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Penn State Wrestling: The Leader College Wrestling Needs

A crowd nearly eight times greater than Bucknell’s average dual attendance will fill Sojka Pavillion tonight to watch No. 1 Penn State wrestling face the Bison in an early season out-of-conference dual. 

Tonight will be the Bison’s first sellout at Sojka Pavillion since reinstating its wrestling program in 2005, a major milestone as wrestling continues to regain momentum and popularity in Lewisburg. With more than 4,200 tickets sold, the expected attendance is larger than that of any men’s basketball game there all last season. 

“It’s huge for programs to be able to sell out and show there’s a product out on the mat,” assistant coach Cody Sanderson said at Penn State’s weekly media availability on Tuesday in place of his brother and head coach Cael. “It’s going to be a full house and a fun arena. Those guys are going to be scrappy, and I think that’s a great match for our guys as the first dual on the road.”

That expected atmosphere should come as no surprise. Teams regularly pull out all the stops when Sanderson’s Nittany Lions, winners of seven of the last eight national championships, come to town ready to pin their way to blowout dual victories.

Last year, Lehigh wrestled Penn State at a minor league hockey arena. With nearly 10,000 fans, the dual shattered the program’s previous dual attendance record of 5,909. Michigan, which finished No. 9 in attendance, had a more than 50 percent jump from its average when Penn State visited last year. Rutgers, which was No. 4 in attendance, had an even larger jump at 78 percent.

The Nittany Lions are aware of the attention and hype they draw whenever they enter a gym — whether it’s the desire to witness a dynasty during the height of its greatness or to cheer for its downfall seems to differ from person to person. However, instead of viewing these duals as placing a target on their backs, Penn State embraces the opportunity to grow the sport.

“Growing the sport” remains a concern around the nation. Although there is much progress to be made, coaches, fans, employees of organizations like FloWrestling and Cliff Keen International, and wrestlers themselves have partaken in what’s been a winning battle. Their efforts have saved Olympic wrestling, gotten every session of the NCAA Championships broadcast on national television, and created the American Wrestling League, debuts tonight.

Penn State has been at the forefront of this fight. Over the summer, Rec Hall hosted a Final X World qualifier. The program is working toward hosting the 2020 Olympic Trials, and Cody Sanderson said Tuesday it would also like to host an AWL dual in the near future.

Although the national effects are felt strongest, a large part of that fight  involves cultivating wrestling locally — something Penn State has taken to heart. Bucknell is one of two in-state opponents Penn State will face this weekend. No. 8 Lehigh visits Rec Hall on Sunday when the teams will meet for the 107th straight season. Although Bucknell doesn’t carry the same magnitude and legacy Lehigh does, they are scheduled with the same intention: to celebrate the tradition of one of the most wrestling-rich states in the country.

That intention extends a concerted effort by Penn State to compete locally and give lesser opponents home matches against a top-ranked team. Two weeks ago, the Nittany Lions competed in the Keystone Classic, hosted by Penn. During Sanderson’s ten years in Happy Valley, they’ve also faced Lock Haven, Pitt, Edinboro, Clarion, and Bloomsburg. Edinboro is the only school of those five opponents that Penn State hasn’t traveled to under Sanderson, demonstrating the dedication he has to making these often one-sided matchups worthwhile for the opponents. 

“We always try to schedule some duals with programs that are really looking to do something special, like Bucknell has done with this one,” Cael Sanderson told the Centre Daily Times. “It will be an exciting environment for our guys to compete in and we are looking forward to the opportunity.”

There’s really no cost for Penn State to visit Bucknell. The team will drive 70 miles down I-80, likely win by at least 30 points, and return home all in one evening. The only thing the Nittany Lions really have to gain by wrestling the Bison is a lower stakes dual to fine-tune the lineup. Yet, here they are, facing Bucknell for the second year in a row and filling a gym with wrestling-crazed Central Pennsylvanians.

Matchups like this dual are more about what Penn State has to give to college wrestling than what it has to gain. Bucknell had been trying to reach to reach the milestone for the past few seasons, hosting top-flight programs like Oklahoma State, Iowa, and Nebraska, but it took Sanderson’s Nittany Lions to tip the scale. As much of a milestone the first sellout at Sojka is for Bucknell, it occurring in Penn State’s first ever visit to Lewisburg speaks volumes about the state of college wrestling. 

The rich are really rich and are few and far between, while the poor are really poor and also few and far between. Luckily, though, the rich have no problem giving to the poor. After all, they know that when the poor win, the entire wrestling community, small but mighty, wins.

“Penn State and other top schools have a responsibility to help build those other schools up and build the wrestling community up,” Penn State senior heavyweight Anthony Cassar said. “It’s not the biggest community, and we all support each other, so it’s a good opportunity to compete against each other.”

“We feel that considering the generous situation we have at Penn State, it’s important for us to help [smaller] programs,” Cody Sanderson said. “That’s something we’ve done in the past and will continue to do in the future.”

I wrote last year that “Cael Sanderson isn’t the Nick Saban of college wrestling. Nick Saban is the Cael Sanderson of college football,” and I stand by that statement.

What differentiates the two is that what Sanderson is doing with these out-of-conference duals is the equivalent of Saban scheduling games at Alabama-Birmingham to help build up its following and boost attendance — as opposed to paying them a few million dollars to visit Bryant-Denny Stadium as a fourth non-conference opponent and get their teeth kicked in.

Sanderson has invested in his sport with a special focus on the schools that exist in the shadow of his empire of national champions. Can you even think of another national champion coach who would take his team to a Division II school?

He recognizes that a stronger wrestling community overall can bring even greater success and possibility to his team. In the same way he turned college wrestling on its head for the better while he was actually on the mat, he’s once again doing just that — this time from the coaches’ corner and with a vision much bigger than a national title banner.

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About the Author

Anthony Colucci

Anthony Colucci was once Onward State’s managing editor and preferred walk-on honors student who majored in psychology and public relations. Despite being from the make-believe land of Central Jersey, he was never a Rutgers fan. If you ever want to know how good Saquon Barkley's ball security is, ask Anthony what happened when he tried to force a fumble at the Mifflin Streak. If you want to hear the story or are bored and want to share prequel memes, follow @_anthonycolucci on Twitter or email him at [email protected]. All other requests and complaints should be directed to Onward State media contact emeritus Steve Connelly.

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