy in the headline. Verily, it is a great time to be a Nittany Lion Wrestling Club fan.
It should be also noted that Jen Page will also represent the NLWC at Final X, as she earned a spot in the women’s freestyle 59kg Final X wrestle-off, though this blog will continue to focus on the men's freestyle side of the event, as that is the style in which NLWC has earned *ahem* the lion's share of the Final X spots.
A BRIEF (RECENT) HISTORY OF THE NLWC
You may ask yourself, "Well, how did we get here?" The NLWC is not same as it ever was. In fact, it has been growing and evolving since it was founded. And although the NLWC has been one of the best senior-level clubs, or regional training centers, for at least as long as Cael has been in State College, things only really started to gel for coach Sanderson and company after the Rio Olympics, and especially in the lead up to the Tokyo Games,
Starting in 2011 the NLWC put 20 wrestlers on 12 different World or Olympic teams. 2011 may seem like an arbitrary year but it's one that coincides with both the beginning of Team USA's current era of men's freestyle success and the year that Cael Sanderson came out of retirement and made one final world team, and we had to limit the scope of this blog at some point so 2011 it is.
Besides Coach Sanderson himself, Cael’s former pupil at Iowa State, Jake Varner, made the 2011 team from the NLWC, as did Teyon Ware, a two-time national champ at Oklahoma.
Varner also made the 2012 London Olympic team (where he won gold, woo hoo!) and the 2014 world team. 2014 is also the year the first actual Penn State grad made a world or Olympic team since 2011 as Ed Ruth earned a spot on his first and only world team.
No one made the 2015 world team from the NLWC, however, Frank Molinaro returned to State College before the Rio Olympics and made the team at 65kg. Frank wrestled his guts out and placed fifth in Brazil.
Things started heating up in Happy Valley after Rio. Zain Retherford made two teams in 2017 and 2019, sandwiching a 2018 gold medal run for David Taylor at 86kg (in an utterly insane run through a stacked bracket).
A couple key transfers leading up to the Tokyo Games really put the NLWC at the forefront of American freestyle wrestling. Olympic gold medalist Kyle Snyder and then world silver medalist Thomas Gilman decided to take their talents to Penn State from Ohio State and Iowa, respectively. They both then made the Olympic team along with David Taylor which meant the NLWC occupied half of the men’s freestyle Olympic team spots and three of the five qualified weights.
Three NLWC team members made the 2021 team (Gilman, Taylor & Snyder) and four made the 2022 team (Gilman, Taylor, Snyder and Retherford).
Five is the most any one club has put on a World or Olympic team since 2011, which the Ohio-RTC did in 2013, when Angel Escobedo (55kg) Reece Humphrey (60kg), Keith Gavin (84kg), JD Bergman (96kg), and Tervel Dlagnev (125kg) made Team USA.
The NLWC and the Ohio-RTC are #1 and 2 on the list of most total starters since 2011. Third on that chart is the Nebraska Wrestling Training Center. Jordan Burroughs and James Green combined to make 14 world and Olympic teams while representing the NWTC during that time span.
A graph of Team USA’s starters for those three teams over the years can be found below.
But this doesn't tell the whole story, as the number of team spots available for clubs to claim changed just about every few years. At the 2012 Olympics and 2011 and 2013 World Championships there were a mere 7 weight classes. From 2014 to 2017 there were 8 (although there were just 6 at the Olympics, two non-Olympic weights were featured in a separate World Championship event in 2016, events that were combined for the purposes of this graph). From 2018 until 2022 there have been 10 weight classes, except for the 2020 Olympics which were back down to 6 (and there was no World Championship for non-Olympic weights).
Which makes the five spots attained in 2013 by the Ohio-RTC that much more impressive. A table of the year, spots available, top club by number of spots, and percentage spots earned by the top club from 2011 to 2022 can be found below.
Another way to slice this melon is to look at the number of World Championship medals won by each club. Here, the picture of NLWC's slow but seemingly inexorable march to domination is even starker. Between 2011 to 2019, no club won more than two medals in one year. Twice Jordan Burroughs and James Green won medals for the Nebraska Wrestling Training Center and once the Ohio-RTC won a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics (Kyle Snyder) and the 2016 World Championships (Logan Stieber).
Gilman and Snyder's move to PSU prior to the Tokyo Games began to tilt things in NLWC's favor and its medal count began to climb at a faster clip. The below chart of the club with the most world or Olympic medals by year illustrates just how efficient Coach Sanderson has gotten at churning at world medalists.
It's worth highlighting the domestic parity on display at the 2018 Worlds, as the medals were spread out evenly amongst seven different clubs: Joe Colon - Valley RTC, Jordan Burroughs - NWTC, Kyle Dake - Spartan Combat, David Taylor - NLWC, J'den Cox - Olympic Training Center, Kyle Snyder - Ohio-RTC, and Nick Gwiazdowski - Wolfpack RTC.
NLWC Is Now Poised To Take On The World
Now that our not-so-brief look back at NLWC history is complete, let's peer into a potential future Team USA men's freestyle lineup of the future. We already established that in 2023, the NLWC will have at least two, and as many as six (though most likely five) world teamers.
Could the NLWC complete the sweep and place a club member at every weight class in the future?
