PECKVILLE — Cael Sanderson knows a thing or two about wrestling.
Being the only wrestler in NCAA history to win four consecutive national titles with unblemished records backs up that statement.
One thing that nearly stumped the Penn State coach is why the sport could be declining in District 2 and how to bring it back to the prominence and excitement of years past.
“There’s a lot of ways to do it, I don’t really have the answer,” he said Wednesday at Fiorelli’s during the Penn State Coaches Caravan stop.
Sure there have been many classic matches in recent years in the district, especially in the Wyoming Valley Conference with plenty of duals and tournaments to look forward to every year, but the sport peaked in the area from 1939-91. And, after a run where D2 crowned a state champion from 2003-10, there’s been a dry spell since.
“It starts at the youth bringing guys up and putting in all the work,” said Sanderson, who has won four straight national championships as leader of the Nittany Lions in his five years as head coach. “You have to have some inspiration that the kids want to wrestle. So having a superstar come through is good or have somebody that the kids could look up to would be good. Hopefully they’re looking at Penn State, and being Penn State fans they see some of our guys and are inspired to wrestle.”
The majority of the rest of the state thrives in wrestling, making Pennsylvania the top state in the country for wrestling when it comes to producing NCAA All-Americans. Sanderson is able to take advantage of that by being the coach at the top wrestling program in the nation, and being located in the center of the state as 24 of the 32 rostered spots on Penn State’s squad this past season were from the Keystone State.
“Pennsylvania is usually a few steps ahead of the second-best state,” he said. “And it’s not because there’s that many more wrestlers in Pennsylvania, it’s just high quality for whatever reason. The kids have proven that there’s quality, there’s depth. There’s a lot of talent around in the country but Pennsylvania has great depth. You place in the state tournament, you’re good and probably going to wrestle in college.”
Part of the reason for the drastic difference between the top two states in the country, Sanderson says, is coaching.
“The coaching’s great, the kids are great technically and they’re very confident. They believe that they’re from Pennsylvania, they believe Pennsylvania’s the best state and they wrestle according to that.”
Sanderson was on his second of his three days on the bus tour, which made a stop in Philadelphia prior to arriving in Lackawanna County Wednesday night. Football coach James Franklin and women’s soccer coach Erica Walsh were also part of the tour, which lasts three weeks. Sanderson praised Franklin’s work at the crowded establishment in Peckville and said that he’s on the tour to support the football program.
“Football is the engine of the athletic department and the reason Penn State has as many teams as it does,” Sanderson said. “We’re in good hands wrestling-wise, close to taking care of ourselves with our ticket sales and donations and our alumni. They really do a fantastic job. They’re really terrific but, for the most part, you have to see football do well.”
Sanderson is doing pretty good for himself and his program marketing-wise as well. Last year, his team set a record for highest attendance at a wrestling dual when nearly 16,000 fans packed the Bryce Jordan Center for a match against Pittsburgh. PSU duals are normally held at Rec Hall.
“We want Rec Hall to be a miniature Beaver Stadium,” he added. “When we’re marketing and set up our events, we copy what (football is) doing. Whatever they’re doing it works. They have a great staff and best people in the business put on that show. You don’t have to watch the game and you’re entertained at a Penn State football game.”