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Development of young wrestlers key to Penn State wrestling’s sustained success

Penn State Big Ten Wrestling Championship (Brooks)

Penn State’s Aaron Brooks wrestles Nebraska’s Taylor Venz in the 184-pound at the Big Ten Wrestling Championship on Sunday, March 7, 2021 at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pa. Brooks won 10-5 by decision and placed first overall for the 184-pound weight class.

Since Penn State entered the Big Ten in 1993, the program has seen a great deal of success from its individual wrestlers and its team.

However, one constant has been key to the Nittany Lions’ success against the nation’s top talent: youth.

Since joining the conference 28 years ago, no program has produced as many Big Ten Freshman of the Year award winners than the blue and white.

The revolving door of talented young wrestlers has consistently rotated, as young wrestlers seek to gain access to Penn State’s wrestling room.

This apparent repetitive process is what has helped sustain a dominant program in Happy Valley — one some could argue began during the tenure of former coach John Fritz, who served as the Nittany Lions’ head coach from 1993 to 1998.

“As you build the program, you want to bring in the best,” Fritz told The Daily Collegian. “You want to set high goals.”

In Fritz’s opinion, finding top talent when recruiting is just one part of what leads to building and sustaining a winning program.

John Fritz, wrestling CA

Then-Penn State wrestling coach John Fritz looks on during the 1998 season. Fritz was at the helm during the 1998 Big Ten Tournament when the Nittany Lions hosted the event for the first time.

He believes that team championships and championship-caliber wrestlers are born through both hard work and dedication.

“They all have talent,” Fritz said. “They put the shoes on just like I do. It’s just who works hard in the wrestling room.”

While Fritz gave up his position as the head coach of the program just before the turn of the century, his strong desire to win has resonated with Cael Sanderson and his current staff of coaches.

Sanderson’s approach to coaching and his reputation for producing athletes who compete on the national stage for the majority of their collegiate careers is enticing for the sport’s top talent.

“That's one of the reasons we've been successful — having kids place high at nationals, having four-time All-Americans and having kids actually compete for national championships in all four years of their careers,” Sanderson said.

While there have been a fair amount of Nittany Lions who have dominated college wrestling over their four-year careers, not just any student-athlete is prepared for that stage right away.

Penn State’s top-down leadership, which is headed by a strong veteran presence in the wrestling room, has helped freshmen acclimate themselves to the college game quickly and in turn allowed the program to consistently compete on the national stage.

Wrestling v. Navy, Head Coach Cael Sanderson

Wrestling head coach Cael Sanderson watches Bo Pipher wrestle Scout Skidgel during wrestling’s season opener against Navy at Rec Hall on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. Penn State won 45-0.

“That's important for any program, right?” Sanderson said. “You have to have your freshmen believing that they're supposed to win. You can say whatever you want, but you know it's what's in your heart and what's in your eyes that will make a difference.”

That reputation of success is something that helped lure top high school wrestling talent Mark Hall, who was the country’s most highly regarded high school wrestler before he stepped on Penn State’s campus in 2016.

In his true freshman season though, Hall did not anticipate wrestling and instead expected to redshirt.

“My expectation was to just have a good redshirt season,” Hall told the Collegian. “I wasn't supposed to wrestle my true freshman season, so that made it really easy for me to just work on getting better and focusing on all of the specific nuances and details of college wrestling and learning what it's like to be a college athlete.”

But after Hall officially pulled his redshirt, there was no turning back.

Under the tutelage of the blue and white’s coaches and veteran wrestlers, Hall’s immediate success almost seemed inevitable.

“Once I started wrestling, it was natural,” Hall said. “There wasn't really any expectation, it was just to go out and do my thing — and when I do my thing, I usually win wrestling matches.”

Big Ten wrestling tournament, Michael Kemerer winces in pain

Iowa’s Michael Kemerer winces in pain while wrestling Penn State’s Mark Hall in the 174-pound finals at the Big Ten Wrestling tournament at the Rutgers Athletic Center on Sunday, March 8, 2020. Hall won 8-5 by decision.

The former Nittany Lion would go on to become a three-time Big Ten champion, a three-time NCAA team champion and a one-time NCAA individual champion.

While Hall had the privilege of learning under arguably the most successful college wrestler in the sport’s history in Sanderson, it was the lessons he learned about himself that propelled him forward.

During his four years in Happy Valley, the most important lesson he took away had nothing to do with technique or strategy, but rather the idea that success is born from within the individual.

“It's important that the kids learn that even with those opportunities... you got to want to do it yourself,” Hall said. “I can have Coach Cael teach me every technique in the world or set me up with the best trainers in the NCAA to keep me healthy, but if I'm not taking it upon myself to get the things that I want out of wrestling, then it doesn’t really matter.”

Sophomore Aaron Brooks may have bought into that mentality early on in his young career.

The Nittany Lion recently won his first NCAA title at 184 pounds and was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award winner just one season prior.

He was the seventh wrestler who donned the blue and white to receive the honor at the time, an accolade that has since been awarded to his teammate Carter Starocci after his performance this past season.

“I think as a freshman coming in, you can get hit with a lot of things from the outside world and kind of get caught up in that winning and losing mindset or putting pressure on yourself,” Brooks said. “Just making sure that they're relaxed and ready to rock, that's whenever you see our team wrestle at our best.”

Big Ten wrestling tournament, Aaron Brooks celebrates

Penn State’s Aaron Brooks celebrates his win over Michigan State’s Cameron Caffey in the 184-pound finals at the Big Ten Wrestling tournament at the Rutgers Athletic Center on Sunday, March 8, 2020. Brooks won 3-2 by decision.

While Brooks is aware not every Penn State wrestler has seen his level of immediate success, he believes the award speaks more to the program’s prosperity than the individual.

“It's an honor, but I think what it says about the program is that we bring in guys who are ready at a young age,” Brooks said. “They're ready to go when they first come in.

“A lot of these programs, you see guys kind of hit their stride later on in their career, but I think when you come here, our coaches do a great job of just getting you ready right away.”

The maturation of young student-athletes once they arrive at Penn State appears to be a strength for the program — and it’s something the coaching staff is able to take advantage of when bettering the overall level of performance from its athletes.

While what the public sees as a result may be All-Americans and national championships, the life lessons the athletes learn are invaluable.

“There's so much more to life than wrestling,” Hall said. “When you tell someone that there's a lot more to life than just wrestling and you show them the opportunity that's around them outside of just a sport, it makes it really easy to not be nervous and to go seize the opportunity that's in front of them.”

Opening up these young men to new outlooks on life and allowing them to mature into successful adults just might be the key to success that is so alluring over what other programs have to offer.

“The proof’s in the pudding,” Hall said. “They do a really good job of perspective. Freeing up an athlete's mind is dangerous.”

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