Shane Sparks, BTN wrestling analyst, January 28, 2016

This past weekend I was reminded that anything can happen on the wrestling mat. Everybody is beatable. Every single match has its own set of circumstances in comparison to the one before it. As I have noted before, winning a single match at this level is difficult.

One match last week at 157 pounds was a battle of unbeatens and it became the talk of the wrestling world: Reigning national champion and top ranked Isaiah Martinez of Illinois vs. Penn State's Jason Nolf (No.3). That match had been analyzed and talked about for countless hours by wrestling media and fans alike.


Unpredictability is the key ingredient in sports. Opinions, past successes or rankings will not give you a single added point on the scoreboard. This sport especially is about self belief. Have you earned the right to expect success? The anticipation and tension last Saturday inside Huff Hall in Champaign in the minutes leading up to the showdown was something I'll remember for a long time.

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It didn't take long to recognize that Nolf wasn't backing down and we had ourselves a dog fight. I pay lots of attention to body language and for the first time I saw Martinez in a way I had never seen him before. He was bleeding in shark-invested waters and Nolf could smell it. Nolf wrestled within himself, staying in his positions. In the second period the Penn State red-shirt freshman had Martinez on his back in a scramble and the ref slapped the mat.

Nolf pinned Martinez! here's the full match.

I'll be the first to admit that I was a little rattled. I didn't see that coming. Here is the part I will never forget: As Nolf and I prepared to do an interview on BTN I had told  him that I was surprised by his outward lack of emotion. He looked at me and very humbly responded "That was what I expected."

It was the way he said it and the look in his eyes that impressed me. During the interview he talked about the trust he had in his training. He had earned the right to expect success. That day Nolf was better than Martinez. What does it mean moving forward? I have no idea. It will be fun to watch how the rest of the season plays out for both these guys.

One more thing about Martinez: I can only imagine his disappointment after his first loss, but to his credit he stayed after and signed autographs for his fans. That picture will stay with me as much as the match itself. You win and lose with class and dignity, and Isaiah was a great example of that.

Top ranked Penn State flexed its muscles at Illinois with a 30-15 win. The more I watch the Nittany Lions the more impressed I get. Along with Nolf, Bo Nickal and Zain Retherford also picked up pins. Penn State now has four guys ranked No. 1 in the country. They remind me of a dominant starting pitching rotation. In baseball terms these guys have three or four pitches they can use to make you look foolish. This week I am sending a dump truck full of sprinkles to State College and having it poured in their wrestling room. The entire team earned sprinkles on their ice cream" with that win.

Penn State and Michigan, two of the remaining unbeaten teams in the Big Ten will meet Sunday at Penn State. Michigan will first travel to Northwestern for a dual Friday night. No. 1 Zain Retherford squares off against No. 6 Alec Pantaleo for the Wolverines. I'm also interested in the match at 174 pounds with No. 1 Bo Nickal and No. 13 Davonte Mahomes. Mahomes is coming off a nice win over Indiana's Nate Jackson who earlier handed Nickal his lone loss of the season.

Friday night in Iowa City will be the 101st meeting between the Hawkeyes and Minnesota. The Gophers have won two of the last three meetings, but Iowa is the heavy favorite in this one. The Hawkeyes have been dominant coming off wins last weekend over Purdue and Nebraska. At 7-0 in Big Ten duals, Iowa is well on its way to at least a share of the conference dual meet crown. In their last 40 individual matches in conference Iowa is 35-5.

Minnesota is a very young team that has shown growth this season. The featured match is at 197 pounds where Iowa's Nathan Burak (No. 3) tangles with Brett Pfarr (No. 4) in a battle of top five ranked guys. This is a real contrast of styles so I'm curious to watch this match. Minnesota native Sam Stoll (No. 7) will meet the Gophers Michael Kroells (No. 9) in a battle at heavyweight. I am intrigued about the matchup at 141 with Minnesota's Tommy Thorn and Brody Grothus. Thorn has climbed to No. 7 in the rankings as he continues to impress, while Grothus is finding his groove after making his way back into the Iowa lineup. Minnesota at Iowa airs Friday night on the Big Ten Network at 9 p.m. ET.

Ohio State is on the road with visits to Indiana and Purdue. Keep an eye on the match Friday night at 174 with Ohio State's Myles Martin (No. 15) and Indiana's Nate Jackson (No. 8). On Sunday, No. 2 Bo Jordan faces No. 7 Chad Welch of Purdue at 165 pounds.

Illinois will look to get back on track in Madison Sunday. Another meeting between undefeated Zane Richards (No.2) and Ryan Taylor (No. 7) of the Badgers. Wisconsin's Isaac Jordan (No. 3) wrestles No. 6 Steven Rodrigues. The NCAA Championships are less than two months away. These guys are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. During these "dog days" of the season, focus is so critical.

Still so much to be determined.

Still so much at stake.

Let's wrestle!