By ANDY ELDER
For the Sun-Gazette
Since his upset win over two-time defending NCAA champion Logan Stieber of Ohio State in December, Penn State's freshman phenom 141-pounder Zain Retherford has been proving his doubters wrong.
The naysayers continue to doubt him, despite the Benton grad finishing the season ranked No. 2 nationally at 26-0.
He will have a chance to erase those doubts today and Sunday at the 2014 Big Ten Wrestling Championships at the University of Wisconsin's Kohl Center.
If No. 1 Penn State is to win a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship, Retherford figures to play a vital role. If the seeds hold (Retherford is No. 1 and Stieber No. 2), then the Nittany Lion freshman will meet the Buckeye junior in the final. If that happens, Retherford said it take the same approach he used all year.
"You just take one match at a time and stay focused on what's ahead of you," he said earlier this week at the team's Big Ten Media Day.
"It's a little tough not to look ahead. But as long as you're focused on the task at hand, the task at hand is winning the first match and moving forward. That's what I'm looking forward to," said Stieber.
Penn State coach Cael Sanderson admitted that Stieber has to be considered the favorite.
"Stieber's the two-time defending champion. Zain caught him early and caught him at home. A lot's happened between then and now. I think Zain's continued to improve. I expect we'll see a stronger Stieber out there, as well," he said.
"Zain's got one of those mentalities, thank his parents, he loves to compete. He comes to practice to get better every day and he wrestles to win. That's a match to look forward to. Stieber's the guy to beat, no doubt about it, no matter what happened in December. That's the guy to beat if you want to win the national championship."
Retherford is one of 10 Nittany Lions seeded in the top eight of their respective weights. Those 10 include: 125, Nico Megaludis (No. 1); 133, Jimmy Gulibon (No. 7); 141, Retherford (No. 1); 149, James English (No. 7); 157, Dylan Alton (No. 5); 165, David Taylor (No. 1); 174, Matt Brown (No. 2); 184, Ed Ruth (No. 1); 197, Morgan McIntosh (No. 1); 285, Gingrich (No. 8).
"I think our guys are ready to go. This is obviously a huge weekend for us. To have the opportunity at nationals, we have to have a good weekend this weekend," Sanderson said.
"We need to move all of our guys through and set themselves up with as good a seeds as possible. Our guys are ready. We're very confident in our plan."
Sanderson said Gingrich got the nod because regular-season starter Jimmy Lawson, who hurt a knee during the Northwestern dual on Jan. 19, showed in the Feb. 23 dual against Clarion that his knee wasn't healthy enough to compete in the postseason.
Sixth-year senior English got the nod at 149. Redshirt freshman Zack Beitz was the starter most of the season, subbing in for last year's starter, Andrew Alton. Alton was recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Late in the season, Sanderson said, the team held wrestle-offs and English won. Sanderson also revealed that Alton will soon have surgery on the opposite shoulder he had surgery on during the last offseason.
"He's earned the right to compete and wrestle for Penn State. If anybody has, James English has. When he's feeling good, he's very good," Sanderson said.
For English, who has struggled with injuries his entire Penn State career, it's the culmination of career-long goal.
"I want to be a national champion. That's what I've been training for. I've had some injuries, so I've been out. I'm just trying to make a comeback here at the end of the year," he said.
"I'm super excited. This is what I've been working for all six years. I'm glad to be able to go out there and finally give it a shot. I came back because I thought I could be the guy at the end of the year and be the guy to win nationals. I didn't come back to be a cheerleader on the bench."
For two other Nittany Lions, seniors Taylor and Ruth, this tournament is a chance to win their fourth Big Ten titles. If that happens, both Nittany Lion seniors will have gone an entire career without a loss to a Big Ten opponent, a staggering accomplishment should it happen.
"The Big Ten is not just another tournament. It's a pretty special tournament," Taylor said.
"There's no doubt I want to win the Big Tens and help our team win a fourth (straight) Big Ten title. There aren't too many people who can say they contributed to four Big Ten titles."
Ruth said he wanted to emerge from Big Tens as healthy as possible and, "I just want to go out there and put on a really good show."
Last year at this time, Gingrich was dealing with the sting of being told he wouldn't represent Penn State in the postseason.
Channeling that frustration and anger helped Gingrich earn the nod at 285 pounds.
"I think at first it kind of set me back a little bit. Then, I finally realized if I use it the right way it would definitely help motivate me," Gingrich said.
"I'm very excited. To want to be there last year and not get a chance and now get a chance to be there is something you can't really put into words. It's true excitement. I can't wait to get out there and compete."
Gingrich said he's also trying to narrow his focus to just wrestling and what he needs to do to win.
"I honestly took away my social media and Facebook so I wouldn't have to worry about it. I haven't been on Twitter or anything like that. I'm just focusing on what I need to do," he said.
"I think it helps you not focus on what other people are saying. You're more focused on what you need. Also, more thoughts in your head is more stress."