Pennsylvania High School Wrestling: The Cael Effect

Updated: September 27, 2011

By Willie Saylor, WIN Staff Writer

Many wrestling aficionados will tell you that the state that boasts the most consistent crop of high school depth and talent in the country is Pennsylvania, an assertion supported by the Keystone state’s all-time lead of 602 Division I NCAA All-Americans … followed by Oklahoma’s 531 and Iowa’s 463.

Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson hugged Quentin Wright, a former Pennsylvania prep, after the Nittany Lion won the 184-pound championship last March.

In April of 2009, when Cael Sanderson shook up the college wrestling world with his decision to leave Iowa State and head to Penn State, it was generally assumed that the move was, in large part, prompted by the ability to wrangle the talent that Pennsylvania produces in the prep ranks.

But the overall effect has been more far-reaching than the ability to change the fortunes of just one school. Let’s look at the dynamics of what has been, well, “The Cael Effect,” to one of the country’s most tradition-rich wrestling states.


The PA Mindset

It may come as a surprise to most people outside of Pennsylvania, but college wrestling hasn’t carried as much fanfare amongst PA folks the way high school wrestling has.

It’s tough to quantify, but the popular sentiment in PA has always been on the prep level, and not in the college ranks. For years, it’s seemed that winning a state title was the pinnacle of a Pennsylvania wrestler’s dream.

“High school wrestlers in Pennsylvania haven’t really had their eyes on college,” PA wrestling insider Corey Haddad said. “Their penultimate goal has always been gold in Hershey (site of the PIAA state tournament). Cael has quickly changed that. He re-energized kids to not only wrestle, but to be successful in post-secondary school. Now more than ever, kids want opportunities to compete in college.”

This is markedly different from other wrestling belts, particularly in the Midwest, where high school wrestling is, to a large extent, viewed as more of a preparation for college wrestling than in and of itself.

Although former PA prep wrestlers have had much success at the college level, it could always have been much more. There has been a ton of top PA talent who have never gone on to do much in college, not because they weren’t good enough, but because it was never their dream or priority. PA preps, largely, just never followed college wrestling much.

But with Sanderson in state, that may be changing.

With all the press that winning Big Ten and NCAA championships brought, not to mention Sanderson’s qualification to the USA World Freestyle Team, more and more people in PA are turning their attention to Penn State … and college wrestling in general. High school coaches talk about it. Moms and dads talk about it. Attendance is up. And the kids follow.

For the first time in years, there is a glimmer in PA wrestlers’ eyes watching and hoping to be the next Jordan Oliver, Frank Molinaro or Quentin Wright.


The ‘Other’ PA Programs

Pennsylvania is home to 11 ‘other’ Division I wrestling teams. Sanderson’s move has affected not only Penn State, but the other colleges in the state.

Lehigh has always been good. But what Pat Santoro has done in Bethlehem, Pa., since taking over the program in 2008, has set up the Mountain Hawks for an extended run among the top five teams nationally for the coming years.

This year's meeting between Penn State and Lehigh — especially at heavyweight between highly ranked Cam Wade and defending national champ Zach Rey, should pack the arena at Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa., on Dec. 9.

Cael hasn’t affected Lehigh much in terms of recruiting; Lehigh has always been a great program that lures preps with both tradition and top academics.

But what Cael has done in reinvigorating Penn State, is create a bona fide, nationally-relevant intrastate rivalry with Lehigh.

You could sense this in the first Sanderson-coached match-up between the two schools in a dual at Lehigh’s Stabler Arena in the fall of 2009. The place was packed with rabid fans. The buzz was back for college wrestling in PA.

But perhaps most importantly are the changes in the “PA Mindset” noted above. It can’t be overstated. PA wrestlers are now heading to colleges (not just Penn State) with clear goals, a greater sense of purpose and a stronger commitment to college wrestling.

This helps every program in the state, not just PSU. Wrestlers that head to Edinboro, or Bloomsburg, or Clarion want to be college stars at an increased rate, due exclusively to the higher visibility of college wrestling that the Cael-led Penn State program has engendered.

Look for particularly increased competitiveness from Drexel, with new head coach Matt Azevedo, and from Clarion with coaches Matt Dernlan and Troy Letters from the PSU coaching tree.