Coon & Retherford: True Freshmen, True Talent

Updated: January 23, 2014

By Mike Finn

Editor’s Note: The following story, which appeared in WIN’s Jan. 10, 2014 edition, has been updated through season results of Jan. 19. For a Print or Digital Subscription to WIN’s monthly magazine, go to

Not even Cael Sanderson, the once former four-time undefeated NCAA champion from Iowa State wrestled as a true freshman.

But Sanderson, now in his fifth year at the head coach at Penn State, knows what it takes for a young wrestler to successfully compete on the NCAA Division I college level … less than six months after they graduate from high school.

“If we are going to wrestle a true freshman, that was the plan when we were recruiting him,” said Sanderson.

And that was about the time Sanderson knew that Zain Retherford — a 2012 Walsh Ironman champion from Benton, Pa, where he added a second Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Athletic Association state title — would start for the Nittany Lions at 141 pounds his rookie season.

“He was preparing himself last year, getting his mind ready for it. You have to make the decision before the season starts,” said Sanderson, shortly after watching his 141-pounder defeat Iowa’s Josh Dziewa and help the Nittany Lions record its first victory in Carver-Hawkeye Arena since 2006.

And that come-from-behind victory also came a week after Retherford upset Ohio State’s two-time NCAA champion Logan Stieber in overtime, Dec. 15, in Penn State’s Rec Hall.

“They are tough kids and have been tough their whole lives,” Sanderson said.

And considering Retherford, who missed a year (2011-12) of high school wrestling when the PIAA ruled him ineligible after transferring from Lion Mountain to Benton, there is no doubt he was mentally prepared for his first year of college wrestling, especially before over 13,000 Iowa fans.

“I’ve had adversity,” said Retherford, who also won a Cadet World freestyle title last summer. “You just have to smile and overcome it. You also have to have fun out there. You can’t get stressed about that.”

That was also the same attitude Adam Coon took when the four-time heavyweight champion from Fowlerville (Mich.) High School learned early this season he would start for the Michigan Wolverines.

“I’m just putting in the effort,” said Coon, who equaled Retherford’s win over Stieber when this heavyweight defeated Minnesota’s two-time NCAA champion Anthony Nelson in double overtime on Jan. 19. This performance came after Coon closed out the month of December — winning the prestigious Midlands, Dec. 30 — the same way he began the month — winning the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.

As of Jan. 19, both wrestlers were still listed in the top seven contenders to win the 2014 Dan Hodge Trophy. Coon was 22-0 with six pins. Retherford was 20-0 with three pins and two technical falls.

“It’s been a good year I guess,” Coon said. “You have to keep attacking every match like it’s your first match. You have to train as hard as you can. Thank God. I praise him for all the gifts that he’s given me and continue to work hard.”

But the only difference between Coon, who turned 19 on Nov. 14, and Retherford is that the Wolverine was expected to redshirt this winter.

“The thing about Adam is that he is a great worker and he pours himself into each workout each day,” said Michigan coach Joe McFarland. “He’s developed from day one and he’s already wrestled world wide as a Cadet World champion. He has a lot of experience. I just love his approach and attitude. He goes out and gives it his all every time he’s on the mat.”

Adam admitted the biggest difference between high school and college wrestling is the amount of mat wrestling that takes place.

“The intensity between the top and bottom is big,” said Adam. “In high school, you can just cut them and it’s no big deal. Now you want the ride time.

“I just have to keep a level head and keep going after it.”

Coon also has faced some adversity over the past year when the two-time Junior National champion in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling failed to make the 2013 Junior World team in either style last summer.

But his father, Dan, who also coached him in high school, downplays the notion that not making the Junior World teams provide motivation for his young big man.

“I don’t think it has that much to do with it because he was coming off an all-star football game the night before the Trials,” said Dan. “He had 100 different things going then. Now that he’s focused on wrestling, watch out.

“He’s still learning, yet and it’s a long season ahead. The Big Ten is really tough to be in, especially in the heavyweight division.”

Dan Coon admitted that his son has done so well at the heaviest weight class. But Dan added that whatever his son lacks in strength against the older heavyweights, he makes up for his head.

“It’s a little bit of brain because you don’t go against  (Iowa’s Bobby) Telford (In the Midlands final) unless you have everything in the right spot. Adam had to be smart about it; not to attack too much, but attacking just enough.”

And Adam Coon showed at the Midlands that he can get himself out of trouble, including late in the third period of a match, deadlocked at 1-1, when the Wolverine not only stopped a cradle-lock by the Hawkeye for at least an apparent takedown, but Coon escaped that hold and came around for the eventual winning takedown.

“You just have to keep going after it,” Adam said. “I tried to keep my head up as much as possible and my rear off the mat and stay as high as I can.”

“It’s something that we have to work on,” said McFarland. “One he’s a good athlete and refuses to lose. He’s going to fight through anything.”

Both wrestlers know they have gone from being young hunters to now being the hunted. Neither wrestlers, nor their supporters, are too concerned about that label.

“He was hunted in high school, too,” said Dan. “And he’s been hunted in pretty much every sport he’s been in. I think he will handle it well and keep it an even keel.”

“We are going to keep an eye how we train him,” McFarland said. “He’s handling everything great so far. We’ve talked as coaches about some things we’d like to do differently. We will take it from week to week to where he is.”

Retherford, meanwhile, said he is going to follow his coach’s lead.

“Coach always tells us to make mistakes, then make up for it with hustle,” said Retherford. “It happens to the best of everyone.”

And in the case of Retherford and Coon: the youngest.