Ranking the Top 10 Penn State Wrestling Grapplers of Cael Sanderson Era - NittanyCentral

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NittanyCentral is home for the latest Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, Penn State Basketball news, updates, and analysis of the Penn State Nittany Lions

NittanyCentral is home for the latest Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, Penn State Basketball news, updates, and analysis of the Penn State Nittany Lions

The latest news, insight, and analysis of Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, and Penn State Basketball, including schedules, game results, analysis of breaking news, rumors, speculation, and recruiting coverage of future Penn State Nittany Lions

NittanyCentral is home to the latest Penn State Nittany Lions news, updates, insight, and analysis, including in-depth coverage of Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, Penn State Basketball, and much more

Ranking the Top 10 Penn State Wrestling Grapplers of Cael Sanderson Era

In a recent article where we highlighted the incredible and ongoing career of Penn State Wrestling star Aaron Brooks, I hinted at putting together a “Top 10 wrestlers of the Cael Sanderson Era”.

Well, now is that time.

Penn State Wrestling, Cael Sanderson
Penn State Wrestling head coach Cael Sanderson. (Image via Scott Pilutik For Nittany Central)


It’s not going to be any easy task. Nope. Far from it.

With what Nittany Lions fans have witnessed the past 13 years in Rec Hall, in the Bryce Jordan Center, on their TVs, and with their own two eyes at the Big Ten Conference Championships and NCAA Championships, the word “dynastic” comes to mind.

So, to help assist me in this list, I am going to factor in a handful of stats for context and seeding: Dan Hodge Trophy, NCAA titles, Career win % (ranking) Big Ten titles, Career bonus point % (ranking) Career fall % (ranking)Career wins (ranking) On a side note, if you see (NR) next to a stat this simply means they were not in the top 25 in Penn State history.

And, keep in mind, no single category will be a deciding factor in the final order of these all-time Nittany Lion greats.

Rather, I will try to take an entire snapshot of each wrestler’s career and put it in perspective when comparing them to each other. Here we go!

Ranking the top 10 wrestlers of the Cael Sanderson era at Penn State Wrestling

Outside Looking In

OLI No. 1 Anthony Cassar (2018-2020)

Career record: 49-3
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 1 (2019)
Career win %: 94.2 (10th)
Big Ten titles: 1 (2019)
Career bonus point %: 53.9 (18th)
Career fall %: 11.5 (NR)
Career wins: 49 (102)

OLI No. 2 Frank Molinaro (2009-2012)

Career record: 121-29
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 1 (2012)
Career win %: 80.6 (NR)
Big Ten titles: 2 (2011 & 2012)
Career bonus point %: 41.3 (NR)
Career fall %: 8.0 (NR)
Career wins: 121 (T-11th)

OLI No. 3 Quentin Wright (2009-2013)

Career record: 116-23
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 2 (2011 & 2013)
Career win %: 83.5 (NR)
Big Ten titles: 2 (2011 & 2013)
Career bonus point %: 45.3 (NR)
Career fall %: 27.3 (NR)
Career wins: 116 (T-18th)

OLI No. 4 Vincenzo Joseph (2017-2020)

Career record: 89-9
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 2 (2017 & 2018)
Career win %: 90.8 (19th)
Big Ten titles: 0
Career bonus point %: 58.8
Career fall %: 26.5 (NR)
Career wins: 89 (44th)


And right off the bat my Outside Looking In group includes a total of five Big Ten titles and six NCAA individual titles. Wow.

Even though Anthony Cassar’s career was essentially the better part of a season and a half, his accomplishments during that time were ridiculous.

From Cassar upending No. 1 Kollin Moore in the “Dual of the Century” against Ohio State in 2018 to Cassar beating NCAA all-time great Gable Steveson twice in the 2019-2020 season to claim the Big Ten and NCAA title. The two losses Cassar handed Steveson were the lone losses of his entire collegiate career.

