Cael Sanderson and the Nittany Lions came out victorious in the Clash of the Titans on Friday night inside the Bryce Jordan Center.
No. 1 Penn State took down its Big Ten rival, No. 2 Iowa, after working around an early deficit and multiple hiccups to hand the Hawkeyes their first dual meet loss of the season.
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“It’s a tough team,” Sanderson said of Iowa. “It’s a well-coached team, and they were ready to go. They’re just good at every weight. I think we wrestled fine. We’ll get better as the season goes on. That’s always the plan.”
Sanderson’s plan for his wrestlers to simply improve their craft in preparation for the NCAA Tournament has carried much success in what is now the veteran’s 14th season at the helm of the Nittany Lions.
Of course, Sanderson already knew a thing or two about winning before coming to Penn State in 2009.
As a wrestler, Sanderson went a remarkable 159-0 in his four years at Iowa State before coaching the Cyclones to three consecutive Big 12 championships.
At Penn State, Sanderson has led the Nittany Lions to nine national team titles and 32 individual NCAA championship winners. He has compiled a 186-16-2 record in dual meets — with Friday’s win over the Hawkeyes marking his 100th career Big Ten victory.
This was another top-tier accomplishment to add to Sanderson’s long list of accolades, and the veteran gave the credit to his wrestlers.
“I’ve been here a long time is what it means,” Sanderson said of the milestone. “I don’t do a whole lot of work. I’m sitting there watching. I didn’t know it was anywhere near that, but it’s not a goal of mine or something that we really focus on. We just go out and compete well, and move on to the next one.”
Penn State’s next bout will be another big test on the road against No. 5 Ohio State on Friday, in what will likely be another packed environment inside the Covelli Center in Columbus.
The Nittany Lions faced the pressure of competing in front of 15,998 fans at a full Bryce Jordan Center, marking Penn State’s 73rd sellout in its last 75 events. The number also tied the NCAA record for the largest indoor attendance, matching the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes’ 2018 meeting in State College.
But, Penn State, which holds nine of the top 10 NCAA indoor attendance records, remained composed.
“That’s wrestling,” Nittany Lions junior Greg Kerkvliet said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s at Bryce Jordan or at the Rec Hall. It’s a cool show, but wrestling is wrestling.”
Kerkvliet, the No. 2 ranked heavyweight and a two-time All-American, capped off Friday’s win with a 4-1 victory over previously unbeaten No. 3 Tony Cassioppi.
The triumph avenged a loss to Cassioppi at last year’s Big Ten championships.
“Everybody likes winning. I just had to relearn how to do that,” Kerkvliet said. “I hate losing. I had to do something mentally, whether it’s change my mentality or my hydration. You have to make the little changes.”
Kerkvliet, now 9-1, will be one of the Nittany Lions’ key pieces moving forward.
Penn State will also have big expectations for true freshman Levi Haines at 157 pounds. Haines officially lost his redshirt status following his 3-2 win over No. 15 Cole Siebrecht, meaning that spot in the lineup is his to lose.
Haines, who has been victorious in 13 of 14 matches, will look to be a spark for the Nittany Lions, the winners in 39 consecutive dual meet matches.
“It was a big win for him,” Sanderson said of Haines. “With his wrestling that match, his redshirt is basically gone, and he’s now the guy we’re going with. He’s always been a part of the team, but he’s now the guy.”