Wrestling icon coaches Nittany Lions against RU
When you talk about one of the No. 24 Rutgers wrestling team's opponents this weekend at the Sprawl & Brawl Duals — No. 6 Penn State — the discussion begins and ends with head coach Cael Sanderson.
The former Iowa State Cyclone, who went 159-0 in his college career with four national championships, enters his second season with the Nittany Lions and has pulled in many of the country's top recruits.
"He's the biggest name in our sport," said Scarlet Knights head coach Scott Goodale. "Guys just want to go wrestle for him. So they are getting the best kids in the country. There's so much interest there not just in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio, but around the whole country."
To say that Sanderson's arrival jumpstarted the Penn State program is still an understatement.
The entire Nittany Lion starting lineup that took down EIWA powerhouse Lehigh this past weekend contained four sophomores, three redshirt freshmen and two true freshmen — meaning none of them came to Happy Valley until Sanderson signed on.
"He's been there now for two years, and the kids that he's recruited are young, but they are good," Goodale said. "They are fun to watch. It's a whole other level of wrestling."
The Knights will certainly be tested, but that is not to say that Rutgers will not challenge the Nittany Lions.
Many of Penn State's ranked wrestlers will go head-to-head with those Knights in the national rankings, including a heavyweight showdown between No. 9 Cameron Wade and No. 6 DJ Russo.
"Without a doubt they are one of the best teams in the country," said the senior Russo. "They are pretty young, but they have a lot of talent. Most of our talent is matched up against their big talent."
To spice up the Sunday matinee even more, add in the fact that Penn State took down Rutgers by an 18-17 score at last year's Sprawl & Brawl in Binghamton, N.Y.
The one-point loss is hardly leaving Goodale's memory anytime soon, and he knows his squad will be amped for the shot at redemption.
"Last year we were a point away at 18-17. Believe me, we are on their minds and obviously they are on our minds," Goodale said. "It's an opportunity for us. It's still early. It's still November. But heck, this is a dual meet we want to win."
But before Rutgers (2-0) can bank too much energy on Penn State (2-0), the Knights must concentrate on their first matchup Sunday against a more than potent West Virginia squad.
The Mountaineers (2-1) present a stout challenge and make for tough back-to-back competition with Penn State following shortly after.
The Knights could not rebound from an earlier day loss in Lewisburg, Pa., last November, to then-No. 1 Iowa and fell later that day to Bucknell.
Goodale and Co. learned their lesson from that experience and will be ready for Penn State, regardless of the outcome against WVU.
"It's our philosophy that we took from that Bucknell match a year ago that if you want to be ‘that guy' then you have to be ready to wrestle back-to-back matches," Goodale said. "If you are coming off a win, you have to be able to be ready to go for your next dual. If you are coming off a loss, you have to be able to bounce back and focus on your next dual. The guys that are the best in the country and there at the end, are able to do that."
Following a dominant performance in the team's first two duals of the season, the Knights believe they have what it takes to knock off West Virginia and keep the energy going to possibly upset a premier program and its iconic head coach.
"I would be shocked if we lost to West Virginia," Russo said. "We're not really looking past West Virginia, but Penn State is the big matchup. I think we are training too well to fall to West Virginia — and I think we are going to beat Penn State, too."