Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson found himself in a familiar place Saturday night. For the eighth time in the last nine years, he wore a championship t-shirt and hat while posing with his team for pictures in an empty arena that had quickly cleared out after a full weekend of wrestling resulted in him hoisting a trophy.
Winning has become the norm for Sanderson at Penn State. During his 10 years in Happy Valley, he’s won eight national titles, coached 12 individual champions, sent 51 wrestlers to the podium, and compiled a dual record of 140-14-2.
With the departures of all-time greats Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal, this weekend marked the end of an era for Penn State wrestling. However, don’t think that means the Nittany Lions are slowing down.
As Sanderson has proven for the last decade, his team will find a way to receive significant attention in the national title conversation next season and for the foreseeable future. A fresh crop of top recruits and a strong returning group of starters is primed to continue the program’s legacy.
It happened when Nolf and Nickal enrolled the summer after David Taylor and Ed Ruth hung up their white-belted singlets. And it’ll happen again and again until Sanderson calls it quits. One day, the dynasty will end, but it won’t be because of turnover. Sanderson has proven that through his skills as a recruiter, instructor and motivator.
The season after Taylor and Ruth graduated was the one true down year during Sanderson’s tenure. Penn State was 11-4 in duals and finished sixth at NCAAs, only crowning one individual champion. For any program, that’d be a fine year and maybe even an accomplishment. However, for Sanderson, it was all part of a plan.
In addition to redshirting Nolf and Nickal, Sanderson also kept three-time All-American Nico Megaludis and breakout freshman star Zain Retherford on the bench for redshirt years. Other notable redshirts that year? Nick Nevills, Shakur Rasheed, and Anthony Cassar.
That year, eight All-Americans who’d eventually combine for a total of 11 national titles were all held off the mat… and Sanderson's team still finished in the top 10.
You can make the argument that his decision allowed the 2016 team to be even more dominant than a 2015 one could’ve been with a raw Nolf and Nickal and a good but not great Megaludis and Retherford. It’s also worth noting that it allowed Nolf and Nickal to wrestle this year and lead one of the most dominant regular season and tournament runs ever.
The improbable outcome of that audacious decision validated Sanderson’s abilities as a coach and wise foresight when it comes to making plans, something fans should trust now that Nolf’s and Nickal’s illustrious careers have come to a close.
“You look back and you think, if we would have done this or that, maybe we could have won that year. So who knows. I don’t know,” Sanderson said Saturday night. “We’re comfortable and happy with the way things have turned out. And I was able to create a wave to roll through. And now the exciting part is creating another wave.”
Sanderson sits at a crossroads similar to the one he faced in 2014 after sending off Taylor and Ruth. However, he welcomes a similarly exciting incoming freshmen class with Aaron Brooks, Michael Beard, and Seth Nevills who many expect to lead the next surge of titles. All three could’ve wrestled this season, but each took a greyshirt year, meaning each still has four years of eligibility and a redshirt remaining.
To give you an idea of the outlook on these three potential phenoms, Brooks is a junior world silver medalist and four-time Maryland state champion, Beard was 97-3 with 38 falls and 28 technical falls in high school, and Nevills (Nick's brother) was 169-1 in high school and won every match by fall during his last two seasons.
There isn’t a pressing need at any of their weights that these prized recruits will be forced into the lineup, so redshirt years seem likely.
Being that next season is an Olympic year, it very well could be another “punt” year. Perhaps Mark Hall, Vincenzo Joseph, and Anthony Cassar all have their sights on Tokyo. Or maybe Roman Bravo-Young and Nick Lee could benefit from a redshirt year after being thrust into the lineups as true freshmen.
If Sanderson does choose to take that route, then there would be little reason to send Beard, Brooks, and Nevills all onto the mat next season. Another year for them to develop would allow the Nittany Lions to enter the 2020-21 season with a fully loaded roster reminiscent of the one that started the current four-year run in 2016.
Or next season could be another business-as-usual year, if Hall and Joseph choose to lace up for their senior seasons, Lee and Bravo-Young continue to rise, and Cassar and potential graduate transfer Kyle Conel are granted sixth years. That’s six returning All-Americans who are all capable of winning national titles.
Regardless, no matter what opposing fans will try to speak into existence, this is far from the end of the road for the Nittany Lions. Whether there’s a five-peat or a fifth-place finish next year, Sanderson has a plan and the king-making ability to follow through with it and raise banner after banner.