Penn State Wrestling vs Maryland, Lee

Nick Lee wrestles Maryland’s Danny Bertoni during Penn State wrestling’s dual meet against the University of Maryland in Rec Hall on Feb. 22, 2021.

It was not widely believed Penn State would eventually have four wrestlers crowned national champions at the conclusion of Saturday’s NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

While all of the four Nittany Lions displayed why they are some of the best in the sport, there was another factor that helped land them at the top.

Cael Sanderson and his coaching staff have been a constant in a season filled with uncertainty, something that did not change in Saturday night’s championship rounds.

Nick Lee, who won his first national title, has been in the Penn State wrestling room for four years now and credits the coaching staff for much of his success.

“What I can say is [Cael Sanderson is] the best coach out there,” Lee said. “Especially with coach Cody [Sanderson], Coach [Jake] Varner, Coach Casey [Cunningham], I have the best coaching staff ever."

Carter Starocci has not quite had the same amount of time with Sanderson and the rest of the staff, but he is well aware of how important they all are to the success of the team.

The redshirt freshman defeated Michael Kemerer in sudden victory to earn his first national title in his first official season.

“I said yesterday that I am the best, because I am and that’s what I believe,” Starocci said. “It’s a big credit to our coaches. We have the best coaches in the corner.

“When I had to dig deep in my match, I looked at my corner. I feel like that’s a lot of energy and power in itself right there.”

While Sanderson’s staff members — all former college wrestlers — have seen their fair share of success at the collegiate level, they are not the ones physically wrestling in matches anymore.

With that being said, their job as coaches may be just as demanding.

“I have to work every day, our staff has to work every day and we have to do everything that we're asking [the athletes] to do and more,” Sanderson said. “We have to be the hardest working people in the program and just make sure they have what they need to be successful.”

2019 Division 1 NCAA Wrestling Championships

Head coach Cael Sanderson watches a match at the 2019 Division I NCAA Wrestling Championships at the PPG Paints Arena on Friday, March 22.

That method has certainly proven to be effective. Since taking over the program in 2010, the Penn State coaching staff has produced eight team national championships and 27 individual national champions.

“That's what we try to do,” Sanderson said. “We've got to have the right attitude as coaches — we have to have our heart and our minds set on the right things. Coaching's tough.”

With Penn State’s track record of success, Sanderson is able to recruit the nation’s top high school talents to come to Happy Valley.

Once those wrestlers are in the building, it’s the coaching staff’s job to further their abilities. However, Sanderson believes that backing those athletes in all their endeavors and in life is just as important.

“When you're a student-athlete, you're out there just having a good time attacking your goals, at least you should be,” Sanderson said. “As a staff, we work really hard to make sure we get out of these kids' way and just support them."

Starocci understands this and realizes just how special the staff is at Penn State.

“I feel like they all make a big impact on me,” Starocci said. “When I watch our coaches, how they deal with their wives, how they deal with us and other people, I sit there and think to myself, ‘Jeez, these are some good people.’

“Off the mat, too, you’re not going to find too many people that are like those guys. They’ll do anything for us.”

Aaron Brooks, who also won his first national title at this year’s NCAA Tournament, has seen as much success as any young wrestler can hope to in just two seasons. The 184-pounder is already a two-time Big Ten champion, two-time All-American and now a national champion as well.

Since arriving at Penn State, Sanderson and his team have helped Brooks understand that wrestling is just a small piece to a much larger puzzle.

“I’m extremely blessed to be a part of this team and this program. Outside of wrestling, our coaches are mentors and life coaches as well,” Brooks said. “It's bigger than just wrestling. When you come to Penn State, you realize it's more than that. When you think that way, you honestly wrestle better because it is just wrestling at the end of the day.

“But this program, it's more than that.”


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