Retherford looks to get even better at Penn St.
STATE COLLEGE — The throng of media surrounding Zain Retherford chuckled at the notion that he could get any better as a wrestler, as the Penn State junior said. But Retherford was dead serious.
Coming off a season in which he became an NCAA champion at 149 pounds and was statistically the most dominant wrestler in the country, Retherford insisted to the horde of people holding recorders and cameras in his face that there’s still room to improve.
The chuckling stopped.
“The motivation is to get better every year and that’s what I want to do,” Retherford said. “It’s a new year and a new opportunity to reach my goals. That’s what I plan to do this year.”
Last year, he Benton graduate became the first wrestler from District 4 to win an NCAA title since Shikellamy graduate Jeff Walter won the heavyweight title in 1996. He did it by posting an unblemished 34-0 record, recording an average of five team points each time he wrestled to become the country’s most dominant wrestler.
He rolled through each opponent in the postseason, recording eight bonus-point victories in nine matches between the Big 10 and NCAA Championships. His road to the NCAA title at Madison Square Garden included three pins and a technical fall before beating Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen in the finals by a modest major decision, 10-1.
So, please, Zain. Regale us again with how you expect to be even better.
“I’ve just gotten better at wrestling. All areas, really,” Retherford said. “I’ve added stuff on top, bottom, neutral. Everywhere.”
“I mean, Zain is Zain. I watch him in awe,” Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson said. “I think he can get better. He has the right mindset to do so with the people that he is training with. He wants to win the national championship, but your opponents improve as well so you have to keep working and improving.”
Retherford was guaranteed bonus points each time he stepped on the mat. Only four of his 34-0 matches didn’t end in bonus points, and he had only three matches decided by fewer than five points.
In becoming the second Benton graduate to win an NCAA wrestling title — John Hughes won a 1995 title — Retherford also finished as the runner-up for the Hodge Trophy, the college wrestling Heisman. He lost to Oklahoma State three-time national champion Alex Dieringer.
The outrageous has become normal for Retherford. A former two-time state champion, winning a Class AA title at both Line Mountain and Benton, he’s become the epitome of dominance in college wrestling.
He entered his junior season ranked second in FloWrestling’s pound-for-pound rankings behind only Ohio State heavyweight Kyle Snyder, a national champion last winter and an Olympic champion this summer in Rio.
“He is not wrestling thinking that he is the best, he keeps trying to get better and better,” Sanderson said. “I think that just how he continues to be coachable and consistent is just a great reminder of the fundamentals of success, and not just being successful, but continuing to be successful. Getting to a national championship level and then maintaining that takes two different mindsets, and that is something Zain has.”
“It’s all about the people you surround yourself with. My parents and coaches on this team are very like-minded in that way,” Retherford said. “Wrestling is never an end destination. A week after nationals it’s always what is the next thing? Then there’s always next year. It’s a constant growing process.”
Retherford’s goal is to someday represent the United States of America in the Olympic Games. His NCAA title last March earned him a berth to the Olympic Trials at 65 kg where he finished third in one of the deepest and most competitive weights at the Trials.
During the tournament he defeated fourth-ranked James Green, a four-time All-American at Nebraska, 9-2. He added a win over second-ranked Jimmy Kennedy, a former USA World Team member.
His only loss came in the semifinals to four-time NCAA champion Logan Stieber, who Retherford beat in a legendary overtime match in Rec Hall his freshman season. Retherford said his performance at the Olympic Trials leads him to believe that he’s close to being the caliber of wrestler who can won day make his Olympic dreams come true.
“I definitely picked up some things that I wasn’t doing great, for sure,” Retherford said. “There’s also some good stuff that came out of it that I was working on.”
“He wants to be a World and Olympic champion, and he proved this summer he can do that,” Sanderson said. “But it doesn’t matter how much success you have had, you still have to work because everyone else is working.”
So when Retherford says he still has things he wants to work on, when he says he wants to get better, you best believe him. He’s not joking.