Hi there! Thanks for giving this a read, it means a lot to me! I have been pretty excited to write this particular post. For some time I’ve been thinking about what I would talk about, how would I express my feelings, and generally how would I frame it in a way that would be helpful to those who read it. I draw a lot of inspiration from a post on a Facebook page of mine back in February where I answered a lot of questions about my experience. I’ve linked that here ( Facebook Post ).
Now, as I prefaced in that post these thoughts are mine, these experiences are mine, my views and stories are mine alone. What I am going to do in this post is outline a candid summary of my Penn State Wrestling experience, what I am not going to do is give away any big secrets, talk about anything in a negative light, or generally anything that can harm the program that gave me so much. I will however, be honest with you at parts, lessons learned the hard way are often the best. The structure of this post is going to be a year by year format with a brief summary of that year and some notable experiences. So I hope you enjoy, and I hope you can learn something, either as a coach, as an athlete, or as a parent.
All good stories start somewhere right? Let’s begin from the start. When I first got to Penn State I was originally an architecture major. Now, architecture is a very intense major, there’s very little free time. Since 6th grade I wanted to be an architect. Part of my commitment to this major was that I couldn’t really practice much with the team. My classes were from 1-5pm every day of the week. Practices were from 1:30-3pm for the RTC which is when we practice in the office season generally. So I typically worked out later with one of my now best friends. It was hard to get a practice akin to the team practice just two first year wrestlers doing it ourselves without a coach. Skip a few months and I made the decision to change majors. Architecture was draining my mental health, I resented my teachers, the major, and the work. I talked with some of my senior teammates, coaches, and academic advisors and made the switch. My first practice with the full team I remember walking into that room and just being dumbfounded. Seeing who I was training with, my teammates, the RTC guys like David Taylor, Franklin Gomez, Frank Molinaro, and many more. Sitting down for the pre practice speech I barely remember anything to be honest. I just remember looking around and thinking about the fact that it was all really happening, I was a Penn State wrestler.
The First Practice:
Now my first practice was a FUN one. I use fun ironically here a bit because it was one of the best but worst experiences of my life. I was talking with some of my teammates asking if they thought Nico Megaludis would wrestle with me. Context, at this point Nico was a 5th year senior, a 3x All American and 2x finalist. I hadn’t even placed in states in high school. But they told me just go ask, and ask I did, and to my shock/excitement he said yes. I don’t think I have ever been more tired in my life up to that point than that practice. I was determined to push through my fatigue and keep working, thankfully this was a mostly technique practice. However, this is when I learned the lesson that Nico has a whole different personality in practices/matches than outside the room. At one point when we were going live my classmate and 2x National Champion Vincenzo Joseph said “Get him Higgins!” and I uttered a few words I never should have said around Nico. “I almost had him once.” Nico promptly got up and got in my face to let me know “You will never almost have me, ever!” Now, Nico is not a mean person, he is just hyper competitive and he lives to excel. I learned a tremendous amount from him in the years I trained with him. He is a great role model and friend but damn do you not mess with him within the 3 hour span of practice. His competitive nature paid off when he finally won his National Title that year in 2016 in Madison Square Garden. I could write a whole post about wrestling Nico but I’ll save that for later!
Winning the 2016 National Title:
Now, few moments in my life have been as exciting as getting to hold the National Champions trophy. As many of my former teammates will tell you I am the designated trophy holder, well that entire joke started with our first title of my college career in 2016. However, while I was overjoyed for my team, and two of my teammates, Nico and Zain won their first national titles. Three of my teammates lost in National finals, Bo Nickal, Jason Nolf, and Morgan McIntosh all took 2nd that year. Now, 2nd in the nation really isn’t something to scoff at but for these guys that wasn’t satisfying in the least. Now, I have taken 2nd in quite a few tournaments myself, nothing at that level though. But 2nd is never fun, you come so close to being the champion only to be sent home with a loss. I remember not really wanting to be excited because I hurt for Bo and Nolf, they were both so upset. However, it was something that Coach Cael said at our Post Nationals Social that really stuck with me, and it is the big take away from that entire tournament for me. Cael gave a speech about the team and the most important point he made was this “Sure, you may never be a four time national champion, but there will always be another four time national champ. There will never be another Bo Nickal, or another Jason Nolf.” Now, this quote is simple but it really taught me a huge lesson my first year at Penn State, when we get knocked down, when we lose, we need to understand that while certain doors have closed there are still countless doors open for us. Bo and Jason may not have been four time national champions, but they are two of the most electric and exciting college wrestlers ever. They are both 3x champs and have changed the sport forever by inspiring a new generation of athletes. But I’m not done with my stories about those two, they were instrumental to my entire college career. Freshman year flew bye after nationals was done, it was hard to believe I was already done one year of college. Time flies when you’re having fun.
