Success more than talent at State
UNIVERSITY PARK — The secret to the Penn State wrestling team’s sustained stretch of success under coach Cael Sanderson, to the seven team championships in the past eight years, to the 51 All-Americans and 20 national champions, isn’t one single thing.
Recruiting top-level talent year after year helps. Having a coaching staff that is considered the best, most cohesive group in the sport is a bonus. And being able to leverage the post-collegiate talent that trains with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and its U.S. Olympic Regional Training Center status is an advantage.
According to Sanderson, though, all of that unravels if not for Penn State’s not-so-secret sauce.
“Gratitude is the foundation for greatness, the foundation for lasting success in anything you do. You take that away and your foundation’s gonna crumble a little bit,” Sanderson said earlier this week at the team’s NCAA Championships Media Day.
“It’s just a piece of life that a lot of these kids haven’t really, especially student-athletes, they’re not really taught that principle. It’s more of an entitlement. These guys ought to be grateful for the opportunity they have and they’re given so much. It really is a great time to be a student-athlete. The perks that these guys get and the support they get is obviously the best in the history of collegiate athletics.”
Penn State is considered the favorite to add another team title, that would make four in a row, and several individual crowns when the 2019 NCAA Division I Championships are contested Thursday through Saturday in PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
Sanderson mentioned Iowa, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Cornell and Michigan as other contenders. But none of them can match the collection of nine Top 12 seeds the Nittany Lions have earned.
Senior Jason Nolf (157), junior Mark Hall (165) and senior Bo Nickal (174) are seeded No. 1. Junior Vincenzo Joseph (165), senior Shakur Rasheed (184) and senior Anthony Cassar (285) are seeded No. 2. Sophomore Nick Lee (141) is the third seed, true freshman Roman Bravo-Young (133) is seeded 10th and redshirt freshman Brady Berge (149) is seeded 12th.
“There are a lot of great programs. The difference is just a few points here and there. It’s not like there’s a huge difference between programs. I think our team’s wrestled very well this year and they’ve set things up, but it’s all about the finish, finishing strong and getting what they want,” Sanderson said.
“Expectations and seeds and rankings don’t really mean a lot. Best ranking on paper doesn’t always win; best seed doesn’t always win. Whoever goes out there and scores the most points for the minutes you’re given. We’re excited about the opportunity and I think we’re gonna wrestle really well. We have some gamers on our team and the bigger the match the better some of these guys wrestle and I believe that 100 percent.”
Four Nittany Lions who epitomize that description are Nolf, Joseph, Hall and Nickal. That quartet has combined for seven individual championships and 10 finals berths in 10 combined NCAA appearances. Those four have advanced to the finals every year and have a combined 47-3 record in the tournament.
Nolf and Nickal have a chance to cement their legacy as two of the best wrestlers in program history, and arguably the most productive duo in the history of the sport.
Each of them is trying to join Ed Ruth and Zain Retherford as the only three-time champions in Penn State history. They are also tying to join David Taylor as the only four-time finalists in program history. Nolf sits atop the program’s all-time pins list with 59 and Nickal is second with 56. Those two have a combined record of 227-6.
Sanderson said he expects their greatness to extend beyond their collegiate careers.
“I fully expect them to be world title contenders this year,” he said. “If Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal won world championships next fall, I wouldn’t be surprised by that. They are both beyond words and extremely special and guys, in my opinion, who will be remembered for as long as college wrestling exists. Two of the best who have ever stepped on the mat. I believe that.”
All of that is yet to come. All nine Nittany Lions will have to win five matches in a row to earn a championship Saturday night. None of the accolades they earned prior to this week matter this week.
“Everything is in the past. What we do this weekend is a completely different day, another story. It’s gonna be up to each individual to go do that again and wrestle with gratitude again and continue to try to be better than they were the day before,” Sanderson said.
“I think based on our history I think these guys are excited for this opportunity and gratitude is about taking what you’ve been given and making the most you can with it.”
What: 2019 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships
Where: PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh
Session 1: Noon Thursday – Pigtails and championship first round.
Session 2: 7 p.m. Thursday – Championship Round of 16, consolation pigtails and first round.
Session 3: 11 a.m. Friday – Championship quarterfinals, consolation second- and third-rounds.
Session 4: 8 p.m. Friday – Championship semifinals, consolation fourth- and fifth-rounds.
Session 5: 11 a.m. Saturday – Consolation semifinals, seventh-, fifth- and third-place bouts.
Session 6: 7 p.m. Saturday – Championship finals.
What’s at stake: Champions and Top 8 placewinners at each of 10 weights earn All-America status.
On the Air: TV – ESPNU (sessions 1,3,5), ESPN (sessions 2,4,6); Radio – Penn State Sports Network; Radio online – Lionvision at GoPSUsports.com; Live Web Radio – ESPN3, Watch ESPN, ESPN App.