Back when Black Shoe Diaries started, the site didn’t cover Penn State wrestling. This wasn’t too surprising; not many sites did, and the Nittany Lion wrestling squad wasn’t a powerhouse like we’ve come to expect—even though exactly ten years ago, they capped off a pretty good (by then-standards) season, and landed what at that time was a renowned, for Penn State, wrestling recruiting class, including Bubba Jenkins.
Overseen by then-head coach Troy Sunderland, the 2005-2006 PSU wrestling team was led by Big Ten Champ and two-time All-American 197er—and now renowned MMA fighter—Phil Davis, then a junior. They capped off a 13-4 dual meet season (with wins over Iowa, Ohio State and Cornell, and losses to Minnesota, Iowa State, Wisconsin and Michigan) that saw the team face eleven different ranked foes over the course of the season.
The Big Ten Tournament saw the Lions finish fourth by almost fifty points, behind the Gophers, Illini, and Wolverines, and Davis was the only champ in the blue and white crowned; Penn State had one other wrestler (freshman 133 lber Jake Strayer) finish third.
A month later, at the NCAA tournament, Davis was again the Lions’ highest place finisher, taking second; his points led Penn State to a ninth place finish, with three All Americans—in addition to Davis, James Yonushonis finished 8th at 174, and Eric Bradley finished 8th at 184. Oklahoma State was the NCAA title winner that season, with 122.5 points—almost forty more than Minnesota, who came in second. Iowa and Cornell, whom the Lions beat handily in dual meets earlier in the year, placed above them in the tournament, and Lehigh, who also lost to Penn State in a dual by double digits, tied them in 9th place with 53.5 points.
In 2006, a ninth place finish and an NCAA finalist was cause for celebration. It’s a mark of how spoiled we’ve gotten as wrestling fans that that is no longer the case—what a difference ten years makes.
Shortly after the end of the 2009 season--a year that saw the Lions host the Big Ten wrestling tournament, but finish seventh and possibly their best hope (Jenkins) getting pinned by Iowa’s Brent Metcalf in the final before failing to win a single match at the NCAA tournament; a year that also saw the Lions’ bright future in Quentin Wright make it to the Big Ten tournament finals and Frank Molinaro making All American, but the Lions themselves fail to crack the top ten—then-Athletic Director Tim Curley decided to make a change, and Sunderland stepped down. A scant two weeks later, Penn State had their new man—and it was a name not on anyone’s expected short list for the vacant position.
Cael Sanderson. Then coach at his alma mater, Iowa State, Sanderson was lured by the wrestling-rich commonwealth and the athletic facilities of PSU—and his impact was almost immediate.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Do we really need to go into the details for you fine wrestling folks? Five national titles (and counting)—including four in a row from 2011-2014. Only ten dual meet losses over six seasons—and six from the first season. Eleven NCAA titles (Wright 2x, Molinaro, David Taylor 2x, Ed Ruth 3x, Matt Brown, Nico Megaludis, Zain Retherford once—and counting). Two Hodge Awards for Taylor, in 2012 and 2014. Multiple near-records in points scored.