Quicker Than Expected, Cael Sanderson Leads Penn State to NCAA Title
All I could think of Saturday night as I watched Cael Sanderson answer questions about guiding Penn State to its first NCAA team wrestling title in 58 years was a Washington Post account about him winning an Olympic gold medal in 2004, which I read while reporting a profile of him for our Sept./Oct. 2009 issue
The story described how he seemed ill at ease on the medal stand in Athens, and it included this great line from Sanderson, who had fidgeted and toyed with his laurel wreath: “I don’t do props.”
He didn’t want to do props Saturday night, either; he let the wrestlers parade the trophy around. But Sanderson was shy about taking credit, too.
Take the case of 184-pound champion Quentin Wright, who was, honestly, one of the last Penn State wrestlers anyone expected to win an NCAA title. Wright had a terrible dual meet season. Terrible. He lost six matches, he separated his shoulder, he often looked as though he didn’t want to be on the mat.
He’s been known his entire career as a “tournament wrestler,” a guy who is at his best when there’s a bracket to move through. Still, no one expected him to win the Big Ten tournament, and he did—from the lowly eighth seed. And that seemed a little like lightning in the bottle, a one-shot deal. Wright was seeded ninth at nationals, meaning he would need to face the top-seeded wrestler in the quarterfinals and then win two more bouts. Not exactly the recommended path to an NCAA championship.
But Wright did it—and he did it with style. Monster throws. A pin. And an ear-to-ear smile … except when he was on the mat. He looked like a completely different wrestler, and he credited the coaches (along with a slew of other people, from the “community” in his hometown of Wingate, Pa., to all of his teammates and fans) with helping him do that.
Asked how he helped Wright, Sanderson paused. “It’s all him,” he said. “I think he just got tired of not being happy, or not reaching his goals. And he just said, ‘All right—forget this, I’m going to start wrestling.’”
I’m pretty certain it wasn’t that simple. It sure seems like Sanderson’s attitude—along with a healthy dose of discipline, some incredibly difficult practices, and his ability to attract the top wrestlers and coaches to Penn State—made the difference.
When Sanderson was hired in April 2009, neither he nor athletic director Tim Curley was shy about what Sanderson was supposed to do: Win an NCAA championship. Curley said Saturday night that he and Sanderson had never talked about a timetable, adding, “I don’t think anybody expected it to happen this quickly.”
Actually, there were a few people: the wrestlers themselves. All season long, after every dual meet victory, they talked not about what they had done, but what they wanted to do: win the team title. Even after the season’s nadir, the dual-meet loss to Iowa in sold-out Rec Hall, they talked about using the experience to get better. Those aren’t uncommon sentiments to hear from athletes, but these guys delivered.
The Nittany Lions ended up with five All Americans—Wright, runners-up Frank Molinaro and David Taylor, and third-place finishers Andrew Long and Ed Ruth—and even the guys who didn’t get that honor made a difference. True freshman Andrew Alton picked up a couple of pins, worth big team points. Heavyweight Cameron Wade kept wrestling despite a knee injury; like Alton, he finished one match shy of being an All-American. Senior Brad Pataky, sidelined most of the season with a knee injury, picked up key bonus points in the Big Ten tournament. The Nittany Lions wouldn’t have won that tournament without him, and they wouldn’t have taken the momentum into nationals.
The big dramatic moment at nationals, fittingly, involved Wright. In Friday night’s semifinals, competing against Grant Gambrall, the Iowa wrestler who had beaten him during the dual meet, Wright used a risky move—a standing cradle—to win by fall. Although that didn’t clinch the title for Penn State (Ed Ruth, wrestling with a giant wrap around his injured leg, did that by winning Saturday’s third-place match), it was Penn State’s defining moment.
The crowd went bananas. Wright beamed. And Sanderson, the coolest of customers, jumped up and down repeatedly along with assistant coach Casey Cunningham, who was also in the corner. “And then I just started going crazy,” Wright said, “because they were going crazy.”
Many of the fans couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw Wright wrestling so well. Wright, for his part, couldn’t believe how excited his coach was. “He’s calm until something just really, really cool happens.”
Sanderson admitted to being fired up. “I think I called the pin,” he said after the match with a ghost of a grin. He said he doesn’t normally show a lot of emotion on the mat because he wants to make sure he is showing respect to the opponents. “But sometimes,” he said, “I just can’t help it.”
Lori Shontz, senior editor