Looking at both Frank Molinaro and Quentin Wright, their careers absolutely put them in the group of Nittany Lion all-time greats. And, if we went back in time to 2012 it’s possible some Nittany Lion fans would put them in the same discussion as Greg Elinsky, Sanshiro Abe, Jim Martin, Andy Matter, Kerry McCoy, and Jeff Prescott as some of the best to ever wear the blue and white singlet.

Little did they know that in the years to come, they were about to see some of the best wrestlers the country has ever witnessed. Then there’s Vincenzo Joseph, who like Wright, also brought home two NCAA titles and finished runner-up once. These four guys would be easily inside the top five for most other school’s all-time lists.

No. 10 Nick Lee (2018-2022)

Career record: 119-13
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 2 (2021 & 2022)
Career win %: 90.2 (21st)
Big Ten titles: 1 (2022)
Career bonus point %: 65.2 (6th)
Career fall %: 13.6 (NR)
Career wins: 119 (T-14th)

If you were to put a face to Penn State Wrestling, it has to be Nick Lee’s following his win over Kizhan Clarke in the 2022 NCAA Championships.

Arms raised at the center of the mat with a stoic expression on his busted-up and black-eyed face.


Nick was a tough, gritty, and amazingly talented grappler as evidenced by his career bonus point percentage being sixth in Nittany Lion history.

I still find it amazing that he only, and I used the word “only” very lightly here, won a single Big Ten title. But who cares, right? His 119 career victories, over 90% win percentage, and two NCAA titles are all that need to be said as to why he belongs on this list.

No. 9 Roman Bravo-Young (2019-2023)

Penn State Wrestling, Roman Bravo Young, NCAA Wrestling
Roman Bravo-Young of Penn State Wrestling. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)


Career record: 101-10
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 2 (2021 & 2022)
Career win %: 91.0 (16th)
Big Ten titles: 3 (2021-2023)
Career bonus point %: 46.8 (NR)
Career fall %: 10.8 (NR)
Career wins: 101 (33rd)

I fully realize RBY’s final season didn’t end the way he wanted it to.

But look, Vito Arujau did something that very few wrestlers have ever done, especially when you consider he bumped up a weight class.

Arujau didn’t just win the 2023 title at 133, he decimated his way there. And his 11-3 win over Daton Fix in the semi finals and his 10-4 win over Bravo-Young in the finals represented the worst loss for each of those two wrestler’s careers in regulation time (RBY was pinned in his 12th match as a Nittany Lion).

But, here’s exactly why I’m bringing this up. Roman Bravo-Young was a special wrestler and his time in Happy Valley was always entertaining to watch. Some of his lightning-quick moves seemed superhuman.

Bravo-Young’s undefeated runs in 2021 and 2022 were simply incredible.

Even if he did bring home the title in 2023, he probably wouldn’t have moved up many spots in this list. And that’s not anything against RBY because words hardly describe how good he was, it’s just a testament to how good the rest of this list is.

No. 8 Mark Hall (2017-2020)

Career record: 116-6
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 1 (2017)
Career win %: 95.1 (9th)
Big Ten titles: 3 (2018-2020)
Career bonus point %: 62.5 (8th)
Career fall %: 34.2 (20th)
Career wins: 116 (T-18th)

I know exactly what you’re probably saying to yourself.

Yes, I realize Mark Hall has a “1” next to the “NCAA titles” category, but there are a plethora of reasons as to why I have him higher than many guys who have multiple titles.

Hall competed in 122 matches during his time at Penn State. And in those 122 matches he only lost six times, which puts him in the top 10 in Nittany Lion history for winning percentage. He won three Big Ten titles, finished runner-up his true freshman year, was a bonus point machine, and could pin anyone from any position.

All said and done, Mark Hall was one of the best technical wrestlers Cael Sanderson has ever had at Penn State.

Hall is one of the few guys who is ranked inside the top 20 all-time for my selected categories. As for his lone NCAA title, here’s Mark Hall’s finish in each of his four years as a Nittany Lion:2017 1st, 2018 2nd, 2019 2nd, 2020 NCAA’s canceled.