Sophomore year was one of my favorite years at Penn State overall. I had finally started to figure some things out as a student, adjusting to college academic rigor is hard, even when you were a good student in high school. You have to take a lot more personal responsibility, one of my biggest takeaways from freshman year was study habits. Sophomore year I started to really focus on creating good habits, but I’ll touch more on that later. Sophomore year as a wrestler was my favorite year because it was the first time I got to wrestle in a Penn State singlet. Being out of redshirt I was eligible to wrestle attached with the team and travel with the team. That year I had the privilege of wrestling in the Keystone Classic at the University of Pennsylvania, I backed up Nick Suriano, and started to forge some friendships with some of my best friends. I also got into the Smeal College of business that year as well. But lets start with the best part, the wrestling!
Wrestling at the Keystone Classic:
Sophomore year I was the backup 125lber for the Penn State Wrestling team, the guy I backed up? None other than Nick Suriano. Now, I will be honest, at no point did I ever believe that I would be the starter when Nick stepped on campus. I knew Nick from high school and we were close his senior year of high school, being two of the few Jersey guys on the team helps. But I can still remember when Coach Cody Sanderson told me to “Certify 125”. I was 145lbs pre season and I had intended on going 133, but I was told 125 so I made 125. I failed my certifications 5 times before I finally was able to make the weight and be hydrated. That part of the battle was over, the next part was the easier part. What did it take to be the backup? It wasn’t wrestle offs, it wasn’t even that I was the 2nd best guy, I arguably may not have been. What it took was that I was the guy who would get up at 6am to roll around with guys when they needed a partner, If I had to sprint to class to get a workout in with my teammate I would do it. I did this for several of the guys in the starting lineup and the coaches rewarded me by allowing me to be the guy traveling with the team for the early part of the season. Now, making weight for the sake of making weight and never actually wrestling sucked big time, but it was an honor to wear that warm up each and every match I was able to. However, my favorite experience of my entire wrestling career was wrestling in the Palestra at UPenn in the Keystone Classic.
My entire high school career I wanted to go to UPenn, I didn’t have the accolades to make up for my academics being a little below their standard. Never in a million years did I think I’d be wrestling in the Keystone Classic, a tournament I used to go watch as a kid, let alone wrestling for Penn State at said tournament. But wrestle I did, and I must say it was the coolest experience of my career. I won my first match against a kid from Harvard, I won because I was able to ride him long enough to get the riding time point locked up and stopped about a dozen shot attempts. I can remember the roar of the Penn State faithful who travel HEAVY to every away match and tourney. I still shiver thinking about that feeling. The next match was probably one of the funniest ones of my career, mainly thanks to Coach Cael. I wrestled an Eastern Michigan athlete, Noah Gonser, in the quarterfinals. Now, some context, Gonser at the end of his career was a 3x National Qualifer, the 9th seed in the cancelled 2020 championships, and oh he’s 5’8″ tall. I am 5’5.5″ , 5’6″ on a good day. Here’s the funniest story of my wrestling career. First period not much is happening, a lot of hand fighting, feeling each other out, Gonser gets in on a pretty good single leg, I conceded the takedown and get out pretty fast. End 1st period score is 2-1 him. He gets choice, defers to me, I look to coach Cael and he chooses bottom for me. About 15 seconds later the match is over. Off the whistle Gonser slapped a cradle on me so fast I barely had time to blink. As a cradle guy myself I really respect it, I actually learned how to do it from watching that match after the fact. But, it’s what Coach Cael said to me that really stuck. When I walked off he put his arm around me, he wasn’t angry I lost, he didn’t tell me I shouldn’t have let that happen he said, “I guess we shouldn’t have chose bottom, it’s just you got out so fast the first time I thought for sure you’d escape again.” We both laughed and I walked back up to the seats to get ready for my wrestle back match. I pinned a kid from Scared Heart in about a minute and half, almost as fast as Suriano did that same day! I’ll never forget what it sounded like when the fans cheered for that pin, when I heard that I realized I really was a Penn State Wrestler. I went 2-2 in that tournament, losing in the blood round to an athlete from Virginia Military Institute. Suriano beat Gonser in the finals, thanks to me the coaches knew not to choose bottom! But I will always remember that tournament, wearing that singlet, wrestling in front of the best fans in college wrestling.
