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Finals set as seniors shine in semifinals

PITTSBURGH — With swollen foreheads and bloody lips, 20 of the NCAA’s toughest athletes huffed and puffed Friday night as they tried to describe their journey through March’s other grueling tournament.

“I worked my whole life since I was 4 years old starting to wrestle for an opportunity to be on this stage in the national tournament,” Rutgers 149-pounder Anthony Ashnault said. “And now it’s here.”

The Rutgers star is one of eight wrestlers who’ll have the opportunity to end his career with a title when the NCAA championships conclude tonight.

Fellow seniors Jason Nolf (157 pounds), Bo Nickal (197) and Anthony Cassar (285) of Penn State, Ohio State’s Joey McKenna (141) and Micah Jordan (149), Northern Iowa’s Drew Foster (184) and Oklahoma State’s Derek White (285) will end their careers with title shots.

They’ll be joined by Iowa’s Spencer Lee (125), Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis (141), Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph (165) and Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia (174), who are all defending champions in their respective weight classes.

Penn State led Ohio State 120-88.5 after the semifinal round. Iowa (68) is fourth, Northern Iowa (36.5) is 13th and Iowa State (31) is 15th.

The Nittany Lions built their lead with bonus points as they have in each of their championship runs.

Joseph, who edged Arizona State’s Josh Shields in the semis, will also try for his third championship. He’ll wrestle Virginia Tech freshman Mekhi Lewis, who bounced No. 1 seed Alex Marinelli of Iowa earlier on Friday.

Lee will face Virginia’s Jack Mueller for the 125-pound title after Lee pulled away from Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni in the semis. Mueller dominated top-seeded Sebastian Rivera of Northwestern 8-2 with 5:26 in riding time to make it to his first title bout.

“My coaches said to keep scoring. I think that resonated in my head,” said Lee. “I got a couple more shots, and I wasn’t backing up and focused on what he was doing. I was focused on my ability to score points and to continue to keep that action going.”

Lee’s finals appearance marks the 30th consecutive year Iowa has put at least one wrestler in the NCAA finals. Lee won the 125-pound title last season.

Lee was one of two Iowa semifinalists. Kaleb Young, the No. 6 seed at 157, dropped a 5-3 decision to Nebraska’s No. 2 Tyler Berger.

The Hawkeyes were 5-5 on the backside of the bracket Friday, sending four more wrestlers into the medal round and guaranteeing six podium finishes, the most since 2016. Iowa has had at least five All-Americans in six straight seasons.

Iowa State’s Jarrett Degen and Willie Miklus have locked in a spot on the podium and are All-Americans.

This is Miklus’ fourth time earning All-America honors. After missing the podium by just one match last season, Degen will finish in the top-8 for the first time of his career.

UNI secured its 25th two-time All-American when Drew Foster advanced to the semifinals.

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