Penn State tries to replace all-time greats

UNIVERSITY PARK – There’s no disputing the fact that Cael Sanderson has earned every penny Penn State has paid him in the first five years he’s led the Nittany Lion wrestling program.

He was hired to win titles and Penn State has claimed the national championship the past four years.

If Sanderson and Co. are to make it five in a row, they’ll probably have to work harder than ever. As the staff starts its sixth year, it does so without the services of two of the program’s – and sport’s – all-time greats, David Taylor and Ed Ruth.

For some, that prospect would be daunting. For Sanderson, it’s just another challenge to be overcome.

“We knew what we had and we were very grateful that we had four years with Ed and David and what they did. You sat back and said, ‘Wow. These guys are amazing. As good as there ever was.’ They both made history,” he said.

“We knew we would only have them for four years and the time would come that we would be replacing them or putting someone else in there. It’s kind of exciting, the challenge of it. That’s why you get into coaching because you want to put a team together,” he said. “We were fortunate to have a team that won four national championships and now we get the opportunity to build another team.”

The 2014-15 season is still months away, but Sanderson is already busy trying to piece together another championship team.

What follows is a weight-by-weight look at the possible lineup:

*125: Three-time All-American Nico Megaludis has a year of eligibility remaining. The only question is when will he use it? If it’s not this year, that would open the door for Jordan Conaway.

“We’ve talked with Nico about having him redshirt. We have Jordan Conaway that’s right there, too. We love Conaway. We believe he would have been an All-American this year at 125 if he had had the opportunity,” Sanderson said. “Nico has the opportunity to redshirt and even do an Olympic redshirt the year after. That would give Jordan two years at 125. There are options there.”

*133: This weight belongs to sophomore Jimmy Gulibon. The former four-time PIAA champion didn’t wrestle up to expectations last year, but Sanderson seemed confident that Gulibon would experience more peaks and fewer valleys next season.

“He wasn’t at his best this year. He knows that, we know that. Anybody who was watching knows that. He has had a good spring. I think his confidence is getting back up to where it needs to be. He has wrestled well. He’s gonna be fine,” Sanderson said. “The more he wrestles and creates flurries, he’s so fast, he’s so good, he’s so strong that he could be right there in the national championship hunt. We’re very confident in him.”

*141: Sophomore Zain Retherford jumped right into the fray as a true freshman and what a debut it was. In addition to a regular-season upset of defending national champion Logan Stieber of Ohio State, he finished fifth at the NCAAs.

The possibility of redshirting Retherford exists, but with no apparent replacement, the possibility seems remote.

“He’s a competitor. He’s mean. And he’s still learning how to wrestle, how to score and attack on his feet,” Sanderson said. “He’s a good one. We’re excited about him. He did an amazing job. He steps in as a true freshman and helps us win the national tournament.”

*149: This weight epitomized the saying “All’s well that ends well” last season. James English won a wrestle-off late in the season and his body held up long enough for him to earn All-America honors in one of the inspirational stories of the NCAA tournament.

That leaves the other two wrestlers who started matches at 149 a year ago – Zack Beitz and Andrew Alton – to battle it out, and the looming spectre of incoming freshman Jason Nolf.

“We have Beitz and Andrew (Alton) back. There’s not a big need for us to wrestle a true freshman,” Sanderson said.

With Alton fully recovered from his second shoulder surgery in as many years, many would consider him the favorite over Beitz.

“He was so good. He hurt his ankle. He hurt his shoulder. He hasn’t been healthy. Now he’s going to be healthy. That gives him a chance to get everything else in line. It’s up to him,” Sanderson said of Alton.

*157: Much like twin brother Andrew, Dylan Alton also underwent a second shoulder surgery in as many years. His was several weeks after Andrew’s, but he’s expected to be fully recovered by the time the season rolls around.

“Dylan’s good to go. He’s ready. He’s a little behind (Andrew),” Sanderson said. “We have high hopes. We believe in those guys. We’re excited to see them healthy. Hopefully, that gets everything else in line for them.”

*165: There’s no replacing David Taylor, but someone has to take his place in the lineup. That someone will be redshirt freshman Garrett Hammond.

“We’ve got Garrett Hammond there who’s been making good progress and has a lot of potential. He won matches at the Scuffle, but we’ve got to keep him moving forward,” Sanderson said. “He’s got some big shoes to fill. He’s not trying to fill David’s shoes, but he’s competing and wrestling with the mentality that we expect.”

*174: Two-time All-American Matt Brown is the man here. The final step in his career would be a trip to the top of the podium.

“He’s just a guy you want to see win. You want to see him leave here happy. He’s gearing up to go for the gold now,” Sanderson said.

*184: Sophomore Wes Phipps and freshman Matt McCutcheon have the same unenviable task as Garrett Hammond at 165 – one of them will replace a legend.

McCutcheon is probably the slight favorite to follow in Ed Ruth’s footsteps.

“Phipps did a nice job last year,” the coach said. “We really like McCutcheon. He’s going to be really good for us. He’s non-stop, loves to wrestle, very confident.”

*197: Now that Morgan McIntosh has earned All-America status for the first time, all that’s left is to improve on that seventh-place finish.

“Morgan’s got to just keep getting better and stay big. He’s got the ability to win the weight class as well as anybody else. He’s gotta go get it,” Sanderson said.

*285: Penn State has two capable starters here, but there’s only room for one.

Jimmy Lawson had grabbed the spot during the regular season but a knee injury shelved him for the postseason. Jon Gingrich stepped in admirably for Big Tens and NCAAs.

Sanderson said he hopes someone steps and grabs the spot early in the season.

“We haven’t seen a whole lot of work out of anyone at that weight in the offseason. Last year, no one was here. This year we really haven’t seen anyone. We’ll see. It’s kind of up for grabs,” he said.