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Sanderson Spoke, Lions Listened
By Mike Finn
NCAA record books will indicate that Penn State won the 2011 team championship on March 19 in Philadelphia. Nittany Lion fans may disagree. For some, the turning point for the Blue and White came on Jan. 30, in State College, Pa.
That was the day that Penn State was supposed to have its finest regular-season moment in many years when over 6,000 fans packed Rec Hall to hopefully cheer on the then-top-ranked Lions over a much younger Iowa team that won the previous three NCAA team titles.
Instead, the Hawkeyes left with a 22-13 victory. And the Nittany Lions had a disgruntled coach in Cael Sanderson.
“Coach Cael was mad after that,” said Penn State’s 184-pound junior Quentin Wright. “And I think I was one of the guys who got the brunt of it because I went out there and I lost 7-2 to (Grant) Gambrall and they were expecting big things out of me at the time. I wasn’t performing. My mindset wasn’t quite there yet.”
Actually Wright, who also had to deal with a separated shoulder that kept him out of the PSU lineup from Dec. 5 to Jan. 21, was also upset with the Penn State coach prior to the Iowa dual.
“On the practice room I just wasn’t enjoying being there,” Wright admitted. “I was a little bit mad at the coaches because I felt like they weren’t working with me.”
That all changed when Sanderson reminded Wright there was only one way to be No. 1.
“It got to a point where there was a reality that he needed to hear,” Sanderson said. “Quentin was blaming things that were not necessarily the truth. We had to make sure he faced that. Once he did, he was able to move on.”
“After that, we just said, ‘hey, our goals are still the same, we’re going to win National titles,’” Wright said. “I think everybody personally stepped it up because we thought we were better than we were, but we were that good.
“After the Iowa match, we realized the effort it was going to take that nobody’s going to roll over for you, if you want it, you got to go take it. And that’s how the team as a whole changed, and that’s where we are today.”
And that is the description of a national champion … for both the Lions and Wright, who left the Wells Fargo Center as Penn State’s only individual champion.
Wright’s turnaround was critical. He was just 12-6 on the season before the start of the postseason — including three straight losses in late February. But he never lost again. And after claiming a Big Ten championship as a No. 8 seed, Wright then won his first NCAA title as a No. 9 seed.
Wright’s final three wins in Philly were impressive: a 7-3 decision against top-ranked Chris Honeycutt of Edinboro in the quarterfinals, a 3:53 fall in the semis against Iowa’s Gambrall and a 5-2 victory over Lehigh’s Robert Hamlin in the championship match.
Wright’s championship capped of a tournament run that saw the Lions win 29 of 37 matches in Philadelphia, including one point where Penn State wrestlers won 15 straight matches after 125-pound Brad Pataky lost his first-round bout.
Finishing second was Cornell, which was ranked No 1 much of the regular season, before three of the four Big Red semifinalists — Mack Lewnes (174), Steve Bosak (184) and Cam Simaz (197) — lost.
It was a tough moment for Big Red coach Rob Koll, ironically a native of State College, Pa., where his late father, Bill Koll, coached Penn State from 1965-78.
“We didn’t get in the wrestlebacks,” said Koll, who only had five wrestlers left after the quarterfinal round. “You can’t always count on your stars to get the big points. We’re going to be back and keep knocking on the door until we can bust it in.”
Finishing third was Iowa, while Oklahoma State, which was considered by many the hottest team entering the post-season, finished fourth and 10 points below their overall seeds.
Overall, Penn State had five All-Americans among their eight national qualifiers. All of them finished among the top three, including national runner-ups Frank Molinaro (149) and David Taylor (157) and both Andrew Long (133) and Ed Ruth (174) each came back to finish third.
The Lions led after every session, except after the quarterfinals when Cornell grabbed a half-point lead (61-60.5) when a couple key Penn State wrestlers not only lost but suffered what appeared to be tournament-ending injuries.
One of whom was the second-seeded Ruth (as well as HWT Cameron Wade) whose right knee got worked over on a ride by Stanford’s Nick Amuchastegui and eventually locked up so bad that the freshman was unable to continue in the match.
Competing in his first national tournament, the native of Harrisburg, Pa., did return and won his next four matches, including a 6-2 victory over Lewnes in the third-place match Saturday morning that officially clinched the team title for the Lions.
“There were some moments when things were not feeling too great,” said Sanderson. “Those are the times that you have to keep moving forward and stay positive.
“We are proud of the way these guys battled back. We didn’t know if (Ruth would) be able to wrestle. He came back and beat some of the best wrestlers in the sport.”
There would be three head-to-head meetings between these two Eastern schools which topped the three-time defending champion Iowa and Oklahoma State.
One of the Lion wins over the Big Red came in the consolation semifinal where PSU’s Andrew Long pinned Cornell’s Mike Grey and eventually claimed third place.
Being part of Penn State’s championship season also helped Long — who finished second nationally at 125 pounds for Iowa State in 2010 — enjoy a season that began with him being dropped off the ISU roster for breaking team rules before he transferred to Penn State and the coach (Sanderson) who recruiting him at Iowa State.
“Having the familiarity with the coaches and their ability to help me grow and keep working with me throughout everything gave me a new window to crawl through and let me be myself around other guys and focus on what’s important to me,” said Long.
“I give them credit for them accepting me. The team did a great job and the fans, we’ve really loved their support. You could feel the vibe of them out on the mat.”
Sanderson credited former Penn State coach Troy Sunderland, who recruited many of the Lion wrestlers like Wright.
But Wright, who redshirted in Sanderson’s first season at the Penn State helm, credited Sanderson for doing a good job of merging the older Lions with the younger ones.
“Everybody was ecstatic when Sanderson arrived,” Wright recalled. “ I went crazy because he’s a legend. I grew up watching him.
“The Sunderland group, they were OK. I did really well under Mark Perry (the current Cal Poly co-head coach). A lot of credit to the reason why I was a freshman All American (in 2009) was because Coach Sunderland brought in Mark Perry and he really helped me out to reach those goals.
“Then when Cael came, it took the whole program to a new level, to a new set of standards.
“Cael brought in a bunch of guys who were going to push us. And Coach Cael, he’s there for the long haul. He wants to develop a place where we get them out of high school, develop them into national champions and then they turn into World champions and eventually Olympic champions. He wants to fulfill people’s dreams.”
And now Sanderson has a complete team of guys who have won an NCAA team championship who should be ready to listen to what he has to say.
(This article appeared in the April 5, 2011 issue of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine. To subscribe to WIN, either click the “Subscribe to WIN” button on this website or call our office at 1-888-305-0606.)