Penn State Wrestling Looking for Another Strong Season

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State held wrestling media day this past week. Below is a transcript of head coach Cael Sanderson’s press conference.

(Photo of DuBois graduate Geno Morelli. Photo courtesy of Penn State Athletics)

Q&A courtesy of Penn State Athletics

Q-How is it going with the off-season and having had the Olympics this past summer as well?

A-It has been going good. The Olympics takes up a lot of time, and with both Cody (Sanderson) and Casey (Cunningham) in Rio for almost a month it has certainly been busy for us. I wasn’t there for quite as long but it was good that we were busy because if we weren’t busy we would want to be.

Q-How does that help the development with the team, with all of the extra things going on?

A-I think that it helps in a lot of ways. It is good for us as coaches to be around the best coaches and the best wrestling in the world because although wrestling is one of the oldest sports, it continues to evolve with technique, tactic and strategy. Being around the Olympic level, with the entire behind the scenes, was very important to help us give our guys every advantage to be successful. It is good that our guys are going on and having success at the next level. Having guys like Frank Molinaro and Franklin Gomez training in the Nittany Lion Wrestling club is very valuable. We have our college kids going around training with Olympians; world wide Olympic champions give them a lot of confidence. It is definitely worth our time and if it wasn’t we would not be doing it. It is important in a lot of different aspects.

Q-Depending on the poll you look at, with the preseason rankings, do you like being a little bit of an underdog or do you like being number one and everyone’s favorite?

A-I really don’t care honestly. The goal for is the same no matter what, and that is to be the best that we can be and improve throughout the year. Every team has its own challenges. Last year I believe we were ranked either one or two to start the season, and that holds a different set of challenges then those of teams who are ranked four, five or six. It is exciting either way and keeps you on your toes. You are trying to help a senior win, or trying to get a true freshman ready, everything is a little different. We have a variety of those opportunities, but over all our goal is to win. We believe that if we continue to improve then we will have a great chance to win at the end, but the journey between now and then is exciting.

Q- Could you take us through a possible lineup up and down in weight classes? Maybe some people have it locked up while others are still competing?

A- We are still in the process of establishing our team, and I know a lot of programs do that earlier but we don’t.

125- We had the defending national champion graduate, obviously Nico Megaludis, but now we have Nick Suriano as a true freshman who is most likely going to be our starter.
133- Our starter is most likely going to be Jered Cortez. He will be sophomore eligibility and is a transfer from Illinois.
141- I would say Jimmy Gulibon has the advantage there but there is certainly a few different guys trying to challenge him for that spot, which is healthy for our program.
149- I would say that Zain Retherford has that spot locked in.
157- We have Jason Nolf, same thing as Zain; he has that spot pretty locked in.
165- Will be Vincenzo Joseph, who will be a freshman but he is a guy that we have a lot of confidence in.
174- This weight class is a little more competitive. I think that the usual suspects, who are just up a weight class now, are Geno Morelli who won two matches at nationals last year, and Shakur Rasheed who really did some amazing things but was just in the wrong weight class last year. We sill don’t know what he is capable of, he works very hard and challenges himself, so that will be fun to see. We also have Mark Hall, who is doing very well.
184- We have Matt McCutcheon, who has been to the nationals twice, and Bo Nickal who are competing for that spot. They are two of the best in the country for this weight class.
197- Right now we have Kellen Stout who was a freshman red shirt last year, who has gotten a lot better. He is very talented and comes from a great family. We also have Anthony Cassar who is in the process of getting back to full speed. He has had a lot of success, and has been cleared to drill but he is still a ways away from competing. The plan is that he will be back and challenging at that weight class.
285- This will be Nick Nevills who is very healthy and ready to go.

Q- What is one word that you choose to describe this upcoming year and why?

A-I would have to say excited. We train and work hard and it is just a great opportunity to see what we can do. We have a lot of new faces in the lineup, but that is fun as well. It is tough to loose a kid who has been a staple in your program for four to five years, but it is also exciting to get some new faces in the lineup. There are a lot of great teams, and individuals, so it is going to be a great season in college wrestling. A lot of teams have the chance to win the National Tournament and we are one of them so that is exciting.

Q- With Bo Nickal and Jason Nolf coming so close last year to winning it all, how do you think that being there and being on the edge will affect them this year?

A- I think that it hurt both of them really bad, that is life though. Any time after you loose a big match is going to bother you but using that to move forward is the key. They both had a very productive off-season, trained very hard, but in the end they are who they are, win or loose, and that won’t change. They love to compete and they love to train so I think that experience will benefit them in the long run.

