The last time we saw Cael Sanderson and his Penn State wrestlers, they were the talking point of the tournament after the NCAA Championships ended in St. Louis.
The Nittany Lions didn’t win the tag team tournament – Iowa won its first since 2010 – but all four of Penn State’s wrestlers in the NCAA Finals won individual titles.
Since then, with the gradual decline of the coronavirus pandemic, all of Penn State’s 31 sports have been on a gradual path to normalcy.
For wrestling, normality implies titles. On paper or on the mat, Penn State has managed to stay ‘in the news’ since late March by having the recruiting class ranked No.1 for 2021, drawing former Cornell star Max Dean to the roster and receiving an award. High-level engagement Levi Haines of Biglerville in the high school class of 2022.
Sanderson was on the public stage Thursday night for the final night of the Penn State Coaches Caravan Virtual Series; joined by Russ Rose, women’s volleyball coach – and office neighbor – field hockey coach Char Morett-Curtiss, men’s soccer coach Jeff Cook and vice president of athletics Sandy Barbour.
The 90-minute session was a back-and-forth demonstration of the coaches’ respect for each other. Rose and Morett-Curtiss had their teams at Michigan State in late March for competitions and said their athletes were in their hotel rooms watching the four Nittany Lion wrestlers who won individual titles that night in St Louis.
The session also featured various Penn State athletes asking the coaches a question. NCAA wrestling champion Nick Lee, for example, asked each of the four coaches what sport they would like to train other than their own.
All three male coaches said golf while Morett-Curtiss said basketball. But Sanderson said if the NCAA introduced the dodge ball he was in.
Sanderson showed off his bobblehead doll Russ Rose and Rose moved into Sanderson’s office and on the YouTube screen as he encountered technical difficulties with his desk.
Sanderson said he was preparing to answer a list of questions he received, but realized that once he was not asked those questions he knew he had been duped by Rose.
It was this type of bright night that entertained 380 viewers.
When asked about the most famous person they have ever met, the coaches’ responses ranged from Muhammed Ali to Michael Jordan to Bobby Knight to Billy Baldwin.
Sanderson said he was able to speak to the late Kobe Bryant in front of a hotel elevator shortly after finishing his undefeated wrestling career (159-0) in Iowa State in 2002. But he said that most famous was the “head of the church where I go” – Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He met Hinckley in 2004 after winning an Olympic wrestling title.
When it came to describing their most memorable moment “We Are” – the well-known Penn State chant – Sanderson said he sometimes imagines his team singing “We Are” with Penn State fans after winning a NCAA team title and wondering if whatever season the team is right now will end that way.
Nittany Lion wrestlers, like all NCAA wrestling teams, were part of a short pandemic-induced season last year, winning all six games on their schedule averaging nearly 20 points. They finished it by placing second behind Iowa in the Big Ten tournament at the Bryce Jordan Center with no fans and second behind the Hawkeyes in the NCAA.
“I think we’ve learned that our kids are resilient and that they can adapt and figure things out while achieving and attacking their goals no matter what is thrown at them,” Sanderson said Thursday night.
“The season has been a challenge. Getting up every morning to get tested (for COVID-19) was a challenge. Adversity brings clarity; they had to aspire and get things done. It taught them no matter what the circumstances, they can always attack their goals. And now we now know that we also have to work on a Zoom call… sort of. “
Joining Dean as new faces on Sanderson’s 2021-22 roster are new freshmen Alex Facundo (165/174) from Davison, Michigan; Gary Steen (125) of Reynolds (Steen reversed his commitment from Pitt); Shayne Van Ness (149/1557), National Preparation Champion from Blair Academy in New Jersey; and Lucas Cochran (184-197), three-time Box Elder County State Champion in Utah, Sanderson’s home state.
Sanderson, as he has said before, noted that his recruiting philosophy has a lot to do with timing and trying to “find kids who fit your culture.”
“You try to do your homework. We’re not trying to get kids to engage right away; many of them want it. We want to get as much information as possible. But when we identify a child that we want, we go after them and we try to lock them up, ”Sanderson said.
More wrestlers usually join as extras during the summer months. How much remains to be seen. Some wrestlers chose to graduate and not complete the additional eligibility options and a few wrestlers entered the transfer portal. It’s unclear when Sanderson will cap his 2021-22 roster; 35 were on the squad last season.
FloWrestling considered Sanderson’s recruiting class # 1 out of Arizona State, Iowa, North Carolina State, and Cornell.
Sanderson and his team of Cody Sanderson, Casey Cunningham and Jake Varner have little downtime during the college offseason as they also run the very successful and talented Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. Four NLWC athletes qualified for the Tokyo Olympics; they are: former Penn State star David Taylor (86 kilos); former Iowa ace Thomas Gilman (55 kg), reigning Olympic champion Kyle Snyder (97 kg) and Helen Maroulis (57 kg).
Additionally, current wrestler Nick Lee (65kg) and former stars Jason Nolf (74kg) and Bo Nickal (86kg) secured spots on the U.S. National Team due to their results at the Olympic Trials in Fort Worth. , Texas, in early April.
Due to NLWC commitments, Sanderson said Thursday the college offseason can often be busier for him than the regular season.