Penn State Wrestling

Counting Down the Elite: Ranking the Top 10 Penn State Wrestling Grapplers of Cael Sanderson Era

n 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.
And 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 (10th)
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.
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.
And 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, then 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 evident 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)
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 super human. His 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 cancelled
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 Aaron Brooks (2019-present)
Career record: 67-3
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 3 (2021-2023)
Career win %: 95.7 (8th)
Big Ten titles: 3 (2020, 2021, & 2023)
Career bonus point %: 57.1 (15th)
Career fall %: 14.2 (NR)
Career wins: 67 (76th)
As we highlighted recently, Aaron Brooks has a chance to do what no other Nittany Lion grappler has ever done in its storied history.
And that is to win a fourth NCAA title.
Brooks has already tied the all-time mark of three titles after crushing Parker Keckeisen in the 2023 NCAA Championships.
But, when the dust settles on his Nittany Lion career, it may be difficult to put his resume up against some of the other all-time Penn State greats.
One of the main reasons appears to be a trend that Cael Sanderson has implemented in recent years. Which is the fact most of the Nittany Lion grapplers aren’t participating in nearly as many matches as they had in years past.
And hey, if Cael Sanderson thinks it’s a good idea, then most likely it’s a damn good idea.
Obviously, the global pandemic from a couple of years ago affected this but to put things into perspective, Brooks has competed in a total of 70 matches in his five years at Penn State.
Frank Molinaro competed in 82 matches in just his first two seasons in the starting lineup.
Regardless of the number of matches Aaron has wrestled in, he’s been nothing short of spectacular.
Brooks’ insane win percentage of 95.7%, bonus point percentage of 57.1%, three Big Ten titles, and three NCAA titles say more about what he’s done with his time in Happy Valley than I ever could.
Considering Brooks has one more final chapter to write for his college career, it’s possible Aaron could land himself in some rarified air when it’s all over.
No. 6 Carter Starocci (2020-present)
Career record: 61-2
Dan Hodge Trophy: 0
NCAA titles: 3 (2021-2023)
Career win %: 96.8 (6th)
Big Ten titles: 2 (2022 & 2023)
Career bonus point %: 52.4 (20th)
Career fall %: 14.3 (NR)
Career wins: 61 (85th)
While Aaron Brooks has a chance to do what no other Nittany Lion has ever done on the wrestling mat, Carter Starocci has a chance to do what no other wrestler has ever done in the history of collegiate wrestling.
With Starocci picking up his third NCAA title this past March and with two more years of eligibility remaining, he could become the first ever five time NCAA champion.
And if Carter wants to use all of his allotted eligibility then it would not surprise me if he does win five. Not even in the slightest.
Just taking one look at Starocci on the mat, coupled with his unrivaled work ethic, and combined with the expertise and knowledge of the Penn State coaching staff, the sky is truly the limit for this talented athlete.
Carter already has the sixth highest winning percentage in Penn State history and his career bonus point percentage is in the top 20.
At this point it doesn’t appear there is anyone in the country that can push Starocci to the brink in a folkstyle match. Which is exactly why he has his sights set towards some bigger and better things with international wrestling and the Olympics.
But, if Starocci is able to complete five-peat, it would be hard to argue he’s not at the top of this list down the road.
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:
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 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 Finals
3/19/16 6-5 loss to Isaiah Martinez – 2016 NCAA Finals
1/28/18 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 Ten’s, 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 a 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, 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. 3 Bo Nickal (2016-2019)
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. While Bo 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. 2 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 multi-winners 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, & 2002
Ben Askren 2007 & 2008
David 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 and Ed Ruth 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 guy.
Because honestly, I would have no problem with either of them being No. 1.
So with that, here’s who I have as the top guy.
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 Zain Retherford being No. 1 on anyone’s list of top wrestlers in the Cael Sanderson era.
But where’s why I have Zain slightly ahead of Taylor.
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
Major decision
2016 NCAA
Technical fall
Major decision
He then had a similar run his junior campaign:
2017 Big Ten
Technical fall
2017 NCAA
Technical fall
Technical fall
Technical 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 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 in the pecking order.
Penn State Wrestling
Toast Penn State Wrestling winning the 2023 National Championship in this commemorative pint glass!
A note to our readers; If you make a purchase through one of our affiliate links, we may receive a commission

About Author

Chris Snyder

Expertise: College Wrestling, College Football, Lays Chips Education: Penn State University Location: State College, PA Even though he had no prior journalism experience, Chris has now covered Penn State Wrestling and Penn State Football for the past three years. And it's clear he also likes constant torture as he's been a PSU Basketball fan for way too long. Several years back, Chris made the seamless transition from PGA Professional to computer programmer and thoroughly enjoys following and writing about all things related to Penn State sports during his spare time.