Cal State Bakersfield redshirt senior wrestler Sean Nickell knows well the satisfaction or uncertainty a trip to the Pac-12 Wrestling Championships can bring.
“He’s been on both ends of it,” Roadrunners head coach Manny Rivera said. “He’s won the tournament. He’s also underperformed there. He’s at this point, he’s a senior, he’s been there. He kind of knows what to expect and how to handle himself.”
Nickell won a Pac-12 title at 125 pounds as a redshirt sophomore. He took third at 133 pounds last season, needing an eventual at-large bid to get into the NCAA Wrestling Championships instead of automatically qualifying.
The Bakersfield High graduate will head back to the conference tournament as the top-seeded 133-pounder, trying for his second Pac-12 title and qualify for his third NCAA championship. The Pac-12 championships will be on Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Arizona.
“Win. No. 1. That’s the only way it’ll be a success for me is if I win,” Nickell said.
On paper, this regular season was the best of Nickell’s career, he said. He went 22-8 and did not lose to a conference opponent.
Nickell’s eight losses came to opponents who were all ranked in the top 20 at the time. His lone ranked win was over No. 14 Matthew Schmitt of West Virginia.
“I liked that I never lost to someone ranked below me, but I don’t like that I didn’t beat enough of the guys ranked above me,” Nickell said. I had a close match against Wyoming (wrestler No. 12 Montorie Bridges, 2-1). I wish instead of losing, I could have just pulled it out. A few things here and there that I wish I had done better against the higher ranked opponents.”
What’s worked for Nickell this year is a new aggressiveness. He used to struggle with his endurance and keeping up with high-paced wrestlers, Nickell said. He also needed to improve his performance while on bottom.
This year, Nickell has been more offensive. While on bottom, instead of waiting and feeling things out like he previously did, he changed to moving immediately. It’s hard while on top to deal with someone who tries to get away as soon as possible, Nickell said.
In the Pac-12 championships last season, Nickell suffered a first round sudden victory defeat to Mason Pengilly from Stanford. Pengilly is ranked as the No. 2 133-pounder, behind Nickell.
Though Nickell entered this season 0-2 against Pengilly, including a match in 2014 as a freshman, and did not face him in the dual with Stanford this year, Nickell did beat Pengilly, 4-2, at the Southern Scuffle this season.
“I think Mason surprised him a little bit last year,” Rivera said. “They had never wrestled all year and they plugged Mason in late. So Sean never got a feel for him. They wrestled another time. Sean beat him and I think the more he’s wrestled him, he kind of knows what to look out for. I think it’s only benefited Sean the more they compete.”
Pengilly is tough to score on, strong and solid all around Nickell said, but beatable.
And heading into this conference tournament, Nickell is looking back at that first-round loss from last season.
“ I need to be ready to blow it out right off the bat,” Nickell said. “I just gotta get my lungs going immediately. I thought I had a good enough warm up last time, but I guess not. I don’t want to fade away like I did in that match.”