The Penn State White Out is best known for football, but it’s a great asset to the wrestling program as well.
At halftime of Penn State’s 31-0 White Out win over Iowa Saturday, Penn State honored its wrestling team, which is six months removed from its 10th national championship in 12 years under Cael Sanderson.
In doing that, the school honored both its past and present, as many members of that national title team are still competing and looking to help Penn State win its next championship this coming season.
It turns out that White Out weekend helped Penn State wrestling’s future, too. It was the weekend the No. 1 wrestling recruit in the 2025 Class took his official visit to Penn State. It was the weekend PJ Duke decided he wanted to join Sanderson’s empire.
Duke, a Minisink Valley, New York, product, spent Saturday night surrounded by 110,830+ people in Beaver Stadium and spent the game standing on the field while his family sat with Penn State’s wrestling coaches.
But when Duke told Sanderson his decision to commit, the only people on hand were the coach, the recruit and the recruit’s family inside Sanderson’s office.
When Duke told Sanderson the good news, he sensed how happy his future coach was.
“I think he tried not to show his emotions too much,” Duke told Nittany Sports Now, “but I think he was pretty excited.”
Sanderson, Penn State and its fans have a lot to be excited about.
Duke is the youngest New York state champion in history, winning the title as seventh-grader. He’s also a Fargo and Super 32 champion– two prestigious high school showcases. Helping Duke get to this level of dominance was a man who assisted multiple Penn State wrestling greats: Khaled Dassan.
Better known as “KD”, Dassan and Duke first got to know each other when Dassan was in high school and PJ in elementary school, wrestling at the same club.
When Dassan opened the KD Training Center in March 2022, Duke followed.
KD describes PJ to NSN as “tough,” “gritty,” “disciplined” and “self-motivated.”
Dassan sees traits of one of Sanderson’s greatest wrestlers.
“I think he’s very similar to a guy like Jason Nolf,” Dassan said, “someone we watched when he was coming up. He happens to be a Penn State guy… I honestly believe that PJ’s very similar to him in that way (offense), where he’s a guy who likes to score a lot of points and is just determined.”
Those words should excite Penn State fans. Nolf was a three-time national champion and four-time NCAA finalist at Penn State. But these words could be even more exciting.
“I would even say he’s similar to even a Cael Sanderson,” Dassan said. “Someone who attacks the body and that type of deal.”
Through Dassan and the KD Training Center, Duke has built friendships with Penn State legends Roman Bravo-Young, a two-time national champ and four-time All-American, and Aaron Brooks, a three-time champ who will be going for four this season assuming he uses his last year of eligibility.
Those relationships helped Duke decide Penn State was the place for him.
Of course, Sanderson didn’t hurt the cause, either.
“It was definitely pretty cool having one of the best wrestlers (of all time) calling your phone trying to recruit you to their school,” Duke said. “It was definitely just a cool opportunity that I’m grateful for, and I couldn’t have done it without KD and my family. It was just a really cool experience overall.”
“A lot of these coaches are salesmen, so they have their sales pitch. What I noticed about Cael is just, he’s just a super genuine person, super humble. If you talk to him, you wouldn’t even know how good he is without looking him up. I just think Penn State wrestling speaks for itself and there’s just been so many good wrestlers coming out of the program, it’s hard to argue against it.”
Any wrestling program in the country would have loved to have Duke, and Duke said he wasn’t sure where he wanted to go to school before his official visit to Penn State.
But being in the wrestling room and seeing guys like Nolf, Kyle Snyder and Kyle Dake, made an impression on him.
Snyder wrestled at Ohio State, and Dake at Cornell, but both are members of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, and those two, along with Nolf, went out of their way to approach Duke.
“They’re all so humble,” Duke said, “and they all came up to me and approached me. It was super cool just to see that. I thought in my head, ‘How good can I get with these guys as my partners and these guys coaching me'”?
Duke describes himself as “determined” with “the will to be the best at whatever I do.”
“I’m pretty competitive,” he said, “so whatever I do, I try to be the best at. As best as I can possibly be if that’s wrestling or whatever (else).”
Duke also enjoys fishing and says he’s “pretty good at eating.”
He credits this determination to his parents.
“I think the biggest thing they taught me is just how to work hard,” Duke said. “My dad always pushed me past my limits since I was (at) a young age, so now I’m just so used to working hard.”
Duke credits Dassan for his success as well, describing him as somebody who’s “always there for me no matter what.”
“There’s not one thing I’d ask him to do that he wouldn’t do,” Duke said. “I think just being so loyal to me and really just helping me through the years, in really just every way possible. I’m really grateful for that.”
Overall, Dassan sees Duke as a guy who can be a world champion, an Olympic champion and a four-time NCAA champ– the latter of which being something only Sanderson and four other wrestlers in history have done.
“He has the capability to do so,” Dassan said. “It’s not an easy feat, but it’s something that I believe he can accomplish. Especially in a room like that (Penn State’s) with those types of coaches, it definitely makes things I think a bit easier. He’ll still have to do the work, but it definitely doesn’t hurt to have those types of partners and those types of coaches in the room with you every day.”
Duke grew up watching guys like Nolf, the current Pan American Champion at 79 KG, and fellow Penn State great Zain Retherford, who won two Hodge Trophies in college and has been a World and Pan American champion. He’s also admired guys such as Dake (another four-time national champ and four-time/reigning world champion) and Vito Arujau, who won a national title for Cornell this past March and is the reigning World Champion at 61 KG.
Whenever he’s done with wrestling, Duke wants to be known as somebody cut from the same cloth.
“That’s the plan,” he said. “Just be like them and win world titles.”