Penn State Wrestling’s Recipe for Success: Smile
In a glass-walled conference room in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex on Tuesday afternoon, coach Cael Sanderson calmly explained how the Big Ten Wrestling Tournament is seeded and assessed the Nittany Lions’ chance to win the tournament, which starts Saturday at Purdue.
Meanwhile, visible over his right shoulder, two wrestlers arrived for practice, grabbed a couple of foam swords (!?) and began whaling on each other. One wrestler ended up on the floor as the other “stabbed” him repeatedly in the torso, and while I can’t swear to this—Cael moved his head, blocking my view—it’s possible that the victor then staged a mock decapitation.
This is not particularly unusual behavior in the wrestling room. Last week, I encountered a cutthroat dodgeball game, with wrestlers heaving multi-colored playground balls at each other and coaches Cody Sanderson and Casey Cunningham in the middle of the fray. Cunningham was so fired up, he was yelling like a banshee.
So was David Taylor, the top-ranked 165-pounder, who assured me later that they were using the official rules of the “American Dodgeball Association of America,” and added, with a completely straight face, “The five Ds are really important.” (For those of you who, inexplicably, haven’t watched the comedy classic Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, that’s Dodge, Duck, Dip, Dive … and Dodge.)
Taylor also assured me that playing games is an important part of the defending NCAA champions’ success. “The coaches do more than encourage that kind of thing,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “Look, Cody’s playing kickball out there right now.”
And for all that Cael Sanderson’s public demeanor is pretty serious, he’s got an occasionally hilarious Twitter feed and he is the guy who posted giant yellow smiley faces in the wrestling room leading up to last season’s NCAA tournament. (This week, signs simply say SMILE.) He wants his wrestlers to be prepared, but loose.
“A lot of it’s the personalities we have on the team—they realize and remember that this is fun,” he said. “To do things well, you’ve got to do things seriously, but it helps to enjoy them. You don’t have to be on guard, on call, 24 hours a day. I think David Taylor’s a big part of that, and that personality he brings to the team … that has really been priceless for us.”
It’s not like the fun has hurt the wrestlers on the mat. They tied for the Big Ten dual title with one loss and are ranked No. 1 in the “Tournament Power Index” calculated by Intermat. Eight wrestlers are ranked in the top 12, and three of them, Taylor, 149-pounder Frank Molinaro, and 174-pounder Ed Ruth, are ranked No. 1 and undefeated.
Taylor just happens to be the guy constantly organizing games of dodgeball or run-n-gun. Molinaro just happens to have an incredibly cool nickname, Gorilla Hulk, which inspired his teammate, reserve Justin Ortega, to compose a rap in his honor. Ruth (pictured, above) just happens to be such a free spirit that his teammates barely batted an eye when he turned up in the wrestling room Tuesday with two-toned hair.
Quentin Wright, the defending 184-pound NCAA champion who’s ranked No. 2 after a couple of early-season losses but has been dominant lately, is the kind of wrestler who is, Taylor said, “smiling when he’s throwing guys around.”
There’s no reason not to smile, said Wright, launching into a story about last season’s Big Ten tournament, when the team found a bunch of Frisbees and immediately began playing with them between rounds. “All the other teams,” he said—smiling, of course,“they were sitting around with frowny faces.
“When you’re relaxed and you have to perform in the split second, it’s so much easier,” Wright added. “We work hard, and we play hard. It’s definitely a mental grind throughout the year. But this helps you think of wrestling as a game, and then you think, ‘I want to win this game.’”
It worked last year, when Penn State won the Big Ten tournament title by one point and became the first Eastern team to win an NCAA title since 1953. And as far as the wrestlers are concerned, there’s no need to get serious—off the mat, that is—now.
“We are not,” Taylor said, “a stereotypical wrestling team.”
Lori Shontz, senior editor