Late start to already-delayed season a test of 'mental toughness' for Penn State wrestling

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State head wrestling coach Cael Sanderson.

Penn State wrestling will finally begin its season on Sunday afternoon against Michigan State — at least that's the plan for now.

The program — initially scheduled to open its season last Saturday versus Rutgers — was forced to pause all team-related activities last week because of positive COVID-19 results among Tier 1 personnel (players, coaches, match day staff and others). After already having their season start delayed from November to January, the No. 2 Nittany Lions had to wait an extra week to compete and just resumed team practices "four or five" days ago.

Twelfth-year head coach Cael Sanderson said his group hasn't lost its focus, though.

"A part of mental toughness is just being able to stay focused on your goals, regardless of obstacles or any fog or whatever adversity might appear," Sanderson told reporters on a Zoom call Tuesday. "Just staying focused on your goals — keep moving toward them, not being willing to get distracted or frustrated."

Sanderson believes the spike in positive coronavirus cases on his team is the result of wrestlers traveling home for the holidays last month. Still, he said the choice to allow his team to visit family was "worth it" and that he'd "make the same decision again."

With organized team workouts on hold, wrestlers had to once again train independently, just as they did during Penn State's extended offseason.

"These kids really have to take a lot of individual responsibility in some of their training right now and just making sure they're doing the right thing and being creative and using whatever they have in their houses to just get a workout in," Sanderson said. "That's been kinda the case from the beginning."

Looking ahead: Sophomore All-American Aaron Brooks, junior All-American Roman Bravo-Young and other leaders on the team have been doing everything from wrestling in Brooks' front yard, running hill sprints with weights on their backs and practicing yoga to stay in shape.

Bravo-Young said that although it was tough to have to pause the season before it even started, he and his teammates "can't dwell too much" and must continue looking ahead.

"People have it a lot worse than us, so it's kinda just go with the flow and just be grateful that no one really is getting too sick from this stuff," he said. "And we're gonna be able to get a chance to compete, so just having a level mind about it — can't get too high, can't get too low about it."

Though the Big Ten requires athletes who test positive for COVID-19 to sit out of competition for a minimum of 17 days, the Nittany Lions are pushing forward with the wrestlers they have available.

Latest hurdle may help in long run: Sanderson — who mentioned that Penn State will look to make up its match against Rutgers — hopes this latest hurdle only makes his group stronger in the long run.

"As we get going here, I think this will be a great year and a great opportunity for these kids to really step up as leaders," Sanderson said. "Just the things that we've already been talking about — some of this adversity and not being able to wrestle. ... It's just staying focused, and that's where we need that leadership. And these guys will have that opportunity to do that as we get going here."

When the Nittany Lions do have their entire squad available again, though, they're confident that fans will be pleased with the product they see on the mat.

"I think people will be excited when they get to see us at full strength when we're all fully healthy," Bravo-Young said. "It's gonna be fun."