Sanderson reflects and looks forward to future
UNIVERSITY PARK — Except for a couple of NCAA wrestling team championship trophies sitting on a desk in the Penn State wrestling offices earlier this week, one would never have known that the Nittany Lions were fewer than two weeks removed from winning their sixth championship in seven years.
“The routine doesn’t really change. We’re just in here and down in the wrestling room and back,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said from behind his desk. “We don’t really celebrate a whole lot. We’re happy and grateful, but it isn’t all about winning. We’re not like ‘let’s go party, we won the nationals.’ We kind of expected it, we wanted it, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. We lost (Nick) Suriano. We lost (Jered) Cortez earlier in the year and it was getting to be quite a challenge there.”
But there has to be some sort of payoff for the year of working and planning and setting and meeting your goals, doesn’t there?
“There’s that moment when we realized, hey, we won the team championship and we give each other a high-five and a hug and it’s, ‘alright, let’s get ready for the finals,'” Sanderson said. “That’s just kind of our personalities. We don’t do this just to win national titles. That’s nice but there’s something bigger, I think.”
Sanderson said that except for the times his wife has replayed clips from nationals, he hasn’t watched any replays.
“I haven’t watched much of it, really. I just don’t usually do that unless we’re trying to study some film or something, but at this point, this year’s over and we’re getting ready for next year,” he said.
He and the team have turned the page toward the 2017-18 season, but Sanderson did spend 45 minutes talking about the season that was and the season ahead.
As the coach alluded to, midseason shoulder surgery took Cortez out of the lineup. An ankle injury sustained Feb. 19 sidelined Suriano for the postseason. Both, he said, are on the mend.
“Nick was bouncing around on the mat yesterday. Jered’s a little further away. They’re both on schedule with where they should be. Nick’s a little further ahead,” he said.
Those injuries were two of the few disappointments at what most are calling the best season in Penn State wrestling history. The climax was, of course, the 5-for-5 performance in the national finals.
“That was really surreal. Just amazing. We thought Zain and Nolf were favorites. They should win but that doesn’t mean they’re gonna win. You see upsets along the way and that’s what makes that tournament so much fun. The next three matches are all really tough match-ups and we could wrestle well and not win those matches,” Sanderson said.
“Even if we have four guys win and have an amazing tournament, the feel is going to be different because all of our guys are a close group…their heart’s going to be with the guy who didn’t reach his goal, and we’ve had that … even when we’ve won the nationals we haven’t had everybody reach their goals. You have to enjoy that one.”
That feat, of becoming the first team in history to have champions at five consecutive weights, figures to attract more of the best young talent.
“It can (make it easier). For us it’s just making sure we’re getting the correct kids that fit the program. I don’t know how you could be a young wrestler, or a parent, if you’re watching that really closely, how you couldn’t be watching that and think ‘we definitely need to consider Penn State,'” Sanderson said.
“And not only did the team win, but our fall GPA is a 3.25. They’re good students and they genuinely enjoy what they’re doing. It shouldn’t be rare but it seems as though that’s not the case very often. I think there’s something special going on here.”
Two of those championship wins came from a pair of freshmen that showed great improvement over the course of the season — Joseph and 174-pounder Mark Hall.
“It was definitely (Joseph’s) conditioning and his focus was a lot better going into nationals. Also, his technique was just sharper after a season’s worth of college wrestling,” Sanderson said
Sanderson described Joseph as “very intelligent” and pointed to better weight maintenance and anability to improve moves in a short amount of time as examples. The same move he used to record a fall in the finals he was beaten with two weeks early at the Big Ten tournament.
“He can make those adjustments. He’s very comfortable in those positions. He just has really powerful core strength and he knows when it’s there and when it’s not there and I think fatigue was a factor. Vincenzo’s still feeling fresh. He was wrestling to win the match. He wasn’t trying to squeak by or not lose,” Sanderson said.
“The exciting thing about Vincenzo is that he has a lot of room to improve. He can get better on the mat, he can get better finishing his shots. He’s still a freshman with a lot of potential.”
