Jeff Byers: A Long Journey to the Top for Molinaro
For the Penn State wrestling team and coach Cael Sanderson, wrestling is about the journey. It’s the process by which you challenge yourself every day to get better, to be grateful for the opportunities you’re afforded and to improve.
Perhaps nobody has bought into Sanderson’s philosophies more over the last three seasons than fifth-year senior Frank Molinaro. And during his career, it was about the journey. But in the end, it was about the destination, and for Molinaro, the journey led to the destiny he had envisioned.
His career ended in St. Louis, and it ended with Molinaro’s hand being raised as the clear champion in his weight class.
Molinaro capped off an undefeated senior season by defeating familiar foe Dylan Ness of Minnesota in the title bout. Molinaro won a 4-1 decision to take the championship. The Barnegat, N.J., native became just the fifth four-time All-American for Penn State, and he won the school’s first-ever national title at 149 pounds.
Perseverance and consistency were the hallmarks of Molinaro’s career. Early on, Molinaro wasn’t sure how, or even if, he fit into the Nittany Lions’ lineup. As a freshman, Molinaro battled through mono and strep throat and many self doubts to get into the NCAA tournament with a wild card bid. He turned that bid into All-American honors, and that helped launch a career that will be long-remembered by Penn State fans.
Molinaro became a three-time All-American last season in Philadelphia, and he helped his team win its first national championship in 58 years. But Molinaro lost in the championship bout to Kyle Dake, of Cornell. The loss fueled Molinaro to near-maniacal training for his senior season. Molinaro became more disciplined with his sleeping, his diet, his training and doing everything he could to prepare himself to win the title.
“I put so much pressure on myself and had high expectations and this year was huge,” Molinaro said after winning the title last Saturday. “I worked so hard every single day. I thought about winning this title every second of the day. It got tiring, carrying that weight around for 365 days. I’m just so proud to be part of such an elite team and proud to be part of elite company as a national champ and four-time All-American.
"I’m looking forward to being able to reflect on everything. You really don’t give yourself much credit until you get what you really wanted, and I finally got what I really wanted. It’s the first time in my life that I can actually say I feel satisfied with everything.”
That satisfaction almost never came.
Molinaro injured his knee in a second-round bout, and it wasn’t clear whether he would be able to fight through the pain to capture the sport’s ultimate prize. Molinaro explained his tournament experience:
“I was real high Thursday morning, feeling good and I was a little nervous, but I wrestled a perfect first match and I was thinking this is just going to be a glorious run. Then I got punched in the face, basically, in the second match and it was a dogfight. And I got a little sloppy and ended up popping my knee out at the end of the match. I lost my mind for a good five or six hours, thinking that my career was over and that this was all ruined.
"But I have great coaches and they got me back up, got my head on straight and I came back and wrestled real good in the quarterfinal match and then pretty solid in my semifinal match. But then I come out here in the finals and get gator-rolled and my knee pops out again. When you’ve been through all that stuff before and everything I’ve gone through in my career, you’re ready for those kinds of situations. And I just got up and kind of laughed to myself. I should have known this wouldn’t be easy for me. Nothing’s ever been easy for me.”
Sanderson has called Molinaro a “model of consistency” for his team and has repeatedly singled out Molinaro for his leadership and dedication this season.
“I’m just real proud of Frank,” Sanderson said. “He paid the price and he wanted this so badly. He really just went out and dominated everyone this year. I’m real happy for him because I know how much he wanted it.”
Molinaro has matured, as a wrestler and as a man, during the last five years at Penn State. While there have been lots of highs, Molinaro said the lows have really helped him become a better wrestler and a better person.
“It’s just incredible (to reflect on the five years at Penn State),” Molinaro said. “My mom and I were talking about it and the character that it built in me.”
His father has witnessed the character-building moments first hand. Molinaro’s dad followed him to every match, going to such far-away places at Orem, Utah and Lincoln, Neb., because he didn’t want to miss a moment of his son’s special career. In the end, it was worth it for father and son and for the many friends and fans Molinaro has added along the journey.
A grateful Molinaro is ready to move forward.
“I just hope that I can repay this program and these fans and my family and friends for what they’ve done for me because they did so much for me,” Molinaro said. “They kept me in this and my family has always stood behind me through everything. Those are the kinds of things, the kind of support that allowed me to get to this point.”
There were plenty of detours along the way but in the end, Molinaro arrived at his destination and the journey was more than worth it.