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Sanderson, staff kept ‘team focus’ at NCAAs; named co-winner of Dan Gable Coach of the Year Award
By Mike Finn
When historians look back at Penn State winning a third consecutive NCAA team championship in 2013, they will probably point out the talent of the five All-Americans who helped the Nittany Lions edge past second-place Oklahoma State by a four-point margin (123.5-119.5).
“This national tournament was special in Division I from the fact that it looked like another team could win the Nationals until 184 and 197 pounds. When Penn State won those matches, including 184 by major, that showed me the (Nittany Lions) have a rapport in coaching and not just turning guys loose.
“I credit that success to coaching. I don’t think (Ruth, a 12-4 victory over Lehigh’s Robert Hamlin at 184) would have won by a major decision and I’m not so sure that (Wright, who defeated No. 1 seed Dustin Kilgore of Kent State) would have won at all except they had the team outcome in mind.”
Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson and his staff were able to get their team to stay focused on team over individual honors until the very end of the NCAAs. Because of that, the fourth-year Penn State coach was named a co-winner of the 2013 Dan Gable Coach of the Year Award with Wartburg mentor Jim Miller.
“Getting a coaching award is kind of humbling just in the fact that the assistant coaches here do more coaching than I do,” said Sanderson, who also won Gable Coach of the Year honors in 2011. “I look at it as a staff-type of award.
“You also have to have kids who are willing to be motivated and want to be successful and are willing to listen. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t matter who the coach is.”
The individual success of Ruth and Wright also indicates how the PSU coaching has developed both young men. This is especially true of Wright, who was not recruited by Sanderson but played a big part in helping the Lions also capture the 2011 title with a championship at 184 pounds.
“Three years ago, (Wright) was kind of the wild card of the big scholarship wrestlers in the line-up because of his up and down year,” Sanderson said of Wright, a four-time All-American, native of Wingate, Pa., and also a 2012 national runner-up.
“The past two years, he was a huge part as a three-time finalist. He got some major bonus points. He is huge here in that he is a local kid. Fans love him here. He has that genuine smile where he can light up more than just a room. That’s a big deal for the team and for people watching.”
Winning a third straight NCAA championship — and becoming just the third program to win at least three straight team titles — was not without its share of ups and downs.
“Every year has its own challenges and different ups and downs,” said Sanderson. “Even if you have a lot of the same kids, you will have different issues, whether it’s injuries or something outside of the wrestling room.
“But this was a great year. We had a great team and a great staff.”
Early in the season, Sanderson had to deal with some off-the-mat problems when he suspended Dylan and Andrew Alton for a month for breaking team rules
The team then had to deal with a dual-meet loss to rival Iowa 22-16 on Feb. 1 in Iowa City. Over a month later, the Lions return to the state of Iowa and NCAAs in Des Moines and made sure the tournament, hosted by Iowa State, would indeed be a happy homecoming for the Cyclone alum.
“I don’t think we really changed too much (after the loss to Iowa),” Sanderson said. “We lost three close matches, 125, 157 and 174. Those are the kind of matches that make what we do exciting while going into Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They are going to show you what you need to work on because (Iowa) has very good coaches. They do their homework and have a game plan for each of their guys.
“The wrestlers knew how close they were when they were losing one-point matches. You have to be optimistic and realize that our kids believe they will continue to improve throughout the year and believe that every time they wrestle someone they will make progress.”
Another common element about Penn State’s three-peat is that Sanderson’s coaching staff has included his brother Cody Sanderson and Casey Cunningham each year.
“I trust those guys completely, whether it’s me talking or them talking,” Sanderson said. “We all represent the program. We all have our unique perspective and experiences and thoughts. I’m not telling them what to say.”
Even though the 34-year-old Sanderson has been a head coach for seven years — including three at Iowa State before coming to Penn State in 2009 — his winning experiences alone have made him a veteran coach
“You have to be a student of coaching,” Sanderson said. “When young guys get into coaching, they think they know everything it takes to be successful because they are coming off their own careers.
“You have to be willing to relearn and to really learn to swallow your pride. If you have a lot of pride, you come up with excuses and say it’s always someone else’s fault.
“I think you have to learn every year, just like when you are an athlete. What’s different is that coaching is different than competing. You have to be open and humble. You have to do what’s in the best interest of your kids, even if you don’t agree with it. You have to swallow your pride and do what the kids need to do.”
Considering Penn State loses just one starter off this year’s team — Wright — the Lions will most likely be favored to win the 2014 NCAA team championship.
“We just want to be the best that we can be every year,” Sanderson said. “We have a great team coming back but a lot of teams have great guys coming back. It doesn’t take a whole lot of change to make a difference.”