All or Nothing, Getting into the Smeal College of Business:
Now for the academic side of things. Sophomore year is the year that decided my fate for the rest of my academics at Penn State, and the trajectory of my professional career. Some context from Freshman year, Freshman year I changed majors like I mentioned, but what I didn’t mention is that my Fall semester I mixed up two finals and bombed my math final, going from an A- to a C+ in the class. My Spring semester I was taking 18 credits to play catch up since I had no business classes in Fall Semester and I wanted to get into Smeal on time without taking summer classes. I had 6 finals, 2 days with two finals on the same day. I essentially locked my GPA at a 3.20 after Freshman year. To get into the Smeal College of Business you need a minimum of a 3.2 overall GPA, and a 3.2 in the Entrance to Major classes, essentially classes to teach basic concepts of business majors. All but 1 class in Spring semester of Freshman year was ETM, so I basically shot myself in the foot, twice! I had an uphill battle on my hands, and I needed to be damn near perfect my entire sophomore year to get into Smeal. Now, reminder this year I was traveling, cutting heavy weight, and in harder classes as well. I had to really learn what it meant to be efficient in my studying. My Fall Semester went well, I got A’s in my business classes, and A’s and Bs in my other classes. I had around a 3.67 that semester. It all came down to my Spring semester.
I had to pass a 300 level Finance Course, and 300 level Management course with one of the hardest professors in the college of business, oh and they both needed to be at least an A- for me to get into Smeal. I did a lot to do well in those classes, I sat in the front of both, I went to office hours to make myself known, and I even paid for tutors to make sure I would do well. At one point I came to a hard decision, I had a Spanish class that I enjoyed but it was giving me a lot of work, and overwhelming me. I had to make a choice, either drop the class or struggle to balance it all. Now, there is a caveat here, in dropping the class I would be down to 12 credits on the dot. To be academically eligible to compete in an NCAA sport you need to be full time (12 credits+). Meaning if I had to drop another class for any reason I would be ineligible. My team’s academic advisor did not want me to drop the class, my normal academic advisor disagreed, I trusted my gut and dropped the class. I was going to live or die by the sword.
After dropping the class I turned my focus to my two business entrance to major classes, the electives I had taken were pretty easy so I wasn’t overly concerned but I had to do well in these two classes. Coming to the end of the semester I had an A- in both classes. Finance had really only a couple homework assignments and then 3 major exams, two midterms and a final. Management had 4 exams and a major project as well as extra credit opportunities. At the end of the semester I was nervous but also excited as I had ever been. For the first time in my life there was a lot on the line, it truly was all or nothing. And when I studied for my finals that semester I felt myself shift into another gear. I was laser focused, I felt like I had entered into a machine like state. I got high A’s on both my finals and as a result got A’s in both courses. I had achieved my goal of gaining admission to the Smeal College of Business where I would go on to study Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a major geared towards adapted companies for the modern economy and also teaching how to create a new venture. I loved my major and it had a major impact on how I think today as a person and as a professional, but I owe it all to Sophomore year Pat for working his tail off to make it happen. And I think back to Coach Cael talking to me after I got pinned, it was okay to get pinned, I just needed to learn from it. It was okay to dig myself into a hole freshman year, as long as I had the will to use that shovel to climb back out. In life there are going to be obstacles, but you can either run from them, or run them over. As I tell my athletes, win or learn, just never be defeated. Now, let me tell you about one of the best experiences of my wrestling career, the 2017 National Championships.
Winning the 2017 National Title:
This national title ties 2018 as my favorite national championship we won in my time at Penn State. There are many reasons why this title goes down as maybe one of the best in NCAA wrestling history but also as my favorite. But to detail why I loved it let me give you some context first. As many know who follow college wrestling in 2017 my team was one of the best in the country the entire year. But there was a format to have a dual between the two best teams to show who the best DUAL team in the country was. Now, my team had dominated every top 10 team we wrestled that season, we beat Iowa handily in Iowa, we beat Ohio State handily in Columbus. There was very little doubt that we were the best, still we had a dual against Oklahoma State at Okie State since the year before we hosted them for the same dual. In that dual in 2016 our 184lber Matt McCutchen got hurt in his match and it pretty much cost him the rest of the season. He wrestled injured for the BIG10s and Nationals. In 2017 my team suffered a similar fate. In what likely changed the course of his entire collegiate career, Nick Suriano suffered a broken ankle in his match with Nick Piccinni of Oklahoma State. Nick was at the time considered a national title contender, he actually dominated the eventual National Champ Darion Cruz in the dual meet against Lehigh. But, when Suriano broke his ankle he medically forfeited the match, we lost at 133 since our starter at that weight had also been hurt earlier that year, and our 141 narrowly lost to their #1 Ranked 141. All of a sudden we were down 13-0 three matches in, we did not lose another match the rest of the dual. We won 27-13. After that there was a lot of talk about how good our team was, but there was a big issues, how good could we be if Suriano was done for the year. BIG10s came and it wasn’t looking great. Suriano medically forfeited, our 133 went 0-2, Bo was upset by Myles Martin again in the Semi Finals, we only had two champions and we lost the BIG10 tournament title to Ohio State. I remember when the team got back there was a lot of uncertainty, the internet was alive about how we were done, it was over.
