As they filed out of the Crisler Center on Friday night, countless spectators looked back at the wrestling mat wondering what could have been had the night gone differently for the No. 8 Michigan wrestling team in wake of their 25–12 defeat by top-ranked Penn.
The Wolverines began the highly anticipated matchup on a strong note, winning their first two duals. But that was short lived.
The Nittany Lions subsequently rattled off seven straight victories, five coming from Penn State’s glorified former national champions: Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf, Vincenzo Joseph, Mark Hall and Bo Nickal.
The Michigan wrestlers fought hard, ending three matchups against former national champions with a loss of three points or fewer. However, they found themselves with the upper hand in only three of the 10 total matchups.
The Wolverines’ top wrestler, redshirt senior Adam Coon, understood that Michigan was bound to struggle against such elite competition. He was not as concerned with the loss now as he was with the potential for a future matchup in the NCAA Tournament.
“We were close in a lot of these matches, (but) we were on the losing side,” Coon said. “There’s one or two points that we need to find somewhere in the practice room and in the next two months … before we can make it to the NCAA (Tournament).”
Coon – the undefeated No. 2 heavyweight wrestler in the nation and a former All-American – was one of the bright spots in the Wolverines’ loss. He continued his continual dominance over his competition as he eased his way to an 8-0 rout over his Nittany Lion opponent.
Michigan coach Joe McFarland echoed Coon’s sentiments, but, he also pinpointed a specific area in which he would like to see improvement from the Wolverines.
“In every match, the guy who scored the first takedown won the match,” McFarland said. “It shows you how important that first takedown is and getting momentum on your side.
“When you’re able to score right away, it means you’re walking on the floor with the right mindset and I think in some cases that was the difference in some of our wins and some of our losses.”
In Michigan’s postgame meeting, McFarland put a great deal of emphasis on the fact that losing to the best squad in the nation is no reason to be ashamed. He used the dual as a way to find specific areas he would like to see each of his wrestlers improve.
McFarland pointed to one wrestler in particular – redshirt junior Alec Pantaleo – the fifth-ranked wrestler in the 157-pound division and also a former All-American, who could specifically work on getting out from bottom.
Going into the third round of his matchup, Pantaleo saw only a one-point deficit to the No.1 wrestler in the division, Penn State’s Jason Nolf. Pantaleo had the choice to pick either top or bottom to begin the round and chose bottom assuming he would get a point for an escape to tie the match. His strategy proved ineffective and Nolf did not let him go throughout the entire two minutes.
“(Pantaleo’s) made some strides down there but he realizes he needs more work,” McFarland said. “You gotta be able to get away … we need to continue to work from the bottom position.”
Pantaleo’s loss came at an inopportune time for the Wolverines, as the overall score was still close at 9-8 in favor of the Nittany Lions. A victory in his matchup would have greatly helped Michigan as the only way it could have possibly won the dual was to beat at least one of the Penn State elites.
“People can say it was a bad decision all they want but from last year I have made big strides getting up from bottom,” Pantaleo said. “I have yet to have anybody ride me out until now. I was really confident, I chose bottom, figured I was gonna get a point. Obviously, I still need to work on it, which is good to know now rather than later.”
Even though Pantaleo’s loss dealt a huge blow to the Wolverines, they were still down just four points. Not until the 184-pound division match between Michigan’s fifth-ranked Domenic Abounader and Penn State’s top-ranked Bo Nickal did the Nittany Lions seal the Wolverine’s fate.
Down 3-2 heading into the third round, Abounader needed a takedown to reclaim the lead. With less than a minute remaining in the round, Abounader attacked, positioned well and put Nickal on the ground for what the fans and Michigan wrestlers thought was a takedown. The referee disagreed. The same thing happened moments later and the fans went ballistic. Boos filled the arena.
Nickal would eventually break free of Abounader’s control and hit him with a takedown of his own, finishing off any hope the Wolverines had of pulling off the upset.
“If we’re going to be national champs we need to beat national champs,” Coon said. “We can’t just lose by one or two points and expect to win. We still have areas to work on, but overall, we definitely competed.”