PENN LIVE: Penn State's Zain Retherford wins 2nd straight Hodge Trophy as nation's best college wrestler

Published March 27th, 2018 by Zain Retherford

By Jim Carlson

Special to PennLive

Dan Hodge didn't wrestle for Penn State, but it does seem that a growing number of Penn State wrestlers are competing in the same dominant fashion that he did.

Zain Retherford, a three-time 149-pound NCAA champion from Benton with a ton of wrestling awards and records, won his second straight Dan Hodge Trophy on Tuesday.

He became just the third Penn State wrestler to ever win college wrestling's version of the Heisman Trophy for best in the sport. Retherford joins David Taylor as a winner of two; Kerry McCoy won one.

Two-time NCAA champion Bo Nickal was a finalist as well - he placed second, actually -- and it's highly likely Nickal and Jason Nolf at the very least will be candidates next season.

Nickal made it clear on Twitter last week that fans should vote for Retherford over him and Seth Gross of South Dakota State and Zahid Valencia of Arizona State. Nickal, Gross and Valencia were the order of finish behind Retherford.

They listened as Retherford won another landslide vote with 35 of 48 first-place votes from the voting committee and 13,008 votes from 25,000 public votes. He outpointed Missouri's J'den Cox, Ohio State's Kyle Snyder and Penn State's Nolf last season.

"To win the award that symbolizes dominance in college wrestling two years in a row means a lot to me," Retheford told WIN Magazine. "It's awesome."

"Coming into college my first year, I really wasn't that dominant. I would ride just to ride and would squeak out a few wins. Throughout wrestling at Penn State, I learned to look for more points and expand matches a little bit."

Yeah, just a bit.

Retherford, who won one PIAA title for Line Mountain and one for Benton, last lost a collegiate match on March 22, 2014. Since then, he's won 94 straight bouts to end his career with a 126-3 record. And he's rarely been one to settle for a regular decision; 74 percent, or 95 of his 126 win were of the bonus point variety. Such as 53 falls, which ties Taylor for the Penn State record, 22 technical falls and 20 major decisions to his credit.

Only 10 Penn State wrestlers have ever been four-time All-Americans and Retherford became the 10th in Cleveland just 10 days ago. And only he and Ed Ruth have three NCAA titles to their credit in Nittany Lion lore as well. Retherford's 19 career NCAA victories sit just two behind Ruth's 21.

His coach, Cael Sanderson, is the only wrestler to ever win the Hodge Trophy three times, and Sanderson, an Iowa State graduate, will get to keep Retherford around the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex. He'll be training to win future World and Olympic titles with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.

"Zain will always be remembered as one of the great college wrestlers certainly, one of the best Penn State wrestlers for sure," Sanderson said prior to the nationals. "He has a great mentality. He takes it one match at a time and is focused on just being the best he can be. He's as down to Earth as they get.''

Consistency is another key trait, according to Sanderson. "He's just the same all the time,'' he said. "He's had great performances. His national tournaments he's wrestled incredibly well. He's had some huge dual-meet wins. But I think more than anything, for us as a staff and as a program, it's just his leadership, his consistency.

"Every day is the same. He's the same all the time. I think that is very important if you want to be the best, is just be the same every day,'' Sanderson said.

Retherford relished his leadership role. "I don't like to be like a vocal kind of guy in the room where you expose people," he said last fall. "If someone's really slacking in a workout, everyone will yell, 'hey, pick it up,' but not like you're singling someone out. I don't like to do that kind of leading.

"When I'm in here doing my own thing, I'll kind of lead by example I guess. And if someone has a question after practice -- because I ride legs and if they ask...'what do you do from here, do you have anything you would do?' -- I kind of stay after practice and help guys with technique or ask them questions on their technique, what they do well.

"And not even wrestling-related ... life things," he said. "I guess that's really my role, lead by example, ask questions, be open to their questions.''

Retherford had all the answers on the mat. His freshman year was highlighted by a Rec Hall dual meet victory over four-time NCAA champ Logan Stieber of Ohio State. Stieber avenged that loss twice that season and Retherford's only other career defeat was to Mitchell Port of Edinboro in the NCAA consolation semifinals.

Having already wrestled internationally, Retherford now will set his sights on more. "I want to keep doing that, I want to be on the World team, I want to win a medal next time, I want to represent our country in the Olympics and that's been a goal since I was a little kid,'' he said.

Retherford has been as durable as they come, but grateful is the word he'll use in front of all others. "Coach Cael's biggest value that he says to our team is to be grateful," Retherford said.

"Everything kind of stems from that and everyone on our team kind of buys in to that idea, being grateful to be here. When you're grateful to be here, you compete with enthusiasm, you're not coming into practice with a bad attitude. If you're thinking that way, you're coming in to practice willing to learn, wanting to learn, wanting to get better."

Sanderson was asked prior to this year's nationals if he's ever seen Retherford angry.

"Not really. He doesn't really show that,'' Sanderson said. "If somebody scores on him in practice, I wouldn't say he gets mad; he just speeds up. It's usually not a good thing for them, his opponents. I can't say I've ever really seen him really mad. That's interesting. I hadn't really thought about that.''

Sanderson said Retherford always just had ''that look in his eye'' that he was different.

 "He's just a competitor and he just believes in himself,'' Sanderson said. "I think he has just really high standards in all aspects of his life. Academically, he's a Dean's List student each semester. It's easy to let that slide a little bit if you're having the success that he's been having and as busy as he is.

"I think he's always been unique. Whether we thought he was going to be this good or not, we were hopeful. Just his mentality and his commitment to excellence in life, I think, were second to none.''

And Sanderson is certain those traits will continue.

"Sometimes kids leave home and sometimes they lose that fire for whatever reason,'' Sanderson said. "He'll continue on until the last day he wrestles. Even if he gets into coaching, he's just going to do everything he can to be successful. He's going to outwork people. He's very coachable.

"He's coachable - and he's grateful. He's a humble kid and just unique, special. I think all of our coaches have talked to his parents about sending our kids to them for the summer just to let them train our kids up to be more like Zain.''

Win or lose - and it was predominantly win for Retherford - the finance major is most pleased about how his college days shaped him.

"Win or lose a match, I think I became a better person being at Penn State and made the most of it," he told WIN. "The thing I'm most proud of is the person I've become.''

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