But our coaches reassured us the important goal was still there for the taking, the National Championship. Coach Cael posted “So What!” Signs everywhere, in our lockers, in the wrestling room, in our lounge. They encouraged us that we were still the best team in the country, that we had to lose in St. Louis for someone to prove otherwise. This is why this is my co-favorite national title. We went into St. Louis not as the favorite but as the underdogs, but we showed everyone why we were the best team in the country. My teammates were on a tear, though Suriano qualified he did not compete in the National Championships because his injury was not fully healed. Many thought that that would write us off, Ohio State had too much fire power, they had qualified nearly their entire lineup. No one gave us a chance, but chances aren’t given, they’re taken. My teammates were dominating everyone for the most part, bonus points aren’t easy to get in the National Tourney but my teammates made it look easy. Vincenzo went on one of the best runs I have ever seen, he upset the 2nd seed with an insane finish. Mark Hall won his semi final against her perennial rival Zahid Valencia, Zain Nolf, and Bo were ripping people’s heads off. Perhaps one of the unsung heroes, our 141 Jimmy Gulibon upset the Ohio State 141 Luke Pletcher in the wrestle backs to knock him out of the tournament. But the real story of this nationals was that the 5 guys seeded in the top 5 of their weights, went 5 for 5 in the Quarters, 5 for 5 in the semis, and then 5 for 5 in the finals! A feet that has only been done by one other team in NCAA history. Vincenzo upset a 2x National Champion in Isaiah Martinez with an inside trip that is still one of the craziest endings to any NCAA final I have ever seen, Nolf and Zain dominated their opponents. Mark upset the favorite and avenged his Big10 finals match against Bo Jordan of Ohio State, and finally Bo knocked off 2x National Champ Gabe Dean of Cornell. It was one of the most electric experiences of my wrestling career. We won another national title but we did so in dominating fashion after many picked us to lose, the final team score was PSU with 146.5, the 2nd place team Ohio State had 110. We won by a landslide. I remember how different this title felt than the year before, no one had experienced heartbreak, my teammates had all achieved their dreams, and we went from National Champs to two time defending champs. The beginning of another Penn State dynasty. I will never forget that experience, I am forever grateful to my teammates for that memory. Sophomore year truly was wonderful. I got into the Smeal College of Business, I wrestled in front of our fans, and we won another national title. Penn State football had a magical season and returned to prominence. So many memories to cherish. But it soon dawned on me that I was already halfway done my time at Penn State!
The Wrestle Off:
Junior year at Penn State was definitely the closest I ever came to being able to call myself a Penn State starter. However, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades as my dad used to say. At the end of my sophomore year I was there for a visit of a potential graduate transfer named Corey Keener from Central Michigan. My team had a lot of great guys all over the lineup, but our coaches were always looking to bolster our roster. Corey was already a 3x national qualifier. Now, Corey is a wonderful person, was a great teammate, and overall a pleasure to know in the short time we were teammates. But, that didn’t mean that I, or my other teammates were just going to give him the spot. I can’t speak for the other 5 guys at my weight that year but I know I trained all summer with a bit of a chip on my shoulder to prepare for that wrestle off. It was all gonna come down to this. In college it’s not like high school wrestling, there really aren’t multiple wrestle offs. You kind of get a best a couple chances max unless the line is very thin between two guys who could easily be top 5 guys in the country, such as some of my teammates. But for a weight that is 5-6 guys deep, you get ONE chance. Especially when the presumed starter is using a 6th year of eligibility to transfer to your school.
In the fall at Penn State when the season begins we begin a planned weight descent as team. You start off making your weight +6, your weight +4, your weight +2, and then scratch weight. Wrestle offs take place at +2 and Scratch weight. Now, my junior year was my first year at 133, I had spent all summer training, lifting, and eating to make myself very solid for the weight. I felt great, I was wrestling probably the best at any point in my career, and when the +2 weigh ins came around the coaches let me know that I would be wrestling Corey for a chance to start. Now, I also have to preface that even if you beat one guy, it doesn’t make you the starter. I won’t go into details but some guys win a wrestle off and lose another and never start even if they beat the presumed starter. Some guys start even having lost wrestle offs, the name of the game in college athletics is fielding the best team possible. What’s best for the team may not be best for each individual, it sucks but it’s a harsh reality, ask any college athlete at any level. As I warmed up for the wrestle off I recall being very excited, not even nervous. Nervousness and excitement really aren’t all that different, they both mean our bodies are preparing for something big. In our past nerves/excitement were getting us ready to fight or run from predators, now they get us ready for athletic events, not even remotely close! At Penn State we’re taught to use our nerves, channel that energy. I was doing all I could to channel mine.
