Wrestling Team Knows It Won’t Sneak Up on Anyone This Season
It happened again the other day to senior Frank Molinaro, who was shopping at the Dollar Store a few miles from campus. When you’re short and you’ve got cauliflower ears and you’re wearing a Penn State wrestling shirt in Pennsylvania, you aren’t exactly incognito. You’re pretty easy to pick out as a member of the defending NCAA team champions.
“This little old lady … she was like 85 years old … she says she’s been watching wrestling for years, naming Andy Matter and all those guys,” Molinaro said yesterday, waving his arm at the 18 Penn State national champions whose pictures hang on the wall of the practice room at the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex. (Junior Quentin Wright, No. 19, isn’t pictured on the wall yet.) “She saw my shirt and my ears and said, ‘Last year, I followed you.’”
Molinaro has repeatedly enjoyed such encounters since March, when the Nittany Lions became the first Eastern team to win an NCAA wrestling team title since 1953, so it’s easy to see how the team has become such a tough ticket.
Their dual meet against Iowa sold out—including standing-room tickets—90 minutes after single-match tickets went on sale. Their dual meet against Minnesota (coming up soon, on Sunday, Nov. 20) has only standing-room tickets remaining.
“These guys are a rare breed,” Coach Cael Sanderson said Monday afternoon at the team’s annual media day. “I think our fans and our sports understand that, and that’s why our season tickets are as high as they are and we have two matches sold out already. This is a fun team to watch. It’s not so much about whether they win, or not, it’s more about the fact that they’re entertaining. That is something I’m looking forward to. I can’t wait to just sit back and watch these guys go.”
Sanderson, of course, is somewhat of a rare breed himself, having spent his summer vacation training for the world wrestling championships after a seven-year break from international competition. He finished a disappointing fifth at worlds, and he said he’s not sure what’s next for his own competitive career. “For the most part, it’s all Penn State wrestling right now,” he said. “I’m not worried about my own wrestling career right now.”
The Nittany Lions are the preseason No. 1, with half the starters returning from last season’s team—runner-up Molinaro at 149 pounds, All-American Ed Ruth at 174 pounds, NCAA champ Wright at 184 pounds, Cameron Wade at heavyweight, and David Taylor, who’s moving up to 165 pounds after finishing second at 157 last season.
Last season’s other All-American, 133-pounder Andrew Long, withdrew from school after being charged with attempted sexual assault over the summer. Sanderson said he’s stayed in touch with Long, whose trial is scheduled for this fall. “When you recruit a kid, you’ve got to stand with him, I think,” Sanderson said. “Until we know exactly what happened, until the case is solved—well, not solved, but until something’s solved, up until that point he needs a little support. He’s not anywhere near here, but he still needs some advice and needs some help.”
The other key component of the title team, 141-pounder Andrew Alton, will redshirt this season. That leaves the Nittany Lions with a new lineup at the first three weights, but like last season, the middleweights are strong. Also like last season, there are some highly recruited freshmen expected to play major roles.
“We had a young team last year, but we’re going to have a young team this year,” Sanderson said. “It’s just very similar to the same position we were in last year, but we’ve got a little stronger leadership.”
The first look at the team will be Thursday at the annual intrasquad dual, which starts at 7 p.m. at Rec Hall. They key weights to watch are 125 pounds, which will feature freshman Nico Megaludis, who won three PIAA titles and posted a 170-1 record at Franklin Regional (Pa.) High School; 157 pounds, where Dylan Alton, Nick Fischer, James Vollrath, and Dirk Cowburn are contending to fill Taylor’s former spot; and 197 pounds, where freshman Morgan MacIntosh—the nation’s overall No. 1 recruit, according to Intermat—will compete.
The NCAA title banner will be raised at the Bloomsburg match, Nov. 13, and then the Nittany Lions will go to work and attempt to repeat.
“This time last year, when I said we were going to be national champions, people didn’t necessarily believe me,” Taylor said. “I think the difference this year is that everyone’s expecting that national title, so we just can’t let that get to our heads. We’ve just got to go out and wrestle to our ability. If we do that, I don’t think there’s a team that can beat us.”
Lori Shontz, senior editor