As Andrew Long spoke to a crowd of Nittany Lion faithful at Rec Hall on Sunday, the fans who came out to greet their 2011 NCAA championship-winning wrestling team, the 133-pounder struggled to find the right words to thank his supporters for all they’ve done for him this season.
The redshirt sophomore stumbled over his sentences a few times, causing his teammates standing behind him to playfully heckle the Iowa State transfer.
“These guys give me a hard time sometimes because I’m the new guy,” Long said to the crowd with a smile. “I give them a little bit of room to beat up on me, but it’s not gonna last forever.”
Though they might have some fun with the “new guy” every now and then, the Nittany Lions are forever grateful for what Long has accomplished this year.
The 133-pound Big Ten champion and All-American’s third-place finish at this weekend’s nationals proved instrumental in Penn State’s run to a conference title and the program’s first national championship in 58 years.
“He’s been a huge boost obviously,” coach Cael Sanderson said of Long. “He’s a great wrestler. He’s a spark plug. He brings intensity to the room and he brings a great personality to the team.”
Long made his Penn State debut a memorable one with a pin over Luke Todd against Virginia Military Institute in the Virginia Duals on Jan. 7.
Since then, Long proved his worth throughout the rest of the season, finishing the year 15-1 while outscoring opponents 43-3 in dual meets en route to his second All-American accolades at NCAAs this weekend.
Without Long, the Lions may never have won the team title, as the redshirt sophomore’s victories in consolation matches helped lock up the national championship before the final session began Saturday night.
“It always comes down to who wants it more,” Long said after his third-place match. “I’ve always considered myself a guy who likes to fight out there, enjoys the battle and has a lot of heart. So I try to use that to my advantage and over will guys till the end of the match.”
Last year, Long was seven minutes away from a national championship, after defeating this year’s national champion and Most Outstanding Wrestler Anthony Robles, who was born without his right leg. Long then lost to this year’s runner-up, Iowa’s Matt McDonough in the 125-pound championship.
The Creston, Iowa native entered this year’s tournament hoping to avenge that loss and leave Philadelphia with the 133-pound gold, but left happy knowing he’d done his best and helped his team achieve its goal.
“Hopefully there’s some gold sparkles in it somewhere,” Long joked of his bronze. “But I feel like there’s a lot of honor in third. That’s what motivated me to keep going and be the best, and just prove to everyone that I’m the toughest competitor in this weight class.”
When Long was dismissed from the Iowa State wrestling team in June of last year, he didn’t know what his future held.
Having coached Long for one season with the Cyclones, Sanderson reached out to his former wrestler and made Long’s transition to a new team and a new environment easy.
Long said the Lions accepted him from the get-go, and allowed him to get his wrestling career back on track.
“Having the familiarity with the coaches and just their ability to help me grow and keep working with me throughout everything, it gave me a new window to crawl through,” Long said. “I could really open up and be myself around all the guys and focus on what’s really important to me.”
Despite 964 miles separating him from his hometown, Long has found a new home in the arms of the Penn State family.
With the unrelenting support from the Lions’ fans and the acceptance of his teammates, Long hopes he can continue to give back to the people who have made his season memorable.
“The fans, I really love their support,” Long said. “They’re some of the best fans I’ve ever had the experience of working with and I’ve just been able to really feel the vibe out on the mat. I give credit to them for being humble and I just thank everybody for giving me this opportunity.”