Now, for the privacy of my team and my teammate Corey as I am not going to go into too much detail about our wrestle off. I’ll just tell you the score and some minor details. First, I learned some hard lessons in this wrestle off that I now apply to my coaching career. Lesson 1, lock your hands under the butt on a double leg. I was an inch away from securing a takedown that may have drastically changed the outcome of this match, the reason I didn’t get it? I didnt get to a lock on my double and I got sprawled out. My fault entirely but it sucks to think about to this day. Lesson 2, If you only have one chance at something, leave it all out there. Admittedly I have to say I could have and should have taken more risk in my wrestle off. I wrestled well but ultimately I lost because I wasn’t taking as much risk as Corey did. As the saying goes, “Scared money don’t make no money”. Lesson 3, Be grateful you even got to compete. I lost this match 8-4, I gave up a takedown at the end in a last ditch effort to throw Corey which he turned into a beautiful double leg at the whistle. But this last lesson I learned I tell all the athletes I coach, be grateful for every opportunity to compete. As I said, my weight class was about 5-6 guys deep, only I and one other guy got the chance to wrestle Corey off for the spot. Now, for context, every guy on our team is incredible, you don’t make our roster without at least being very capable, but as with anything in life there are no guarantees. I never got another wrestle off, I never even got a wrestle off to see if I was the #2 guy definitively, I admit the other guy who wrestled Corey would probably beat me 9/10 times. Corey would start all year and do a wonderful job, losing some close matches to some of the best guys in the country. It made me proud to think that I was so close with him, it validated my training in many ways but it always reminded me that I was very grateful to be a Penn State wrestler surrounded by great teammates and friends. Nothing will ever top this year, especially the Greatest Dual Meet in wrestling history, and my Co-favorite national tournament.
2018 PSU vs. OSU Dual, perhaps the best in college history:
2016 PSU vs OSU White Out football game, and 2018 PSU vs OSU wrestling match are by far the two most exciting sporting events I have ever been to in my entire life. It is always a good feeling to beat Ohio State in anything, but it’s especially fun when you’re not supposed to beat them! Now, at the time of the dual we were still the #1 team in the country but there are some important details. Detail 1, Every single guy in OSU’s lineup was ranked inside the top 15 at their weight going into this dual. Detail 2, Jason Nolf was injured and could not compete. Nolf got hurt in the Rutgers match and wouldn’t wrestle until the Big 10 Tournament. Everyone had us pegged to lose this dual, everyone but us. I remember prior to the dual we had so many media people in our wrestling room for the pre-match practice. At Penn State we don’t really warm up much before the dual, not in the normal run out on the mat and warm up way at least. We have a whole 45min practice to lose a little extra weight and get ready for the matches. This helps prevent us from starving ourselves until weigh ins and gives us a little extra time to work on stuff. Now, before this practice prior to the OSU dual Coach Cael brought us all together and took us to the other side of the wrestling room since there were about 100 people sitting where we normally would. He told us that no one in those bleachers thinks we can win this dual, some say we lost it before it started, but we knew we would win. Why? Because 1. We don’t lose at Rec Hall, 2. We want to. We were always told there’s a million reasons to lose, there’s only one reason to win, because you want to! Ohio State was so confident that they’d win that they pulled a stunt where they came out in robes with their hoods up for the pre-match introductions. I’ll admit it was a bold strategy, let’s see how it worked out for them, spoiler, not well!
If you didn’t watch that dual, or you didn’t follow wrestling at the time and want a well written recap of the whole thing you will not get that from me. You can however get that here: WR: Lions Roar over Buckeyes for Share of B1G Dual Crown an article from GoPSU Sports detailing the whole thing will go a lot further than me explaining it! I will walk you through some of my feelings. I remember watching us lose the first three weights, but each loss gave us hope even in the loss. A 6th year transfer from Boise State, Carson Kuhn who came out after his program was cut only got beaten by the #4 guy in the country by a major. Corey lost his match to #2 Luke Pletcher by a point. Nick Lee got upset by Joey McKenna but those two were fire and water their entire careers. But our guys started taking care of business. Ultimately the match that decided it all was Anthony Cassar vs Kollin Moore. Anthony was technically unranked since he wasn’t the full time starter, and Moore was the #1 guy in the country. Anthony shocked the world and beat Moore in a match that was more dominate than the score showed. 6-3 but you would’ve thought it was a pin based on the reactions of the crowd and me and my teammates. Bo jumped into the ceiling I’m pretty sure, Mark picked Cassar up and ran him around. But it wasn’t over yet. It came down to heavy weight. Usually the match when everyone would start leaving, not this time. In order for us to win this match our heavyweight Nick Nevills had to hold defending National Champion, 2016 Olympic Champion, 2017 World Champion, and then #1 ranked in the country Kyle Synder to no worse than a major decision (8 points or less). Nick actually took Snyder down to start the match, nearly putting him to his back in the process, he would lose the match 15-10, he lost the battle but we won the war, and Rec Hall went BESERK. I remember running around like a madman, finding now Dallas Cowboy then Penn State Freshman Micah Parsons and jumping with him freaking out, Coach Franklin the Penn State football coach was hugging everyone, not a single person that wasn’t wearing OSU apparel wasn’t freaking out. It is perhaps the greatest victory that my team ever experienced, something I won’t forget for the rest of my life. I am forever grateful for my teammates, coaches, and fans for that memory, but even as fun as it was, Nationals in 2018 were just as much fun.
