In today’s media availability via Zoom, Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson spoke about the Nittany Lions’ performance at the Big Ten Tournament, and looked ahead to what he routinely calls “The Nationals” next week in St. Louis.
Coach Cael on Nick Lee and Joe Lee wrestling with their brothers:
I think they, obviously, grew up together, training together. Talking about your plans and your goals and everything together. I think Nick is probably a great big brother just by example. And they definitely feed off of each other. I think that’s anytime you have brothers on the same team. That’s a challenge for the individual because they wrestle each match and all the brothers matches.
So I think they’re ... they’re definitely feeding off each other. I think they’re learning and they’ve been on the same teams for a long time. I think Nick’s important just to kind of help go and bounce back after the big 10 tournament and just believe in yourself and know that he’s, he’s capable of getting in there and doing some big things.
Coach Cael on what he learned from the Big Ten Tournament and how prepared he feels the team is, heading into The Nationals:
I don’t think we ever should be too surprised by results, right? Because you know the way we practice and put guys in some tough situations, and you know their strengths and their weaknesses, obviously trying to focus on on strengths. But you know, I think we, we definitely came out of the Big Ten, you know, disappointed, obviously. But I think when you take a step back and look at it, you know, our team kind of wrestled probably above where we were supposed to or at least to that level and in the majority of the weights so we just have this belief and expectation that we’re going to just kind of have just *awesome* performances every time and.
And so, it’s just kind of taking those small steps and kind of reevaluating. Like: ‘okay here we go; let’s just focus on what we can take care of. We’re definitely grateful for the opportunity to even be able to have a national championship! To be going with nine student athletes, and it’s a team that they care about one another, you know, so just ... we have a lot to really be excited about and we’re definitely excited about the opportunity to be able to compete for a National Championship next week.
But it still comes down to: just each individual just being the best they can be. That’s really kind of our focus, and it’s how we will probably get the best results. But we’re excited about next week. I ... I still believe we’ll have our best tournament at the Nationals— that’s kind of how we gear everything.
Q: Cael, the Big 10 tournament can be eye opening, especially for freshmen. Have you seen any changes in attitude or approach from the freshmen now that they’ve been through the Big 10 and know what it’s like to be under fire in that much pressure in a tournament like that?
Yeah, I think they’ve been in there ... I think, you know, anytime you jump levels, wrestling a new event, I mean there’s there’s just maybe some uncertainty. So I think: yeah definitely confidence levels, regardless of the outcome, definitely jump, and just kind of know that we’re close.
Those guys are close, everyone’s close! Just make some minor adjustments. But, go into The Nationals and let’s just see what we can do now. Let’s just go in there with a smile on our face and ... you know: easier said than done, too. And I think on the team you have and the kids and the personalities ... but yeah, I feel like you had a great experience with the Big 10. We ... kind of got our butts kicked, a little bit, but still kind of showed that we can get a take down here, finish this, and do that. We’re .. we’re close.
Yeah, Brady’s a ... he’s just an awesome young man. I mean, he’s overcome a lot and worked really hard to get back. I mean, what he went through is not, it’s not like you know he hurts his knee or his shoulder or something and, you know, you have a surgery and come back. I mean it’s—it’s a lot more complicated than that. And he’s done everything you can.
And, I’m really, really proud of him. And just happy for him and obviously this next week: an interesting opportunity for him to just kind of take things up one notch. We’ve seen: he’s right there with the top guys, and very capable of doing very well at The Nationals.
On Starocci winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, after Brooks did so last year:
Well I think that’s, that’s important for any program, right? You’ve got to have your freshman believing that they’re supposed to win. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful! it’s just having kids place high at The Nationals and having four-time All American kids placing, actually competing for championships in all four years of their careers.
But yeah: Carter, you know he’s, he’s very confident, he works very hard and he’s obviously very talented in addition to that, so you know he’s ... he believes! He believes that he’s supposed to win, and he’s a tough kid too. We’ve seen him win some tough matches against some very experienced, very tough wrestlers and it’s nice to have that. And, you know, it’s funny here too because he’s got four more years after this year so ...
So this year is a great year to gain experience, but it’s ... it’s not just about experience. I mean: you have an opportunity to go compete and win a National Championship. I think that’s pretty exciting.
On Greg Kerkvliet, and what he learned at the Big Ten Tournament:
Yeah, I think, Greg... He did a really nice job--he won the matches that he had to win, right? And he did it convincingly. And he ran into, arguably, lost to two of the top three guys in the country, that have been very consistent, with a lot of experience.
And, you know, with the situation that he faced ... I mean, him even competing this year is ... I won’t say ‘a miracle’, but it was definitely unexpected. You know when I said that we weren’t expecting him back, we weren’t expecting him back. I think I said, a week or so ago, he got cleared a couple hours before weigh-ins, and so and it wasn’t like he was training! He wasn’t even cleared to train, so he just jumped in there.
You know, people are wondering: well, why is he a little smaller? Well, you know, you can kind of put two and two together and realize: well he wasn’t training; he wasn’t able to do anything. That experience is good for him! And he’s gonna do well at The Nationals. And I’m excited for him. He’s looking really good: mindsets good, body’s looking good, getting bigger and stronger.
And that, for him, the Big 10 was definitely preparation. You know it was more about: alright, let’s get the matches in, let’s train and get ready for for the NCAA Tournament.
On Kerk and his training partners:
Yeah, Greg’s always sought out the best competition. He’s always, even in high school, we were watching, he was, he was bumping up to wrestle the best guys that he could. And that’s something, even this fall, you know he was ... When we were wrestling those matches, those Rokfin matches, he wanted the best guy we could get for him. You know, as a freshman in college that’s, that’s impressive.
And seeing ... you know what he can do—he’s a competitor, he wants to compete, and he’s really a great wrestler, so I think having great training partners, he’s a guy that you know he he wants to have a great training partner every day. If he’s rolling with somebody that he doesn’t feel like is gonna challenge him, he’s not gonna like that. He’s not a guy who’s looking for somebody that he can score a hundred points on in practice.
So I think, you know, he’s got all the right qualities and characteristics. And I think this this week and a half... Of course I always— it’s always up to the guys and we’re just here to support them and help them go after their goals and be positive and ensure they have the training partners and system that they can that they’re going to grow at their speed, you know just generally speaking, so you know I feel like Greg’s gonna be ... he’s, he’s ready to go.
And he’s gonna ... he’s gonna be right in there. But we are glad, the kid was ranked fourth in the Big 10 as a freshman with a week of training, which is not even training because you’re actually just getting ready to compete. Pretty good. So we’re very happy. Hopefully, he’s good and there’s potential to move forward here.
On Robbie Howard:
Yeah, I think, Robert Howard is just getting started.
He had a major surgery after the state tournament, as a senior, which was a year ago. So it’s not like he was in here training all summer and all fall and then you know just developing. He was rehabbing and getting back to being healthy most of that year. So, just shows you, he’s a very talented kid. He loves to compete. You know he has a little ... he has some spark and fire, and his ... his best days are are definitely ahead.
But yeah, I think Howard is just getting going here and ... and again: Big 10 was great preparation, and you can kinda see that he can go. He can go with the best guys, and we’re excited.
BSD Wrestle Notes:
- We’ll create a new Nationals stream here in the next few days
- Reminder: you can always bookmark our BSD Wrestling Section, into which we post all our wrestling-adjacent articles
- Yesterday we posted the Nationals brackets and discussed a ton in the comments