If you’re wondering how Penn State has been able to win seven of the past eight NCAA wrestling championships, coach Cael Sanderson believes he has the answer.
He demands his wrestlers are thankful for who they are, what they’ve been given and the opportunities under their feet every time they step on the mat.
“Gratitude is the foundation for greatness,” said Sanderson, who will bring his nine qualifiers to Pittsburgh for the NCAA wrestling championships Thursday through Saturday at PPG Paints Arena. “Gratitude is the foundation for lasting success in anything that you do. You take that away, the foundation is going to crumble a bit.”
It’s difficult not to pay attention to Sanderson when he talks about how to attain success in collegiate sports. When he wrestled at Iowa State, he was a four-time NCAA champion who never lost a match (159-0). He also won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
All that and he seldom got a sip of Gatorade for his efforts.
“I tell (his Penn State wrestlers) all the time, if we got Gatorade in practice when I was in college, that was a big day,” he said. “We were really excited about that. Things have come a long way since then. Student-athletes, they’re not really taught that principle. It’s more of an entitlement at the collegiate athletic level. It’s going more and more in that direction. You see that on a national level.
“These guys just have to be grateful for the opportunity they have because they’re given so much. It’s really a great time to be a student-athlete: the perks that they get and the support that they get.”
Lions boast strong lineup: Penn State, the defending champion, will be represented in nine of the 10 weight classes.
Three Penn State wrestlers are seeded No. 1: Kittanning’s Jason Nolf (157 pounds); Mark Hall (174); and Bo Nickal (197). Central Catholic’s Vincenzo Joseph (165), Shakur Rasheed (184) and Anthony Cassar (285) are No. 2 seeds.
The others are No. 3 Nick Lee (141), No. 10 seed Roman Bravo-Young (a freshman at 133); and No. 12 Brady Berge (149).
“It’s a weekend of opportunity for us,” Sanderson said. “Our team has wrestled very well this year and set themselves up, but it’s all about the finish, right? And finishing strong and getting what they want.”
High expectations: There are high expectations for many of the wrestlers, especially seniors Nolf (26-0) and Nickal (25-0), who are two-time NCAA champions and three-time All-Americans.
Sanderson’s expectations for them go beyond what might happen at PPG Paints Arena this weekend.
“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.”
Hall (26-0) won the 2017 NCAA championship and this year’s Big Ten title to reach nationals as a No. 1 seed. Joseph (23-1) is a two-time defending NCAA champion, but a Big Ten runner-up this season. He will open defense of his title against No. 31 seed Evan Delong of Clarion.
Among the favorites: With so many top-seeded wrestlers, Penn State is among the favorites to win the team championship, but Sanderson had praise for rival programs Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma State and Cornell.
“There are a lot of great programs,” he said. “The difference is just a few points here and there. It’s not like there’s a huge difference between programs.”
Past success won’t help, he said.
“We have some gamers on our team. The bigger the match, the better the team does. We’ve seen that with these guys. But everything we’ve done is in the past. It’s going to be up to them,” Sanderson said. “We’re excited about the opportunity, and I think we’re going to wrestle really well. Obviously, I’m going to be sitting in the corner, so it’s easy for me to say that.”