Retherford set for his senior year

STATE COLLEGE — The last time Zain Retherford competed in a world championship wrestling tournament, he was preparing for his senior year of high school and was barely a blip on the national radar.

He was just a one-time state champion who had just sat out of a year of high school competition after transferring from Line Mountain to Benton High School. The Cadet World Championships that year were held in Azerbaijan, a Middle East country on the Caspian Sea. It was a vastly different experience than the one he had this past summer competing at Worlds on the senior level.

This time, he was in Paris.

“The croissants were really good,” Retherford said recently at Penn State wrestling media day. “The baguettes, too. Paris was cool.”

Retherford’s long-term goals rest on freestyle competition and hopefully qualifying for a United States Olympic team. But before he gets to that, he has one more year of competition with the Nittany Lions. The reigning Hodge Trophy winner is looking to become just the second three-time NCAA champion in school history this year. He also has an opportunity to become just the fourth multiple time Hodge Trophy winner, the award given to the nation’s best wrestler.

Retherford has goals far beyond Penn State wrestling, but he understands this is his next step. The senior will start his final season with Penn State tonight when the Nittany Lions host Army West Point at Rec Hall at 7 p.m.

The truth is the only thing left for Retherford to accomplish at Penn State is to cement his legacy as one of the greatest wrestlers to ever put on the blue and white singlet. The Benton graduate has already put a pretty big dent in that argument.

Consider that if he hits his career average in wins in a season of just over 30, he’ll be well-placed in Penn State’s all-time Top 10 in victories. He’s currently one of just five wrestlers in school history to have never lost a bout in a dual meet, joining David Taylor, Ed Ruth, Andy Matter and Jason Nolf. His 36 falls rank fifth all-time in school history, and only Ruth (97.84 percent) and Taylor (97.81 percent) have won a higher percentage of their career bouts than Retherford.

“I think about this being my last year every day,” Retherford said. “I think about wrestling every day. This is my last year to do it and it’s something I’m ready for. I have one more year here and I’m all in on this. Then, when it’s time, I’ll change gears again.”

But it was that trip to Paris which is going to help take Retherford to the next level. Can you imagine that, a wrestler who hasn’t taken a loss since March 22, 2014, in the consolation semifinals of the NCAA tournament, taking his wrestling to a new level?

Well, that’s exactly Retherford accomplished this summer. Even though the freestyle wrestling is a different discipline than the folkstyle used during the college season, it all works together. Even though Retherford didn’t place at the World tournament, his participation there and the competition he faced just to win the national championship pushed him to dig deeper within himself.

And going just 1-1 in the World tournament and not even getting the chance to wrestle through the repechage opened Retherford’s eyes to what he needs to change in the way he wrestles.

“I think wrestling is wrestling, and wrestling all summer, even though it is freestyle, I got better in all positions, especially on my feet,” Retherford said. “It’s all pretty much the same. I think the biggest thing I can take away on my feet is to make sure I wrestle the way I want to wrestle and not let my opponent dictate the way the match is going.”

“A lot of freestyle is on your feet. So he got better at controlling tie-up positions and hand fighting,” Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson said. “Spending a summer with the Olympic coaches is beneficial, so is training with the team and being around them and the experience. Now he has to take that experience and push himself forward and motivate him.”

Retherford has come a long way since the day he defeated NCAA champion Logan Stieber at Rec Hall as a true freshman thrust into the Nittany Lions lineup. He’s no longer the up-and-comer looking to establish himself. Instead, he’s the favorite, every time he steps on the mat.

He’s likely one of the two best pound-for-pound wrestlers in the country along with Ohio State Olympic and World champion Kyle Snyder. And now Retherford’s goal for his final run at an NCAA title is also to pass along what he’s learned. He wants to help mold the next batch of Penn State All-Americans. To him, it’s just as important as a third national championship.

“I’ve learned a lot over the years. I’ve passed things that I learned along down the line,” Retherford said. “I see freshmen come in with the same kind of mindset I had coming out of high school. So whatever questions they have, I want to try to help with that.”