Sanderson wins Coach of the Year

Updated: May 1, 2023

Photos: In addition to leading the program to its 10th NCAA team title in his time in State College, Penn State coach Cael Sanderson (left)  has produced 34 individual champs like Carter Starocci, who hugged assistant Casey Cunningham after the finals. Cunningham also came to State College in 2009. 

By Tristan Warner

The Penn State Nittany Lion wrestling team captured its 11th national team title and 10th under head coach Cael Sanderson at the BOK Center in Tulsa last month.  

At the NCAA tournament, the Nittany Lions finished with 137.5 points, outscoring second-place Iowa (82.5) by 55 points. 

Penn State sent five wrestlers — half of its starting lineup — to the NCAA finals, as Carter Starocci (174) and Aaron Brooks (184) became the program’s fifth and sixth three-time NCAA champions, while two-time champ Roman Bravo-Young (133), true freshman phenom Levi Haines (157) and three-time All-American Greg Kerkvliet (285) finished as runner-ups. 

Additionally, freshman Shayne Van Ness (149) significantly outdid his projected 12th seed and finished in third place, as did sixth-seeded Beau Bartlett (141). Former national champion Max Dean (197) took seventh.

This story appeared in the April 28 issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

After helping lead a program that started the season No. 1 and ended it with a dominant national title, Sanderson has been named WIN Magazine’s 2023 Dan Gable Coach of the Year.  This marks the fourth time this native of Utah has earned this award since he started coaching at Penn State in 2009-10. The other years Sanderson earned this coaching honor were 2011, 2013 and 2017, which were also national team title years for the Nittany Lions. (Sanderson’s remaining NCAA team titles for PSU came in 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2022.)

“There are three things that wrestlers need to be good at in the sport and that is being good on your feet, good on the bottom and wrestling where you are the best at,” said Gable, who once led Iowa to 15 team championships in 20 years (1978-97) and who, like Sanderson, was a national champ at Iowa State. 

“That’s what Cael brings out of his wrestlers. Not all his wrestlers are duplicates of each other. Sanderson breaks the sport down very well to carry on success year to year to year.”

Reflecting on all Penn State’s extraordinary accomplishments during the 2022-23 season, Sanderson shifted the credit to his staff and student-athletes. 

“It is an honor for the program,” said Sanderson, who is assisted by Casey Cunningham, his brother Cody Sanderson and Jimmy Kennedy. “It is a full program and full staff honor.”

Regarding this year’s Penn State squad, Sanderson had an eclectic mix of age and experience levels comprising his starting lineup. 

With veterans Bravo-Young, Starocci, Brooks and Dean, all already national champions, leading the way, some would say the younger members of the roster like Van Ness, Haines and Alex Facundo (165) had plenty of expectations to live up to. 

But Sanderson and his staff’s philosophies and coaching styles have a way of readily alleviating the perceived “pressure” to perform at such a high level for the Nittany Lion wrestlers. 

“It is a similar approach with each kid regardless of where they’re at,” Sanderson pointed out. “Each circumstance brings its own challenges. We just teach the kids to be grateful for the opportunity to compete. 

“We had some freshmen that had outstanding seasons, but they’ve already wrestled in a ton of huge matches in their lives already, so they’ve been there before. We try to shift the focus on to the things that matter.”

Even for the veterans on the squad, who need to lead the team each year to try build off the previous year’s success, the Penn State coaching staff attempts to keep the focus off exclusively winning. 

“There is always pressure and expectations and we can feed that and make it something bigger, or we can make it a blessing and enjoy what we are doing,” Sanderson reiterated. 

“As a coaching staff, we enjoy the process and competition, and we try to help the kids in the program share that same perspective.

“Kids have a ton of eyeballs on them. They can choose to engage or not, which may make it harder for themselves. The thing is we enjoy it as a staff and try to share our passion and stay consistent.”

Taking a deeper dive into the numbers, not only did Penn State capture the coveted team trophy in dominating fashion, but as a collective, the Nittany Lions overperformed their seeds far more than any other program. 

Sanderson’s squad finished with a +22 differential in team points according to seeds. The Nittany Lions also added 16 bonus points off six pins and four major decisions in Tulsa.

According to Sanderson, while these numbers can be reassuring, he takes it all in stride and regroups for the future. 

“You look at those stats as a coach because you want to make sure you’re competing in the big moments,” he said. 

“More consistent teams go into nationals with the better seeds, and kids choose to come to Penn State for that reason, so that stuff is special to us. Next year will be a new year, though, so now we reset and re-do everything.”

And while that process may sound daunting to the common man, especially the quest to stay on top after setting such a high standard for his program, the former four-time undefeated NCAA champion from Iowa State-turned coach does more than embrace the challenge but treasures the opportunity. 

“I work with my best friends every day,” Sanderson said. “Every day I am surrounded by people with similar values, work ethic and the same lofty goals. Being grateful for the opportunity, enjoying yourself, and cherishing the relationships that you form are more important than the wins.”