Had the 2020 NCAA championships actually happened, then Hall was for sure going to the guy with his hand raised at 174 once again.


No. 7 Jason Nolf (2016-2019)

Career record: 117-3
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 3 (2017-2019)
Career win %: 97.5 (5th)
Big Ten titles: 2 (2017 & 2019)
Career bonus point %: 86.6 (2nd)
Career fall %: 50.4 (2nd)
Career wins: 117 (17th)

Let me first detail Jason Nolf’s only three losses in his Nittany Lion career: 3/06/16 4-3 TB2 loss to Isaiah Martinez – 2016 Big Ten Finals3/19/16 6-5 loss to Isaiah Martinez – 2016 NCAA Finals1/28/18 injury default to John Van Brill So, that’s a loss in the finals of the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments in his freshman year and an injury default his junior year.

That’s it.

Had Nolf finished the 2018 Big Tens, then he would have no doubt won that year’s title.

But, since he was rehabbing from the injury suffered against Van Brill, Jason crushed his first two opponents and then forfeited the rest to finish sixth, earn the automatic bid, and get some much-needed rest. He then went on to win the title his junior season while being very far from 100%. And Jason Nolf at maybe 60% beat his five opponents to the tune of 56-12.

*cue the wide eyes emoji*

When comparing him historically, there aren’t many better than Nolf. Nolf has the fifth-highest winning percentage, and the second-highest bonus point percentage, and of the Cael Sanderson era guys he is number one in terms of pin percentage. Just think about this, in over half of the 120 matches Jason laced up his shoes, he won by fall.

That’s bananas.

No. 6 Bo Nickal (2016-2019)

Bo Nickal, NCAA Wrestling
Penn State Nittany Lions wrestler Bo Nickal (Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)


Career record: 120-3
Dan Hodge Trophy: 1 (2019)
NCAA titles: 3 (2017-2019)
Career win %: 97.6 (4th)
Big Ten titles: 3 (2016, 2018, & 2019)
Career bonus point %: 77.1 (3rd)
Career fall %: 48.4 (3rd)
Career wins: 120 (13th)

When looking at the stats between Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal, they are very similar.

Nolf had a career record of 117-3, a win percentage of 97.5%, bonus point percentage of 86.6%, a fall percentage of 50.4%, three Big Ten titles, and three NCAA titles.

Meanwhile, Nickal had a career record of 120-3, a win percentage of 97.6%, a bonus point percentage of 77.1%, a fall percentage of 48.4%, three Big Ten titles, and three NCAA titles.

But, what gives Nickal the razor-close edge over Nolf is the fact his best season was better than Nolf’s. Bo’s 2018-2019 campaign was absolutely incredible as he was a perfect 30-0 with six major decisions, three technical falls, and a ridiculous 18 pins on the year.

That’s a bonus point percentage of 90.0% and a fall rate of 60%.

His year was so good that Bo Nickal was awarded the 2019 Dan Hodge Trophy. Nickal is the first such Nittany Lion legend so far on this list with a number other than “0” next to the “Dan Hodge Trophy” category. Nickal did things on the mat that appeared to defy all physics … and sometimes logic. He was the ultimate “No, no, no, no. YES!!!” type of wrestler.

And the only reason he’s not in the top two is due to the mountain of accomplishments the last two guys piled up.

No. 5 Ed Ruth (2011-2014)

Career record: 136-3
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 3 (2012-2014)
Career win %: 97.84 (1st)
Big Ten titles: 4 (2011-2014)
Career bonus point %: 75.9 (4th)
Career fall %: 33.6 (22nd)
Career wins: 136 (5th)

“Wait, you’re telling me Ed Ruth is the fifth best wrestler of just the Cael Sanderson era?

The same guy who has the highest winning percentage in school history and has three NCAA titles? That guy?