Winning the 2018 National Title:
Describe the 2018 National Title in four words, “THAT’S WHAT WE DO!” Now for those who don’t get that reference let me start off the description of this national title run with a video of perhaps my favorite post-anything interview of all time, Bo Nickal’s legendary That’s What We Do speech. Watch below:
Now, Bo was very excited, he came off a bit arrogant I won’t deny that but everything he said is 100% true of how we view our program. Team titles are expected, we expect to be individual champs, we want the big matches. No challenge is too small, no feat is too big. Bo is actually one of the most humble people I know, he just had a very exciting moment and gave probably one of the best unplanned speeches I have ever seen. But Nationals was a long tournament so let me start from the top.
Cleveland OH, March 15th-17th, 2018 is a weekend I will never forget. As a Penn State wrestler going to Cleveland for Nationals was the equivalent of going into Columbus wearing Penn State stuff. You instantly had a target on your back. Now, Ohio State fans and generally people from Ohio are actually very nice, just some competitive friendly banter and a lot of smack talking, always classy though. Iowa Hawkeye fans however, yeah they’re a different breed. But I remember when I first got to nationals, session 1, I walked to my seats because Corey and Nick Lee were both due to wrestle soon. Much to my dismay Corey and Nick both got pinned in their first matches. We had already lost the Big 10 Tourney to OSU so it looked like we were at risk to lose the National Title from the start, but this was the worst start you could think of. Corey lost to the #11 seed but Nick got upset by a wrestler he had majored earlier in the season. This prompted the OSU fans near me to talk a little smack but I reassured them my teammates were gonna do just fine. Every other teammate that session won by bonus points. As I jokingly told former OSU wrestler Johnni DiJulius, “Just wait til the Bonus Train leaves the station.” Now, for context, as with the dual, OSU had all 10 wrestlers qualified for nationals to our 9, all 10 were seeded in the top 15. We were again underdogs on paper but never in mindset. The key to our victory in this tournament was 1. Nick Lee wrestling all the way back after losing first round. Nick took 5th as a true freshman after losing in the first round, and 2. Putting 5 guys in the finals for the 2nd year in a row. In 2017 we went 5 for 5, in 2018 we put 5 in the finals again. Going into the finals we were losing 124.5 to OSU’s 130.5, however, OSU had 2 in the finals to our 5, one of which was head to head.
The Final Session:
We had the same 5 in the finals from 2017, Zain, Nolf, Cenzo, Mark, Bo. This national finals was a very memorable one for me because I remember being surrounded by OSU fans who all but thought they had the title locked up. Zain might win they told me but everyone else would lose. I told them that they were wrong, Nolf was still Nolf, and Cenzo was Imar’s kryptonite, Mark and Zahid are always a fun one, and Bo is self explanatory. It all started well, Zain won his 3rd straight title, Nolf won pretty easily for someone with one leg, Cenzo inside tripped Imar again and even tilted him in the match. Mark lost a tough one, and Bo pulled off one of the craziest “Ha you Thought” moments I have ever seen. In the opening seconds Bo and Myles exchanged and it looked like Myles Martin was going to pin Bo and clinch the title for OSU, but Bo broke the hearts of every Buckeye fan in that arena when he muscled Myles through and pinned him instead. Bo would then go on to deliver his speech above and clinch the title for Penn State, our 3rd straight team title and 7th in the last 8 years. We were officially a dynasty, I think that Nationals was also very memorable to me because that year my teammates as joke and call back to my first national title experience elected me as “The Official Trophy Holder of the NCAA” as you can see in the picture I have the trophy, mainly because as the NCAA official tried to hand it to my teammates they forced me to take it. Ah, memories thanks guys! I will always remember hearing and singing Invincible by Machine Gun Kelly with my teammates before we went onto that stage and raised our 3rd national championship in as many years. 2018 was a great year for me. But Senior year was even better.
The End of the Line:
Senior year was a lot of fun. But as I had already learned in my senior year of high school, it means the end of the line for many things. The end of my athletic career, educational career, and not seeing my closet friends daily. Senior year of high school and college have a lot of similarities naturally. They both signal the end of your four years in a special place, and both seemingly go by way too fast. I remember senior year of high school like it was yesterday, it’s strange to think that it’s been 6 years already since I graduated high school. I remember the end of my wrestling career in high school pretty vividly, I remember laughing after I lost my last match at states to end my career. I always hoped that my last match would be a win, but unfortunately it was a lesson instead. I learned a lot from that match, I gained a lot as well. I was grateful for the experience and that loss was fuel for my training going into my collegiate decision and career. Senior year at Penn State had a lot of common threads.