Q- Is there anything your gut is telling you about Jimmy Gulibon having a breakout season?

A-I think that Jimmy is good enough to win, and I don’t think anyone can argue that. He is a guy that trains real hard, is very disciplined, and is a guy that can win. He lives a very clean lifestyle and over all I think he has everything he needs to be successful but he is the one that has to decide to go out there and win. I can’t do that for him and neither can Jason Nolf, but I think that if he wants to be a national champion then he has to do what it takes. He certainly is prepared for that, so I would not count him out. He is a fifth year senior, who has had some huge wins in his career and who has the capability of making a huge difference for us as a team, just with his attitude alone. We know what we are going to get out of most of the guys on our team, but Jimmy is a guy who really has an opportunity to show what he can do.

Q- Can Zain Retherford get any better then he was last year?

A- Yes I think so. He has the right mindset to do so with the people that he is training with. He wants to win the national championship, but your opponents improve as well so you have to keep working and improving. He wants to be a world and Olympic champion, and taking third in the Olympic trials proved that. I have learned a lot from him, I mean Zain is Zain. I watch him in aw, just his consistency and mentality alone. He overall represents our program in an extremely positive way. The example of a leader that has shown has done for this team is amazing.

Q- No Southern Scuffle this year…was it a scheduling thing that you are taking a road trip four days after the Southern Scuffle?

A-We like the Southern Scuffle. We have been there many years in a row and it is very competitive. It gives you a format that is similar to nationals. Unfortunately we didn’t think it was the right decision to go there then four days later turn around and face two Big-Ten teams. We didn’t think that was fair to our team. We have to work with the scheduling the best that we can and ultimately make sure that we are happy and healthy throughout the season and especially in March.

Q- Are you guys planning on doing anything special for next Fridays match, against Army, for the guys coming out and competing who will eventually go and fight in the army?

A-Well we have the up-most respect for Army and what they mean and do, but we are going there to wrestle. We will show them as much respect as we can but in the end we are going there to compete.

Q-Can you describe Nick Suriano’s personality? He seems like a very driven and intense kid does that match on and off the mat?

A- I think that if I had to give on word to describe him it would be intense. He is on point all the time, very consistent and over all a guy that you have to watch very closely and tell him when it is time for him to go home. There are a lot of positives with his head and training. If you come in on a Saturday afternoon and he is on the treadmill training, you kind of have to tell him all right it is time to go home. We do this to make sure that he doesn’t tire himself out, and he is at full force when it comes to his matches. He is very committed, focused, tough, and can wrestle for hours and hours. He is blessed with that ability, which a lot of it comes from his work ethic, but genetics also. He is a true freshman too with high expectations, and we just want him to improve and get better throughout the year.

Q-Would you still be as confident with Nick Suriano leading every match for 125, just like you did with Nico Megaludis?

A- Yes for sure. It is that consistency and toughness which is what we want as the leadoff guy. Whether it is in the Rec Hall, on the road, at a Big Ten tournament or National tournament, Nick will always be Nick.

Q-A lot of the national powers are plucking up Pennsylvania wrestling, what does that say about the state?

A- I think that Pennsylvania has always been a state that has been heavily recruited. A lot of the teams that have won national championships, through the seventies, eighties and nineties, their line-ups had a lot of kids from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. That has always been the case. Kids are committing very early out of PA, especially if you place in the state tournament, you are getting scholarship offers around the country. This changes your mentality as a coach. You are competing against everybody for Pennsylvania kids, but the reality is that we are Penn State University so we should have the advantage on most kids. We have to back that up with correct stats, the right attitude, and making sure that our kids are getting better and having a good time and being successful. We are going to be competing and recruiting but that is part of the game. If you are not getting good kids, it doesn’t matter how good the program or the coach, you will only be able to get so far. We also want kids that want to come to Penn State. You grow up watching them on TV or following stats, so this isn’t the first time that kids hear about Penn State, or any college. Kids who are committing to colleges know what they are getting into way before they even talk to the coaches. We want the kids that are reaching out to us, saying they want to be an amazing wrestler like Jason Nolf and Zain Retherford, but also a deans list student. Recruiting is going to be competitive but that is part of the fun!

Q- Along those lines, do you think that there are more blue chip wrestlers (couldn’t hear the media asking the question) and do you think that is because of the increase in club wrestling?