And the guy who would be the greatest of all-time for the following wrestling programs:-Michigan-Oklahoma-Wisconsin-Nebraska-Purdue-Northwestern-Illinois”

Yep, I’m talking about the same guy.

As I’ve stated before, an individual’s ranking in this list should in no way be an indictment against them as it’s chock-full of NCAA greats.

When trying to separate the best-of-the-best from themselves, nothing makes it simple.

When looking at Ruth, several facts jump out at you. In the hypothetical question I asked myself I pointed out that Ruth has the highest winning percentage in Nittany Lion history.

Ed is also the only grappler to win four Big Ten and three NCAA titles. And the only reason I have him slotted at fifth is that while he was a bonus point producer and pinned opponents at a high rate, it just doesn’t compare to what the remaining four guys did.

No. 4 Carter Starocci (2020-2024??)

Penn State Wrestling, Carter Starocci
Carter Starocci of Penn State Wrestling (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

Career record: 93-4
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 4 (2021-2024)
Career win %: 95.9 (10th)
Big Ten titles: 2 (2022 & 2023)
Career bonus point %: 54.8 (19th)
Career fall %: 12.3 (NR)
Career wins: 93 (T-39th)

Carter Starocci will always go down as Penn State’s first four-time NCAA champion. That’s a fact.

It’s also a fact that had he not gotten injured in the dual meet against Edinboro, he would have finished his career with 71 straight victories. Starocci only had four losses in his career and two of those were the forfeits in the 2024 Big Ten’s.

There’s another fact that is simply indisputable, Carter Starocci is one of the most mentally strong and toughest competitors to have ever come through Happy Valley. Regardless of the sport. Period.

Carter won an NCAA title in 2022 with a broken hand. And he defied all of the odds on the planet when he won his fourth title this year with only one functional knee.

However it’s also possible that there could be another Penn State chapter in Starocci’s future. Hence why I have the question marks next to the years he was in Happy Valley. But by most accounts it appears him coming back for a possible fifth NCAA title are very low.

What else does this guy have to prove?


But “Carter Starocci – the first wrestler in NCAA history to win five individual titles and the 2025 Dan Hodge Trophy winner” has a nice ring to it. Something tells me there’s still a college-fire burning deep inside of him that he just can’t shake. Had he not gotten injured this year and things played out exactly the same, I don’t think there was a chance at all of him coming back.

Now? It’s probably one in a million. “So you’re sayin’ there’s a chance!”


And if he does come back and win a fifth NCAA title, then Carter Starocci will forever be immortalized in the annals of college and Penn State Wrestling history.

No. 3 David Taylor (2011-2014)

Career record: 134-3
Dan Hodge Trophy: 2 (2012 & 2014)
NCAA titles: 2 (2012 & 2014)
Career win %: 97.81 (2nd)
Big Ten titles: 4 (2011-2014)
Career bonus point %: 91.2 (1st)
Career fall %: 38.7 (14th)
Career wins: 134 (6th)

And now we’ve reached the first two-time winner of the Hodge Trophy portion of the article.

In David Taylor’s entire Nittany Lion career (137 matches), he only lost to two wrestlers. Arizona State’s Bubba Jenkins in the 2011 NCAA finals and Cornell’s Kyle Dake in the 2013 regular season and in the 2013 NCAA finals.

Following his undefeated sophomore year where Taylor went 32-0 with a bonus point percentage of 94%, he was awarded his first of two Hodge Trophies.

Then, after he steamrolled everyone his senior season by going 34-0 and having a bonus rate of 94%, David earned his second Hodge Trophy. And in doing so he landed on a very short list of collegiate wrestlers who won the Dan Hodge more than once.

Here was the list of multi-winners at the time: Cael Sanderson 2000, 2001, & 2002Ben Askren 2007 & 2008David Taylor 2012 & 2014 Taylor’s career winning percentage is only 3/100 away from No. 1 all-time and his career bonus point percentage was a staggering 91%!

