PSU wrestling season quickly approaching
By ANDY ELDER
UNIVERSITY PARK — Building the Penn State wrestling schedule is always a challenge, but the 2019-20 season presented a whole other level of complexity.
With nine of 14 competition dates dictated by the Big Ten Conference, how to structure six other dates is always a balancing act between duals with traditional and inter-sectional rivals and tournaments that replicate the pace and urgency of the postseason.
This season, another consideration took precedent — the quest for a berth in the U.S. Olympic Trials.
The U.S. Senior Nationals will be held from Dec. 20-22 in Fort Worth, Texas, and the top five finishers earn a spot in the Trials, which will be held April 4-5 at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center.
“We have several guys who are going to try to qualify for the Olympic Trials, so we want to give our guys the best chance possible to do that; that’s why the schedule is the way it is,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said recently. “It’s not easy to qualify for the Trials.”
The Nittany Lions will compete five times over four weekends in the first month of the season and then won’t see collegiate mats again until Jan. 10.
Penn State gets a double dose of the service academies to start the season. Navy visits Rec Hall on Nov. 10 and the following Sunday the Nittany Lions head to West Point for the Black Knight Invite.
Five days later Penn State heads west for a dual meet on Nov. 22 with Arizona State.
After a break to celebrate Thanksgiving, the Nittany Lions visit rival Lehigh on Dec. 6 and then return home Dec. 8 to host Penn. The next date on the schedule is Jan. 10 vs. Illinois in Rec Hall. In between, many Nittany Lions
hope to earn a spot in the Trials, which will be held April 4-5 at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center.
The Illinois dual starts a string of nine consecutive Big Ten dual meets: Jan. 12 vs. Northwestern; Jan. 19 vs. Rutgers; Jan. 24 at Nebraska; Jan. 31 at Iowa; Feb. 2 vs. Maryland; Feb. 7 at Wisconsin; Feb. 9 at Minnesota; and Feb. 15 vs. Ohio State in the Bryce Jordan Center. Penn State closes out the season with a home dual Feb. 23 vs. American.
The Big Ten Championships are slated for March 7-8 at Rutgers. The NCAA Championships will be held March 19-21 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“We were trying to set up our schedule so we could move our college guys more to a schedule that would give them the opportunity to make a run at the Trials and the Olympics,” Sanderson said.
“We have some really elite college guys who are right there and we have some NLWC guys, and you’re talking about six spots representing the United States at a time in history when we’re as strong a country we’ve ever been. We have a lot of superstars. We have to go compete against great wrestlers and you have to get better. It’s definitely a challenge and it’s a good thing for our country, but you have to be ready to go.”
The challenge of 9.9 scholarships
Even for a team as talent-laden as Penn State, establishing a two-deep roster of truly competitive wrestlers is a challenge with the NCAA limit of 9.9 scholarships per team.
Some teams rely on institutional support of wrestlers who are high achievers in the classroom. That’s rarely an option for the Nittany Lions.
“Penn State doesn’t really offer a whole lot. Academic scholarships are pretty much nonexistent here. We’re stuck at 9.9. It’s just a matter of trying to make the best decisions you possibly can. A lot of guys we’ve gotten here are kids who wanted to come to Penn State. We rely on that heavily,” Sanderson said.
“Nowadays you can find out a lot about a program. You can see a lot into a program. The information’s out there. We want kids who want to come to school here. We’ve had a lot of success with those guys. It’s definitely a challenge. Having 9.9 and very small financial aid packages is challenging. You just have to do the best we can and try to be accurate in our recruiting.”
Ticket price increase
Sanderson said he wasn’t aware that the cost of season ticket increased by $6 a ticket for the upcoming season. The cost is now $170 for eight home duals, or an average of $21.25 a ticket.
Most would argue that, compared to Penn State football or men’s or women’s basketball, the price is a relative bargain to see the best team in the land.
“Obviously, we want to be a self-sustaining program, but we’re not. I think that we could argue that we are based on … if you consider camps and if you consider different donations and funding. We’re not trying to take advantage of anybody. You don’t want to charge a price that isn’t fair. Hopefully, people think that even though the prices are going up that it’s a fair price and it’s their way of investing back into the program, too,” Sanderson said.
“A lot of what we’re trying to do is keep up with our competitors. They’re all stepping their games up. That money has to come from somewhere. Hopefully people feel like it’s a decent value. We’ve got to give them their money’s worth. If we’re charging $6 more a match, we better step our game up.”
40, and still loving it
You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Sanderson enters his 11th season at the helm of the Nittany Lions as a 40-year-old coach.
There are plenty of stories from numerous wrestlers about how competitive he remains, even if he admits he may have lost a step.
“I love wrestling. I enjoy it. I just don’t move like I used to move. More than anything I’m just trying to work on my defense. I had shoulder surgery a couple of years ago and I haven’t been quite the same since,” Sanderson said.
“I feel like that’s one of my best ways to help a kid is to just wrestle. I don’t have an ego. There are times when I’m trying to help them. I’m not trying to whoop ’em up or anything. I’m trying to help them get better. I think coaches training with kids is very helpful.”
The year changes, the goal remains the same
When the Nittany Lions take the mat against Navy on Sunday, it will mark the official start to the second decade of the Sanderson era. While some of the faces will change, one thing remains constant.
“The goal is always to just be the best you can be. The goal is never be satisfied, it’s questioning ‘is there a better way? Is there something we can learn and improve upon?’ The mindset doesn’t change, ever. Very rarely as a staff do we sit back and think ‘Man, we’ve had a lot of success.’ We’re always thinking about the next year and the year after that and the year after that,” he said.
“I don’t have a goal as a coach. We just want to be the best we can be. As a coach, I want to make sure Penn State is the best place in the world to wrestle. That’s what I want to do. That’s not to say anything about anyplace else. There are a lot of great opportunities and great programs. We want to keep improving the opportunities we provide for our student-athletes.”