A Look Back At Penn State Wrestling’s Cael Sanderson’s 10 National Championships
Since taking the wrestling world by storm and making the move to Happy Valley in 2009, Penn State wrestling head coach Cael Sanderson hasn’t looked back.
En route to the title, the Nittany Lions’ team score in the national competition tallied 137.5. Meanwhile, second-place Iowa came in more than 50 points behind at 82.5.
In his 14 years, Sanderson shaped 83 All-Americans, 34 NCAA Champions, and five Hodge Trophy winners.
The head coach also is known for his calm demeanor and relentless work ethic, but it is this mindset that produces champion after champion.
The first of a streak of championships came in 2011 in Philadelphia when Penn State took home the top prize in the NCAA Championships for the first time since 1953.
This marked the beginning of the dominance of Penn State wrestling names such as Quentin Wright, Frank Molinaro, and David Taylor.
The Nittany Lions closed the tournament with a 29-10 record and 107.5 points total. As if a clear winner hadn’t already been established, 16.5 points of Penn State’s total slew came from bonus points by way of six pins, three major decisions, and one technical fall.
This championship also had five All-Americans, marking the most since 1998.
“We’re the national champs and that’s something to be really happy about,” Sanderson said. “I am really, really proud of these guys, it’s just a gutsy performance from some real tough kids and that’s what it takes.”
The following year, Penn State competed for its first back-to-back title and succeeded, totaling 143 team points.
Molinaro, a senior, and Taylor, a sophomore, finally had their moments to shine after returning to the championship and taking home individual titles. Sophomore Ed Ruth also joined the duo on the first-place podium.
Taylor earned the Manuel Gorriaran Award for the most falls in the least amount of time, with four pins and a technical fall on his way to the championship.
“We contribute to a team title, and then we have it locked up in the finals,” Taylor said in his championship press conference. “It’s just to go out for yourself, and man, my motivation is just to go out and dominate someone.”
In 2013, Ruth returned as a champion and Wright regained the title that he held in 2011. The team amassed a 123.5 overall score.
By this point in his career, Sanderson coached 22 wrestlers, which resulted in 27 individual titles and set the record for most team points at the tournament.
The head coach took home the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) Coach of the Year award following the 2013 campaign.
In 2014, Penn State earned its fourth-straight title, becoming the third team in history to do so. Ruth and Taylor each took home national championships, boosting the Nittany Lions to their ultimate team championship.
On the backs of Ruth and Taylor, the group edged out Big Ten foe Minnesota by just 5.5 points.
All-time great Taylor earned the distinction of the NCAA Championship’s Most Outstanding Wrestler and NCAA’s Most Dominant Wrestler. Taylor was also the Big Ten Jesse Owens Male Athlete of the Year and an ESPY Male Athlete of the Year nominee.
What could ironically be described as an off-year for Penn State resulted in six All-Americans and two national champions.
Nico Megaludis, who became a four-time All-American in the 125-pound category, and 149-pound Zain Retherford took their place at the top of the podium in what was another statement win for the Nittany Lions.
Bo Nikal and Jason Nolf were defeated in the finals that year, but nonetheless, Penn State persevered to a team win with a score of 123 points.
The following year, the Nittany Lions’ individual champions more than doubled, as five Penn Staters finished in first place.
Legends Retherford and Nolf both completed bonus-point wins, Vincenzo Joseph finished with a pin, and Mark Hall and Nickal each had close victories. Interestingly, Nickal also beat future Nittany Lion Max Dean’s brother, Gabe Dean, from Cornell.
Penn State, once again, topped its team score with 146.5.
Unlike years past, 2018’s win came down to the final bout.
Nickal faced Ohio State rival Myles Martin, who beat the Nittany Lion in the finals two seasons before. Ultimately Nickal secured the pin in just 31 seconds to close the deal.
Retherford and Joseph each took home the crown, too. Retherford registered his 49th-straight win and third national title. Despite facing injuries, Nolf also pushed through to his second title.
Retherford also won the prestigious Hodge Trophy for the second season in a row.
Sanderson’s squad had an overwhelming point total at 141.5, skating past Ohio State by eight points.
For the second time since Sanderson was hired, Penn State reached four consecutive NCAA Championships and defeated Ohio State for the second year in a row.
Nolf, Nickal, and Anthony Cassar clinched wins for the Nittany Lions, while Joesph and Hall fell to collegiate newcomers.
The wins for Nickal and Nolf marked the first time in 80 years that a team crowned two of its wrestlers with their third NCAA Championship on the same night.
Overall, the team earned a resounding 137.5 points, beating second-place Ohio State by over 40 points.
Sanderson’s ninth title came in Detroit, Michigan, when Penn State had nine qualifiers and finished out five-for-five in the championship bouts.
After a year hiatus from the national tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn State picked up right where it left off.
Roman Bravo-Young, Nick Lee, Carter Starocci, Aaron Brooks, and Max Dean each won their respective weight classes to finish off their undefeated season with 131.5 points.
“Culture is obviously everything. You want a stronger culture,” Sanderson said. “I think these guys care about each other and they compete as individuals…We just have a great group of kids, and they’re competitors. They step up in these big moments, and they did this weekend.”
To cap off its 10th win, Penn State crowned two and sent five wrestlers to the finals during the 2023 championship.
Entering with nine qualifiers, Penn State dominated the tournament, ending the weekend with two champions, three second-place, two third-place, and a seventh-place finisher.
The newest Penn State legends Dean and Bravo-Young finished out their careers as All-Americans.
The dynasty that Cael Sanderson built over the last 14 years is one of the most successful in all of college athletics, and he did it right here in State College. The calm and confident presence of the coaching staff and throughout the roster is something that is hard to find anywhere else in collegiate wrestling.
As they say, “Wrestling lives here.”
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