He finished either as the NCAA champion or the runner up in each of his four seasons and he, Ed Ruth, and Aaron Brooks are the only two grapplers on this list to win four Big Ten titles. It truly is splitting hairs when comparing David Taylor to the next two guys. Because honestly, I would have no problem with any of them being No. 1. So with that, here’s who I have as the top two guys.

No. 2 Aaron Brooks (2019-2024)

Penn State Wrestling, Aaron Brooks, NCAA Wrestling
Penn State Wrestling’s Aaron Brooks. (Photo by Scott Pilutik, For NittanyCentral)


Career record: 89-3
Dan Hodge Trophy: 1 (2024)
NCAA titles: 4 (2021-2024)
Career win %: 96.7 (6th)
Big Ten titles: 4 (2020, 2021, & 2023-2024)
Career bonus point %: 65.2 (6th)
Career fall %: 17.4 (NR)
Career wins: 89 (T-44th)

It goes without saying, but Aaron Brooks comes in at No. 2 on this list as he’s a four-time Big Ten champion and one of only seven wrestlers to ever be a four-time NCAA champion. And I give him the slight edge over Carter Starocci. Which is no one’s fault as injuries never happen at a good time.

Brooks’ 2023-2024 season was one of the most dominant seasons in Nittany Lion history.

Aaron won his fourth Big Ten title, was named the Outstanding Wrestler of the Big Ten Championships, and was the Big Ten Wrestler of the Year. Then Brooks went and won his fourth NCAA title, was named Outstanding Wrestler of the NCAA Championships, and was crowned the 2024 NCAA Most Dominant Wrestler.

And him taking home the 2024 Dan Hodge Trophy was simply the cherry on top.

With how Aaron Brooks has competed in the wrestling room and how he performed under the bright lights of the NCAA’s, it’s simply incredible. And during his career at Penn State, with the way he wrestled, with how he handled himself in a humble manner off the mat, and how he generally carried himself, Brooks is true champion inside and out. It may be a long time until the Nittany Lion faithful see someone as truly great as Aaron Brooks.

No. 1 Zain Retherford (2014-2018)

Career record: 126-3
Dan Hodge Trophy: 2 (2017 & 2018)
NCAA titles: 3 (2016-2018)
Career win %: 97.7 (3rd)
Big Ten titles: 3 (2016-2018)
Career bonus point %: 75.4 (5th)
Career fall %: 42.1 (7th)
Career wins: 126 (7th)

As I just said, I would have no problem with either David Taylor or Aaron Brooks or Zain Retherford being No. 1 on anyone’s list of top wrestlers in the Cael Sanderson era.

But, that’s why I have Zain slightly ahead of both of them.

Following Retherford’s loss in the consolation bracket in the 2014 NCAA Championships, he proceeded to rattle off 94 straight wins to finish his Nittany Lion career.

This streak spanned from 3/22/14 until 3/17/18 and was a total of 1,456 days. Take a look at Retherford’s postseason run his sophomore season in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships:2016 Big Ten Fall Major decision Fall Decision 2016 NCAA Technical fall Fall Fall Fall Major decision.

He then had a similar run his junior campaign:2017 Big Ten Fall Fall Fall Technical fall 2017 NCAA Technical fall Technical fall Technical fall Fall Technical fall.

That’s right folks.

Zain Retherford won an NCAA finals match against the second-best wrestler in his weight class by a tech fall. That’s almost unheard of.

While Retherford’s senior postseason run wasn’t as flashy as the prior two, he nonetheless blew the doors off of everyone and capped off his Penn State Wrestling career with three Big Ten titles, three NCAA titles, and two Dan Hodge Trophies. And Zain Retherford’s amazing three year run is why I have him a tiny notch above David Taylor and Aaron Brooks in the pecking order.

MORE: The Inside Story of How Penn State Captured a Third Straight National Title

Penn State Wrestling
Celebrate Penn State Wrestling winning the 2023 National Championship with this commemorative t-shirt.


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