A major part of senior year of college is coming to grips with the reality that is adulthood. When you begin college as a bright eyed 18 year old you don’t realize just how quickly four years passes. At 22 you have to be prepared to go out into the world and contribute. As a student I loved Junior and Senior year. I learned so much in academic and real world sense. Talking to professors about entering the professional world, talking to graduated seniors and recruiters about job opportunities. It’s all very exciting. One thing they don’t tell you about though is saying goodbye to it all. To your friends that have been with you through so much the last four years. To being able to count on going back to school the next year, a constant you’ve had since age 4 or 5. Finally, they don’t tell you how much more there is to life outside of that college. You leave college a little sad, a little excited but no one prepared you for the world, the chances you can take, the memories you will make. Everyone always told me to enjoy college, to enjoy high school, like those were the peaks of my life. A lot of my classmates were under the impression that life as we knew it was over once you graduated, when in reality it was only just beginning. I won’t go to in depth to the end of my college career as it related to normal life and academics, after all this is about wrestling. But, I want to leave any high schoolers or college athletes reading this with this, enjoy the experience, love the journey, but understand that you’re only just getting started. I’m still only 25 years old but I feel like I’ve already been able to experience so much, I’m thrilled to see so much more.
Becoming a Player-Coach:
My senior year was a lot of fun for a lot of reasons, but chief among them was that it was finally my time to be the old guy on the team! As a Freshman the first people I really interacted with were seniors, and they all played a massive role in my growth and success. It was my turn to return the favor to the underclassmen. My senior year had some really talented freshman and sophomores. Probably simultaneously one of my favorite but also least favorite people to wrestle was Roman Bravo-Young, or RBY for short. I loved wrestling RBY because he is a human swiss army knife meets a box of chocolates, you never know what’s gonna happen. Now, Roman had done more in his career as a Freshman than I ever could’ve dreamed of, but RBY is also an incredibly gifted athlete and learner. He knows that to improve takes time and a village, I was honored to be part of his village. I may not have been as helpful as I think I was, but I loved working with him in any way I could. Whether he needed me to mirror someone’s style, or just practice a situation I loved being there for him. Additionally I would often practice with a lot of the other freshman as well, it was a lot of fun coaching them up but also returning 4 years of butt whooping’s on them. It was my turn to be the old guy beating up freshman! I used to tell one of my best friends who was a freshman that year Jon Consorti “It’s not personal, it’s just good business.” I always peaked at camps with my coaching ability but Senior year was a great opportunity to refine it at a higher level. Coaching freshman through practices, workouts, and at open tournaments.
One of my favorite “students” was by far this young man named Aarif Asif. Aarif was a walk on from the Club team. Now, some context about Aarif, he showed up to practice every day for 3 years, he watched the whole practice, and took notes. He would come down at the end and ask anyone who would listen questions about technique and just generally wrestling. He wasn’t the most talented of athletes in our room but he loved the sport just as much if not more than most of us. Aarif was never destined to be the best guy in the room, he was 165 and I was 133 and I would pretty much destroy him, but that’s not fair to him. I had been in our room for four years, training with the best in the world daily. But one thing that separates Aarif was that he never gave up. He’d get pissed, he’d fight to the bitter end no matter how overmatched he was. He was a fierce competitor, a great teammate and a great friend. I haven’t spoken to him since I graduated unfortunately but he helped make me into the coach I am today. His ability to make me think differently about moves, situations, and wrestling as whole turned me from a Student-Athlete into a Player-Coach, and I am eternally grateful to him and all the other teammates who dealt with my nonsense attempts to coach them up!
Winning the 2019 National Title:
Pittsburgh, the City of Champions as a lot of my teammates loved to say. It was certainly a city of champions for Penn State Wrestling as well. This national tournament was a lot of fun for me but also bittersweet. It would be the last time I would see my teammates compete as my teammates. The last time I would be allowed to go out and get a photo with my team to celebrate our national championship. But it was also the mark to the end of my senior year. See wrestling season begins October 10th in college, and it goes to March. But, once the season is over, the school year is pretty much over in an instant. April flies by faster than anyone can ever imagine. So I made sure to take in all of that experience to see the whole tournament in a new lens. To be present and grateful for all that I had been through with my team, my friends, and my coaches.