For Hall, Sanderson said confidence was the key. Despite the fact that he won six Minnesota state titles, two USA Wrestling UWW Junior National championships and a FILA Cadet World Championship, Hall was often undersized this season against older, more experienced opponents.
“With Mark a lot of it is just confidence,” he said. “As a true freshman, he has nowhere to go but up as long as he continues to make good decisions and take care of himself and stay motivated. His goals are bigger than the NCAA tournament. He wants to be World and Olympic champion.”
The final wrestler in that five-title run was Bo Nickal, who upset two-time champ Gabe Dean from Cornell. The win was doubly significant. First, Nickal proved he could win in the finals after he was beaten in the 2016 finals, mostly on counters to his moves. Second, Nickal abandoned his high-wire, go-for-broke style that fans find so entertaining.
“In the finals he was a little more tactical and wrestled smarter and stayed in good position. He didn’t force anything,” Sanderson said. “That was a change for him and I think that’s good thing because he can go big and he likes to, as we know, but there’s an important piece where he has to be able to find a way to win in a non-spectacular fashion that he prefers.”
Looking ahead, Penn State is the odds-on favorite to make it a three-peat in Cleveland in March 2018. The Nittany Lions return 142 of the 146.5 points they scored in St. Louis. The only graduating senior in the starting lineup is 141-pounder Jimmy Gulibon.
Blue-chip recruit Nick Lee from Evansville, Indiana, was thought to be the heir apparent at 141. Sanderson, though, said he’s one of two candidates.
“I think we’ll wrestle our best team. That would be our plan. Nick Lee, he’ll be ready to go. I mean Nick Lee, he’s going to be a handful. Cortez also has been talking about going 141 also, which would probably be better for him as well,” he said. “So 133, I think, is the weight class that is the biggest question mark right now for next year.”
Sanderson said Lee chose to forego his senior season, finish high school online and move to State College to train with the Nittany Lion wrestling club.
“He’s been able to train and I think it’s been great for him. He’s been able to train with our senior level guys and when our college kids are in there. I mean it’s freestyle but we’ll get him in here for summer school and put the folkstyle emphasis on things a little bit more. He’ll be ready to roll,” he said.
Another weight that had a flurry of rumors and conversation was 197. Matt McCutcheon, of course, successfully made the move up a weight and was a win away from All-America status. Sanderson said McCutcheon has plans to be a chiropractor, “but we’d like to have him back next year.”
Redshirt freshman Anthony Cassar is another potential 197-pound starter. Last season the 2015 96-kilogram Junior National Freestyle Champion was recovering from a second shoulder surgery. Sanderson said he’s “been training hard” and is “coming along.”
A third wrestler thought to be a future 197-pounder, Nick Nevills’ younger brother AJ, is no longer in the mix. AJ, who had been training with the NLWC, announced on Twitter on March 20 that he will wrestle for the newly reconstituted Fresno State program, which is just a few miles from his high school, Clovis.
Sanderson said Nevills never signed a National Letter of Intent with Penn State so reports of him transferring were erroneous.
Finally, Sanderson confirmed his contract runs out this year and he said he’s been in talks for about a year.
“There’s just a couple of things I was hoping to get done for our program that when they’re done, I’m in. I’m kind of just dragging my feet a little bit. It’s not necessarily anything about me,” he said.
“My goal as a coach is always to make sure Penn State is the best place in the country for wrestling.”
While he didn’t reveal what those requests are, he said they’re neither concesions the staff doesn’t deserve nor something some other school has but Penn State doesn’t.
“I’m not an entitlement guy. I think that’s one of the biggest problems in college athletics generally speaking, just the entitlement factor,” he said. “There are a couple of things I’m trying to get done to move the program along and so that’s kind of what I’ve been waiting on.”
So, assuming that gets done, Sanderson and his talented band of wrestlers are gearing up to make a run at another title in 2017-18.
“This was great and we’re happy and super grateful but it’s that whole idea of count your blessings but you make your blessings count,” he said.
“Gratitude is making your blessings count, so we want to keep making these blessings count and keep improving and as great as it was two weeks ago, we’re excited for next year.”