Cael Sanderson hates losing.
Granted he hasn’t had much experience with it as the only undefeated wrestler in collegiate history during his time at Iowa State, but as a coach, Sanderson has felt the sting of defeat just like any other competitor.
Before he joined Penn State in 2009, the program he took from a sub-.500 record to the No. 1 ranking in the country in less than two years, Sanderson served as head coach of his alma mater for three seasons.
During his tenure with the Cyclones, none of Sanderson’s teams finished any lower than fifth at the NCAA Championships and never did any of his starting wrestlers fail to qualify for nationals.
But all of Sanderson’s accomplishments as coach of Iowa State aside, there’s one thing he could never do -- beat Iowa.
“Absolutely,” said Sanderson when asked if he had any added animosity toward the Hawkeyes. “I’d be lying if I said I no.”
Sanderson’s Cyclones went 0-3 in dual meets against Iowa, the most recent a 20-15 Hawkeye victory in 2009.
And though he couldn’t manage to take down his in-state rival, Sanderson said he holds no personal grudge against Iowa coach Tom Brands.
During the Athens Olympics in 2004, Brands served as one of three coaches for the U.S. Olympic freestyle team, helping guide Sanderson to his gold medal at 84 kilograms.
“I think he’s a great coach, and you can’t argue with the success they’re having,” Sanderson said. “He’s coaching a team that is a rival, but then again, everyone thinks Iowa’s their rival.”
Ultimately, Sanderson is more focused on making sure his Nittany Lions are prepared for the No. 8 Hawkeyes than he is on trying to defeat Brands for the first time.
But as Sanderson will be in a familiar situation going up against Iowa from the sidelines, redshirt sophomore Andrew Long, the lone Iowan on the Penn State roster, will be sharing the mat with former teammates and old friends on Sunday.
An Iowa State transfer, Long has competed with and against many of the 28 Iowa natives on the Hawkeyes’ roster — dating back to his middle school days — and on tournament teams throughout his high school career.
“Wrestling in the state of Iowa, being raised there and I know all those names,” Long said. “It’s good to see some of those guys that are still having success after high school.”
Just last year while at Iowa State, Long’s biggest match of the season was against a Hawkeye.
In the 125-pound national championship match, Iowa’s Matt McDonough edged out a 3-1 decision over Long to take the title.
McDonough is 4-0 against Long in his career, although the two won’t meet this year as Long has moved up to 133 pounds for the Lions.
“It’s something new, watching him wrestle and not going against him,” Long said. “But hopefully we can put a good match up against him.”
Long, ranked No. 5 at 133 pounds, may potentially be pitted against Iowa junior Tyler Clark on Sunday.
Clark, who also transferred from Iowa State following Sanderson’s move to Penn State, was Long’s work out partner throughout his redshirt freshman season.
Despite all Long’s ties to the Iowa program, his father, Matt Long, knows his son will leave it all on the mat no matter who he competes against.
“The sport gets to be unique in that area,” the elder Long said. “Once they get on the mat, they don’t know each other anymore.”
As one of the country’s strongest and most dominant wrestling states, Iowa has been churning out top-notch wrestlers for decades.
Both Sanderson and Long agreed there’s a sense of pride in wrestlers from Iowa to defend their reputation as the nation’s best, and the amount of support generated for all levels of wrestling in the state is hard to match.
But all the story lines surrounding Sunday’s highly publicized match will be out the window once the whistle blows.
From that point on, it’ll come down to only one thing.
“In the final period, it’s just who wants it more,” Long said. “And I know right now we do.”