The next event after Belgrade in 2023 is the Paris Olympics in 2024 (assuming a global pandemic doesn't mess everything up again). With just six weights being contested, the Olympics are a simpler event to hypothesize. That men's team headed to the City of Lights could look like the following:
- 57: Thomas Gilman
- 65: Zain Retherford
- 74: Kyle Dake
- 86: David Taylor
- 97: Kyle Snyder
- 125: Greg Kerkvliet
Gilman, Dake, Taylor and Snyder are all world champs and medalists from the Tokyo Games. We're assuming Retherford drops down but if not him, one of his teammates Nick Lee or Beau Bartlett could conceivably make the team, although at the moment the favorite would still probably be Yianni Diakomihalis. And Kerkvliet will have a serious challenge if Gable Steveson continues to compete, but if he's healthy, he has an outside shot to make the team even with Steveson wrestling (although we're still calling Steveson the favorite at this point).
So while it's possible that 6 NLWC'ers wrestle in the Paris Games, let's put the over/under at 3.5 for now.
What about for a 10-weight Worlds? Even though the next senior world championship won't be until the fall of 2025, we can construct a hypothetical NLWC USA men's freestyle team with the wrestlers that are on NLWC's roster as of now. A lot can and will change between now and Final X 2025, but we can hypothesize anyway. Literally, no one can stop us from hypothesizing.
For example, here's a couple of current NLWC guys at each weight we can hypothesize making the world team in 2025:
- 57: Thomas Gilman or Robbie Howard
- 61: Roman Bravo-Young or Aaron Nagao
- 65: Nick Lee or Beau Bartlett
- 70: Zain Retherford or Levi Haines
- 74: Kyle Dake or Jason Nolf
- 79: Carter Starocci or Mitchell Mesenbrink
- 86: David Taylor or Aaron Brooks
- 92: Morgan McIntosh or Bernie Truax
- 97: Kyle Snyder or Max Dean
- 125: Greg Kerkvliet or Ceron Francisco
See? We did it and no one stopped us.
Listing two guys per weight really highlights how spoiled for choice NLWC is when it comes to getting a world teamer out on the mat.
A great many caveats apply, of course. Guys could change weights, they could get hurt, they could transfer to other clubs, they could retire, other guys could transfer in, lots of stuff could happen! But whatever, none of this is real anyway, it's just a fun hypothetical.
In any case, almost all the wrestlers we did list have major international experience and credentials. For example, Gilman is a world champ, and Robbie Howard made three U17 world teams. Additionally, RBY is a 2019 U20 Pan-AM gold medalist, while Nagao placed fifth at the 2022 U23 Worlds. Nick Lee has three U17 Pan-Am golds and a silver from the 2022 Bill Farrell.
Continuing down the list, Bartlett took home a bronze from the 2021 U20 Worlds. Retherford is the defending 70kg world silver medalist, and Haines made the 2021 U17 world team at 71kg (Shayne Van Ness is another option for the NLWC at this weight). Dake has an Olympic bronze from Tokyo bracketed by two golds at world championships on both sides of the Games (so four total golds, to be clear).
Nolf has a silver from the 2019 Bill Farrell and more recently a gold from the 2023 Zagreb Open. Starocci took third at the U23 World Championships last year, and Mesenbrink has a U20 gold from 2022. DT is a one-time Olympic and two-time World gold medalist, while Aaron Brooks has a U17 gold and U20 silver medal from World Championships in 2017 and 2018. McIntosh recently scored a silver at the 2022 Bill Farrell, however, Truax is still very green when it comes to international experience.
Moving right along, Kyle Snyder is one of the most accomplished American wrestlers of all time with eight world or Olympic medals, including four golds. Max Dean is slightly less credentialed, with one U23 world team under his belt. Kerkvliet, however, has made three age-level world teams, snagging a U17 gold in 2017. Finally, Sauce Daddy Ceron placed seventh recently at the 2023 Zagreb Open.
So yeah, quite a collection of talent! But how to get the best possible lineup out of it? No disrespect to either Morgan McIntosh or Bernie Truax but whoever doesn't earn the starting spot at 86kg will likely be the favorite to bump up and earn the 92kg spot (assuming Bo Nickal can't be coaxed back to the sport).
Now without getting too far into the weeds (a little late for a blog that started with a simple premise of "NLWC vs the World"), we can further hypothesize that this NLWC squad would be heavy favorites to beat any other country's men's freestyle team in a head-to-head dual except Russia or Iran.
An All-star team of wrestlers from all countries except USA, Russia and Iran would also probably fare decently against Team NLWC. But also don't count out a win by NLWC in a dual over Iran or Russia either. A more thorough breakdown of a potential matchup between an all-NLWC Team USA and one of these other international squads sounds like a fun exercise, but alas, we've long since run out of time for such an undertaking. Perhaps after Final X.
By now the point will have hopefully been made clear: there is a new epicenter for men's freestyle wrestling in America, which just so happens to reside in the same gym as the current dynastic champs of NCAA wrestling. This is not a coincidence, and the juggernaut that is Nittany Lion wrestling shows no signs of slowing down. So clear some space in the trophy cabinets in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex because after Final X, Belgrade is next!
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