Conventional wisdom says it would've been easy for Anthony Cassar to give up and call it quits. After all, he hadn't wrestled competitively in three years.
So you'd likely be forgiven if, for that reason, you viewed him as the underdog to crack the starting lineup at 197 pounds for the country's top ranked wrestling program.
But Cassar never doubted himself and felt that once he had the chance, he never had a doubt as to what he'd been doing.
"I knew I wasn't going to step on the mat until I was ready to dominate," Cassar said. "My life took a path that felt I needed to be more prepared for that through injury and trials and tribulations but now, this is exactly what I imagined."
The sophomore from New Jersey has finally stepped on the mat and has indeed dominated after one redshirt season and two seasons marred by injuries. He's currently 7-1 and gave Penn State its first lead late against Lehigh on Dec. 3 as his 8-3 decision put the Nittany Lions up 20-19, leaving it to Nick Nevills to eventually clinch it. For his part, Cassar is currently ranked No. 9 in the country at 197 by InterMat.
Before he was dominating at Penn State though, Cassar once again had to deal with being overlooked.
Cassar attended Montgomery High School in New Jersey where he failed to qualify for the individual state tournament until his senior year, after falling a win short the year before.
When his senior year came around, he went 45-0 en route to a state title at 195 pounds.
He became just the fourth wrestler in New Jersey history to win a state title after having never previously qualified.
So again, it would've been easy for Cassar to get discouraged. But Cassar's high school coach, Kurt Franey, said that's not who Cassar is.
"I have never in my life met anyone who believes so much in themselves as Anthony," Franey said.
In fact, Cassar's belief in himself was so strong that he made an interesting assertion to Franey following his loss junior year.
It was that he'd never lose again in high school, and he didn't.
Franey too, was a long time believer in Cassar and always knew the innate talent and potential he had.
"You could see early on that he was talented, he just needed time to grow into his frame," Franey said. "He was a bit gangly as a freshman and sophomore, but he came into his own as a junior."
And both Franey and Cassar attribute that junior year to a large part of what made Cassar successful and what gives him his confidence today.
"After he lost in his junior year, he and his father came up to me and said that he was going to work so hard in the offseason that he wasn’t going to lose again in high school," Franey said.
Cassar viewed that loss as the stepping stone to success.
"I lost my last match and I walked off the mat overwhelmed with confidence knowing if I could put the work in then I'm going to be able to do what I want to," Cassar said. "That's where it stems from and it's been growing ever since."
And once it was all said and done, Cassar left his mark on Franey, his high school and New Jersey wrestling.
"Obviously he's the best wrestler I’ve coached and I would put him up against any wrestler that I’ve coached against," Franey said.
If there's one aspect of Cassar's life that's been seemingly infallible since the start, it's his work ethic.
Penn State coach Cael Sanderson offered high praise for the sophomore regarding his work ethic and his refusal to give up.
"I think he's exceptional in that regard," Sanderson said. "Over the last two years, he's had very little mat time but he just came here and rode the bike and lifted weights. I watched him for two years and I'm amazed that he never really came in here discouraged and didn't need a pep talk."
Cassar conceded that it was hard to not wrestle, but staying mentally tough was the hardest part.
He also said he learned an important lesson through his absence.
"The most important thing I've learned is just being present at all times and being clear on what you want," Cassar said. " Knowing what I could do and knowing that this was my dream and my purpose in my life, not being able to do it was the hardest part."
Ultimately, sports are about tangible results, and Sanderson is impressed with that facet of Cassar's season as well.
"He does some phenomenal things," Sanderson said. "He's a big, strong kid and he's getting better every match."
And while Cassar wants to get better every match, he has one ultimate goal—to be the best.
Zain Retherford, Mark Hall, Bo NIckal and other Nittany Lions have all done it.
Now Cassar feels it's his time.
"In my mind I'm number one, have been since I got here and will be until March," Cassar said.