Penn State setting pace for Hawkeyes — and NCAA wrestling, too

Chris Cuellar

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tom Brands took more time than he was comfortable with when complimenting No. 2 Penn State and the popular face of its program.

Iowa’s head coach happily discussed this week his respect for Cael Sanderson, how their wrestling philosophies were similar and what the former Iowa State legend has done to lead the Nittany Lions (7-0) to five of the past six national championships.

But the Hawkeyes (7-1) have no intention of standing aside in the chase for Big Ten Conference and NCAA gold. Their first chance to catch Penn State this season comes at 8 p.m. Friday in Carver-Hawkeye Arena (televised on Big Ten Network).

Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, a former Iowa State wrestler and coach, at the 2012 NCAA wrestling championships in St. Louis with Iowa wresting coach Tom Brands sitting nearby. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Register)

“When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to a camp, and there were coaches at the camp that coached college,” Brands said. “They were repeatedly saying that wrestling is being ruined by Dan Gable. Now, you hear the argument that Penn State is making wrestling boring.

“’It’s a pre-determined this, or a pre-determined that.’ Ask (Oklahoma State coach) John Smith what he thinks about that. Actually, it’s good for wrestling. It’s a barometer. You know they’re going to have guys that wrestle hard. We want to do that, too. We have guys that wrestle hard. One way or another, something is going to break. And we want to be in that conversation.”

Fourth-ranked Iowa is coming off a 24-11 loss at top-ranked Oklahoma State on Sunday, with an opportunity for a quick turnaround in front of its home crowd.

That’s a potentially important advantage in a dual likely featuring seven matches between wrestlers ranked in TrackWrestling’s top 20. It will certainly measure the Hawkeyes’ mettle as they try to continue a streak of 24 consecutive Big Ten dual victories.

“Our guys are gamers, and they come to Penn State because they want to wrestle in front of big crowds,” Sanderson said Wednesday on Penn State’s weekly Coaches Show. “Iowa has a great crowd, and they get into the matches and they know the sport. You’ve got to go out there and take care of business. We try to recruit the kids that are motivated by an opportunity like this.”

The Hawkeyes won the most recent meeting between the two powerhouses in 2015, which happens to be the only season since 2008 in which neither Iowa nor Penn State won the national title.

None of the matches from that February night in State College, Pa., is likely to be repeated on Friday. Yet Penn State’s competitiveness continues to push Iowa — and thus, the rest of NCAA wrestling’s elite teams — along each year.

“There’s nothing wrong with a perennial power,” Brands said. “There’s nothing wrong with a high-level mentality and a winner that’s consistent, consistent, consistent.

“Cael Sanderson did it right and it’s along my way of thinking as well. I’ve said it for years: Fans will come and show up when you have an entertaining product.”

Like Brands, Sanderson claimed a national championship in his second season as a Big Ten head coach. But where Iowa’s title streak lasted three tournaments, Penn State’s ran for four and picked back up with an undefeated 2015-16 season.

They both helped Team USA at the 2016 Olympics. They talk similarly — Sanderson uttered, “We like our guys,” while breaking down his lineup Wednesday — and have even recruited the same kids in the same areas recently.

Their conference coexistence is less a rivalry and more a motivational tool for both programs.

“We were in Rio together, and there was a mountain with monkeys in there and there was a rainforest, and we went hiking together,” Brands said. “Me, him and one of his assistants. It’s not like a hate, there. We’re really about the (same thing), when it comes to what wrestling needs.

“It’s not complicated. Go out there and kick people’s butts and be entertaining about it. Maybe we have different ways of doing that. He’s more soft-spoken or whatever, but ... we’re after the same thing.”

And like the coach who will sit across from him on a black mat Friday night, Sanderson thinks a competitive dual between top-ranked teams can say more for college wrestling than any hyperbolic words.

“You don’t have to tell a competitor, ‘Hey, this is a great school with a lot of history and we want to beat these guys.’” Sanderson said. “They know that.

“It’s like any other match. That’s not true, because it’s a big match. We get that, I get that — I came from Iowa State and we wanted to beat those guys worse than anything and we never did. But they know what’s on the line.”

Marquee matchups that will probably play out again in March blanket the lineup sheets.

Iowa's Brandon Sorensen wrestles Penn State's Zain Retherford during their NCAA championship bout on Saturday, March 19, 2016 in New York City, New York. Retherford would go on to win 10-1.

Starting at the top, Penn State’s Nick Suriano and Iowa’s Thomas Gilman will put their unbeaten records and No. 3 and No. 1 ratings on the line at 125 pounds. And 149 features a rematch of last year’s national final between Penn State’s winner, Zain Retherford, and Iowa’s runner-up, Brandon Sorensen.

“It’s big to bring that title back to Iowa City,” Sorensen said. “Not just this dual, but the overall NCAA title. That’s not just Penn State, that means everybody.”

A No. 1 vs. No. 2 tilt is after that at 157, with Penn State star sophomore Jason Nolf battling impressive Iowa redshirt freshman Michael Kemerer. There will be ranked wrestlers in matches the rest of the way for a huge crowd at Carver-Hawkeye.

“Their fans are rowdy,” Retherford told media in State College, Pa., on Tuesday. “(The young guys) just need to focus on keeping their emotions in check. That’s the biggest thing.”

The Hawkeyes hope to do the same thing. It may prove difficult, considering Penn State is the team being chased.

“The respect is there, and I think it’s mutual,” Brands said. “But at the same time, we’re after the same thing.”


NO. 2 PENN STATE (7-0) at NO. 4 IOWA (7-1)

125 pounds—No. 3 Nick Suriano (11-0) vs. No. 1 Thomas Gilman (17-0)

133—George Carpenter (1-7) vs. No. 3 Cory Clark (9-1)

141—No. 13 Jimmy Gulibon (7-6) vs. No. 11 Topher Carton (17-3)

149—No. 1 Zain Retherford (12-0) vs. No. 3 Brandon Sorensen (17-1)

157—No. 1 Jason Nolf (12-0) vs. No. 2 Michael Kemerer (19-0)

165—No. 4 Vincenzo Joseph (10-1) vs. Joey Gunther (12-3) OR Skyler St. John (5-3)

174—No. 13 Geno Morelli (10-1) OR Shakur Rasheed (5-1) vs. No. 11 Alex Meyer (14-4)

184—No. 2 Bo Nickal (11-0) vs. No. 4 Sammy Brooks (16-1)

197—No. 8 Matt McCutcheon (9-2) vs. Cash Wilcke (11-5)

285—No. 4 Nick Nevills (11-0) vs. No. 9 Sam Stoll (7-2)


WHERE: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City

WHEN: 8 p.m.