When Penn State heavyweight Nick Nevills faced Olympic champion Kyle Snyder of Ohio State in the final bout of the teams’ dual last year, his goal was simple: Keep it close, and don’t allow bonus points. He succeeded, losing 15-10 to clinch the 19-18 dual win for the Nittany Lions.
When No. 3 Anthony Cassar faces No. 19 Chase Singletary in the teams’ dual on Friday night, he’ll be called upon to be the wrestler scoring bonus points, not preventing them.
That change is reflective of Penn State’s new outlook at heavyweight, one that’s more aligned with the team’s aggressive, high-scoring philosophy.
For two years, Nevills was consistently among the top five heavyweights in the country. Had he not lost the starting job to Cassar this season, Nevills would be a legitimate national title contender. But he’s been relegated to a backup role because Cassar is simply too valuable to keep off the mat.
Whereas Nevills is more of a traditional heavyweight who would overpower opponents for seven minutes to win 3-1, Cassar is cast from the same mold as Snyder, the gold standard in college wrestling, and represents the future of the weight class.
Like Snyder, Cassar is a converted 197-pounder and light for a heavyweight, weighing somewhere in the 220-pound range. What both wrestlers lack in beefy stature, they make up for in athleticism and speed not common at that weight. They also possess plenty of lean muscle that allows them to not just hang around with the “big boys,” but dominate them.
Even while adjusting to his new weight, Cassar almost always appears to be in control of the bout and the stronger wrestler on the mat. He’s picked up opponents like Lehigh’s Jordan Wood and Northwestern’s Conan Jennings and thrown them to the mat with authority. After the Northwestern dual, Cassar said his goal against Jennings was to lift him over his head, and he did so in the first period before winning a 12-3 major.
“I’m realizing that I’m definitely strong enough to work with these guys,” Cassar said. “The strength is what the factor is, and I have that advantage for sure.”
That combination of strength and agility translates to a barrage of offense and bonus points, two things Nevills, as good as he is, never truly provided.
Cassar is 17-1 and has three falls, one technical fall, and nine major decisions. He’s scored double digits in 16 of his 18 bouts, while Nevills did so in only eight of 37 matches last season. Nevills earned 24 bonus points last season, whereas Cassar already has 20 in half as many matches.
As Wrestling Nomad pointed out on Twitter Wednesday, Cassar is taking down opponents at a sensational rate. He’s averaging more than four takedowns per bout, or one every 51 seconds on his feet.
“I’ve learned that I need to set up my shots more, but once I get in, I can score and finish on anyone,” Cassar said. “I’m definitely quicker and feel like I can definitely utilize my speed when I get in, which is how I expose [his opponents’] lack of speed.”
Naturally, Cassar’s only loss this season was also the only time he’s been overpowered. No. 2 Derek White of Oklahoma State outmuscled Cassar in the Southern Scuffle finals, winning 3-2 in a classic heavyweight slugfest, quite the opposite of the matches Cassar has grown accustomed to winning.
The ironic part about Cassar’s surge in offense is that his inability to score bonus points last year is arguably why he lost the season-long battle for the spot at 197 pounds to Shakur Rasheed. Cassar was 16-2 and only had five bonus point wins, all by major. He scored double-digits only nine times, compared to 16 already this year. Rasheed and his death-grip cradle, on the other hand, won the job, finishing with 12 falls and wracking up 45 bonus points in 29 matches.
The biggest change seems to be Cassar no longer needs to worry about making the 197-pound cut. He seems more assertive and in-control this season even while facing larger opponents.
“I never cut weight growing up, so last year was the first time I had to,” Cassar said. “My dad always preached ‘Get big and strong and you won’t have to cut weight.’ I love eating a lot and well, and I love lifting a lot. I had to sacrifice those two things so I could stay the right weight. Now that I’m a heavyweight, I can do as much as I want of them.”
Cassar’s new-found knack for scoring was on full display last Friday against Michigan when he, for lack of a better term, schooled Wolverines’ freshman No. 6 Mason Parris for seven minutes.
He took Parris down six times and added four near-fall points and a riding time en route to an emphatic 19-8 win. The bout began with a thunderous sequence when Cassar scored a double-leg takedown and near fall that sent Parris to his back in the first 20 seconds.
The match represented everything Sanderson instills in his wrestlers: Attack opponents relentlessly and in ways they haven’t seen before.
A performance like Cassar had against Michigan might make the difference in Friday’s dual. Or it might mean the difference between first and second place in the team race at the NCAA Championships. Or it might make him a great matchup for similarly agile No. 1 Gable Steveson of Minnesota in a potential NCAA Final.
Nevertheless, it’s a sign Cassar has finally found his place in Penn State’s lineup, and the Nittany Lions have found their guy at heavyweight for what appears to be the foreseeable future.
“He’s a gamer, and the bigger the match, the better he wrestles,” head coach Cael Sanderson said. “He hasn’t had a chance to wrestle in the conference and national tournaments, but the best indicator of that is how they compete in big matches and throughout the season, so we’re really happy with how he’s wrestling.”