Winning the title was a lot less stressful in Pittsburgh than it was in Cleveland. This team race was so decisive that it almost doesn’t seem memorable to me. For the third straight year we put five guys into the National Finals. We had won the national title Friday after the Semi Final round. We beat Ohio State by forty points, they took second again. It was our fourth straight national title, and the eighth title in nine years. We cemented ourselves not only as one of the most dominate wrestling teams, but one of the most dominate sports teams in the last decade. In my four years at Penn State we never lost a dual meet, we never lost a national title. The only thing we ever lost was the Big Ten Tournament, and even then we split that, two and two. Senior year we won everything, we went out on top, as one of the most dominate classes in Penn State Wrestling history. There are a few things I do remember from the 2019 Tourney that stick out though. Bo and Nolf each dominated their opponents to win their 3rd straight title and become four time All Americans. Cassar solidified himself as “Ant the Champ” winning his National Title decisively. Cenzo lost a tough match to Mekhil Lewis from Virginia Tech but still finished with another National Final appearance. Mark Hall battled in what I consider to be one of the best matches of the finals between him and Zahid Valenica. If not for Zahid/Covid there’s no doubt in my mind Mark could’ve been a four time national champ. Finally, the last thing I remember from Nationals that year was my favorite part, getting to share the memory with my best friends and teammates. When we walked out onto that stage to take the photo with the national championship trophy it was special. Everyone was so excited. Even though a couple guys lost, it wasn’t like Freshman year. We were all winners regardless of individual success. Walking into that after Finals Social with the trophy one last time was awesome too. My teammates gave wonderful speeches, Coach Cody was his usual self trying to trick me into going up and saying something. All in all 2019 was a special year for me, four straight national titles, a Big Ten Title, the end of my athletic career but above all the start of my new life.
Trading in Wrestling shoes for Dress Shoes:
When a wrestler retires they leave their shoes on the mat. Unfortunately for me I was never gonna be in a big enough situation where I felt that would be warranted. So I had a quiet little retirement/transition in the wrestling room. I laced up my wrestling shoes in the bleachers like I always had. But this time when I walked out to the center of the room where I had learned from Coach Cael, Coach Cody, Coach Casey, and many other great people, I did so for the last time. I got to the logo, stood there and looked around. Taking it all in. Reminiscing and giving thanks to four wonderful years of hard workouts, butt whoopings, weight cutting and above all memories to last a lifetime. I’ll never be a competitive wrestler again, but I traded one pair of shoes for another. I studied business after all, business isn’t all that different than athletics. As I mentioned earlier the end of a career is never easy. It’s hard to say goodbye to something that has been with you your entire life, but luckily for me this wasn’t goodbye to wrestling, just the end of one chapter. I stepped out of my shoes as an athlete and into my business shoes as a professional, but I also stepped into my shoes as a coach. There will be many more pairs of shoes for me to step into as I progress through this journey called life. I loved Penn State Wrestling, I loved Penn State University. I can’t express in enough words how much that experienced changed my life forever, but I can honestly say that I am not the man I am today without those teammates, coaches, teachers and countless others that helped me along the way.
Attitude of Gratitude:
I wouldn’t feel right ending this behemoth of a post with anything other than one of the core mindsets drilled into my head by Coach Cael and co. an Attitude of Gratitude. I am so thankful for my time at PSU, as a wrestling, as a student, and above all as the person I became. I owe Penn State for some of my best friends, my most exciting sports victories, countless memories, and the ways it shaped me into the man I am now. My Coaches took a young man from the middle of nowhere in New Jersey and made me into a coach, a hardworking professional, and into a person who loves his life.
I count my blessings daily thanks to the attitude of gratitude I learned from Penn State. I plan on expanding on this mindset later in another post but I just want to cap this off with expressing what gratitude truly means. I’m grateful for all of it, the good, the great, the bad, the ugly, everything that shaped my life to today. Coach Cael doesn’t teach us gratitude for no reason, when you see the world through a lens of gratitude you see it differently. Failure becomes a lesson, fear turns into to opportunities, and above all you know that there’s always light in the dark. An attitude of gratitude yields more things to be grateful for, when you count your blessings you attract new ones. PSU wasn’t perfect, neither was I, but it changed my life for the better, and now I in turn will use what I learned to change the lives of countless more.
Thank you Coach Cael, Coach Cody, Coach Casey, Adam Lynch, Frank Malinaro, Coach Varner, my teammates, my NASA boys, our fans, my girlfriend Rachel for supporting me throughout, and thank you wrestling for all of them, you changed my life. Now it’s my turn to pass it on to the new generation, to help others make their own memories.
If you read this far, thank you so much from the bottom of my heart, if you enjoyed the post please share it with others, you never know who it might help. If you hated it please let me know how I can improve! But I thank you either way and I hope you enjoyed my rambling nonsensical writing. I overthought this whole piece about 100 times, but I am glad I put it into words. This is only a fraction of my experience, if you want to hear more feel free to ask me! I’m an open book for the most part.
Have a great day, become better at something today, and above all have fun! -Coach Patrick Higgins.