A- I think that kids are more prepared now, to wrestle and win at a younger age. For whatever reason, I think that the Olympic Regional training centers dotted around the country have a lot to do with it. Things change though, and I think that it is a tougher time for smaller programs because there is some much excess to show video on recruits, but twenty years ago some might not know about some kid from a small town in PA. Now everybody knows everybody. You have to try and be ahead of the game or adjust accordingly based on where you are as a program. I do believe that kids are better prepared now to compete as freshman.

Q- What are the challenges of bringing in somebody like Mark Hall who has the obvious international experience and some success at that level, with balancing that and the needs and the wants of the team? Is there a difference between his international success and the collegiate?

A- Most of the kids that we recruit want to be world and Olympic champions. Mark’s success, six-time Minnesota state champion, went to Minnesota to wrestle in the state tournament as a seventh grader. He has a lot of success and making sure that he keeps that same hunger, fire and mentality that he used to help him win six time state champion along with cadet champion and world champion. Every time you go to a new level there are new challenges. You have to stay hungry, remain fearless, and maintain those qualities that help you improve. He is extremely talented and knows how to win.

Q- Jake Varner has been around this program in some capacity for some time now as resident athlete etc., now that he is on your coaching staff how can you get more out of him to help these guys out?

A-He has more access to the team now as one of the coaches, and with that he is just one of us. He is a guy that we are very close with and have been for a long time. He had his wedding a couple years ago and all of the coaches were part of his wedding. We know him very well, we trust him, he has a great mind, he knows how to win and he understands the game. He also grew up with a family of wrestling coaches, starting from his dad, his uncle, his grandfather etc. It was a no brainer for us; he was a natural fit and will be a great asset. He has gotten the most out of his abilities, being a four-time NCAA finalist, world finalist and Olympic champion because of his characteristics.

Q- Give us some knowledge on Army and Stanford if you could?

A- We know that the army kids are tough; well you don’t go to the army if you don’t like competing. We are expecting a tough team and we have to go in there and battle. With Stanford, we rustled with them last year and they should have the same team back this year. They have three All-Americans in their lineup and other great kids in a couple others weight classes as well, so it will be a great test. Twenty-five starting it off, they have the returning all-American there and for us it will be Nick Suriano’s first match at Rec Hall as a true freshman. Both exciting matches to come! We focus more on the principles of success more then whether they win or loose right now, and if they choose to do that then they are probably going to win. I am not over concerned with our winning and loosing; it is more about the way our guys compete.

Q- Are you surprised that (former Lion wrestler) Brad Pataky is a coach? Or not surprised at all?

A- I think that Brad has had a goal of being a teacher and a coach, but he is also a guy that wanted to keep continuing to learn and train which is what he was doing here with us for the last Olympic cycle. I know that he was recruited pretty hard to step in to be a coach and I think that he is real happy with it. He will do a great job. He is very sincere and really cares about people which is the number one thing that is important in being a coach for his players.

Q- You have said earlier that you learned something from Zain Retherford, what would you say that you had learned exactly?

A- I think that just how he continues to be coachable and consistent is just a great reminder of the fundamentals of success, and not just being successful but continuing being successful. Getting to a national championship level and then maintaining that takes two different mindsets, and that is something that Zain has. It has been a great reminder in just watching him with what he is doing and knowing that he doesn’t change. He is not wrestling thinking that he is the best; he keeps trying to get better and better. We have to do those same things; we have to keep trying to do better. Are there things that we are doing to try and get better? Are there things that we are doing just because everyone else is doing them? Are we leading the country in the world technically and tactically? If not, can we? Those types of things, it doesn’t matter how much success you have had; you still have to work because everyone else is working.

Q- Do you think that this is one of your more challenging away schedules?

A- I don’t know. I would have to stop and look back at the past and think about it. I know that with our home schedule, we don’t have the big-time and big-name programs that our fans want and we are aware of that, but whether we are on the road or home we are going to wrestle the best in the country. No matter where we are we will wrestle with the same mentality. November or February, the details don’t matter a lot.

Q- Is there any more move of foot to change the college season?

A- Unfortunately I think the same people and the same organizations are still trying to change and add a dual format to the national formal. They are trying to set it up so that whoever wins a national dual championship is going to be starting the tournament with additional points. We have been fighting that for six years so now they do it behind the scenes. They are certainly fighting and pushing for that but I don’t know why. Some people thing it will improve the desire or number of fans that will come to dual meets. In reality though the coaches and the programs have to do that. It kind of goes against everything that the wrestling coaches believe in when it comes to being successful, but they are probably not looking at it from that perspective.

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