Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson displays his competitive drive during York stop
WELLSVILLE — Anything Cael Sanderson does in athletics, he does with the sole intent of winning.
It's what made the Penn State coach the only NCAA Division I wrestler to never lose a bout over a four-year career, posting a perfect 159-0 mark at Iowa State. But his competitive drive extends well past wrestling, whether it's in the games of dodgeball that he plays with his team following a practice, on the golf course or on the shooting range. Simply put, he wants to win.
So, despite being the special shooter at Thursday's seventh annual Penn State York Clay Shoot at Central Penn Sporting Clays, he was still engaging in a bit of gamesmanship with the other shooters, hoping to knock them off their game and protect his 4-for-6 shooting performance.
"I'm telling them that the (wind) is making it harder because I'm trying to get them to miss," he said. "That's kind of my goal here, to come out with the top score."
Sanderson's score wouldn't hold up. Some experienced clay shooters rolled through and put up perfect shooting performances. In total, 85 shooters came out to compete against and interact with Sanderson, but, more importantly, help support Penn State York athletics, with all proceeds from sign-up fees going toward the school's athletic programs.
So, while Sanderson would gladly concede defeat in this event, it doesn't happen often. But, that's also why he's quickly turned the Nittany Lions into a national powerhouse within his first six seasons as coach in Happy Valley.
In just his second year at the helm with Penn State, he guided the program to its first national championship since 1953. He followed that success up with three more national titles in each of the next three seasons, making the Nittany Lions the third program in NCAA Division I history to win four straight national titles.
"Penn State was always a very good program," Sanderson said. "Always one of the top programs, but needed to just put things together, I think, and just take it up one notch is all. And that's getting the right kind of kids, and we have a great staff and very consistent."
Local wrestlers: Moving from his alma mater to coach in Happy Valley, Sanderson came to the right state to find the top wrestlers to coach, constantly referring to Pennsylvania as a wrestling hot bed for high school wrestlers. Not to mention, he has some history with the York-Adams area.
During Sanderson's time with the Nittany Lions, he's coached two prominent York-Adams wrestlers. Jordan Conaway, a New Oxford High School grad, just completed his redshirt junior season, placing eighth at the 125-pound weight class and earning All-America status. He earned a total commitment award at the team banquet a couple weeks ago, an award voted on by members of the team, representative of the dedication he's demonstrated during his time at Penn State.
"Jordan's just a phenomenal kid," Sanderson said. "He comes from a great family. He's just a tremendous competitor and is always working hard. ... Obviously, an All-American and has had some huge wins and a guy that, if he continues to improve, can compete for national championships."
Sanderson also had the chance to coach James English, a Central York product, who, after battling through injuries his entire career, finally had a chance to compete at the national tournament in 2014. His seventh-place finish at 149 pounds gave Penn State valuable points toward the team's fourth-straight team national title. Injuries since high school limited English's time on the mat, but it was his constant drive to compete that will stick in Sanderson's mind.
"He's just one of the most incredible success stories that I've ever been a part of," Sanderson said of English. "Just because he was injured so much and never gave up and got his fifth year of competition, paying his own way and still came back and an incredible story. It ended up being the difference between us winning the national tournament and not because of the points that he scored."
All-American Thomas shows up: Former Nittany Lion running back Blair Thomas, a member of the 1986 national championship team, also showed up to the clay shoot.
Thomas earned All-America status in 1989 and was later selected second overall by the New York Jets in the 1990 NFL Draft. Thomas showed up as part of GoPSURV, a sponsor of an online television show called Nittany Sports Huddle, which participates in a lot of outdoor events.
Thomas drove in from his hometown of King of Prussia to help with the event and as a way to say thank you to Penn Sate fans, despite never shooting clays in his life.
"Penn State fans have supported the football program and Penn State athletics for so many years," Thomas said. "And for me to get an opportunity to go out and say hello and thank fans for their support, it means a lot. ... On a large scale, to get outside of the Penn State community, because everything is done up there, but, to go into the state and interact with people, it means a lot to me because these people have supported the program for so many years."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org