The Dynasty of Penn State Wrestling

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When sports fans think of dynasties, a few usually come to mind. They think of traditional sports, like Alabama football under Nick Saban, the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick or the Chicago Bulls basketball team under Phil Jackson. After this past weekend, it seems time to add the Penn State wrestling team under Cael Sanderson to that list. 

The end of the wrestling season happened this past weekend with the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Penn State dominated. With their tournament win on Saturday morning, the Nittany Lions have clinched 10 national championships in the past 12 contested NCAA tournaments (the NCAA canceled the 2020 season due to the pandemic). Adding to that is the success of individual wrestlers — including Roman Bravo-Young, Aaron Brooks, Nick Lee and Bo Nickal — who have not only helped Penn State with its dynasty but have created dynasties of their own. 

So what makes a sports dynasty? Essentially a dynasty develops when a team or individual dominates a specific sport for long periods of time. Not only do these teams win a lot (and I mean winning three or more titles in a row), but they are also characterized by having some superstar talent, consistency in the sport and memorable characters. With that criterion in mind, it’s clear that Penn State wrestling makes the cut, especially after this weekend’s big wins.

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During the NCAA finals, the Nittany Lions won two individual championships (Carter Starocci won the 174-pound title and Aaron Brooks won the 184-pound). The team also had three National Runners-Up (Levi Haines in the 157-pound, Greg Kerkvliet in the 285-pound and Roman Bravo-Young in the 133-pound). Penn State was, however, able to clinch the team title early in the medal rounds, earning the championship with nearly two full rounds remaining in the three-day tournament. The team won the team title with 137.5 points, fully 55.0 points ahead of the second-place winners, Iowa. This margin of victory alone is the largest in Penn State history and the fifth-largest in NCAA history for any title winner.

The title marked the tenth win for the wrestling team since coach Cael Sanderson’s arrival in Happy Valley before the 2009-2010 season. Since his start in 2011, Penn State has a 34-16 record in national finals, which is a .680 win percentage. Sanderson has also led many of his wrestlers to victory. Since his first season as head coach, Penn State has won 32 individual NCAA titles — that’s nearly one-third of all individual championships. He has also coached 75 All-Americans during his time at Penn State. 

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Going back to the beginning, the arrival of Cael Sanderson before the 2009-2010 season changed the trajectory of Penn State wrestling forever. In his first year, Sanderson quickly turned things around for the team, improving their performance in the Big 10 and NCAA tournaments that year. In 2011, Sanderson coached the team to a Big Ten Tournament win, becoming the first of many conferences or NCAA titles he would win in the coming years. The 2011-2012 season marked an explosive time for the team and offered the first glimpse of what was to come. The team won its second consecutive national title and crowned three individual national champions (Frank Molinaro, David Taylor and Ed Ruth). The team extended its title wins to four consecutive years before coming in sixth during the 2015 season. Don’t count them out just yet, though, because, from 2016-2019, the team made another consecutive run for four titles. These years introduced us to Bo Nickals, who would go on to become a Penn State star in his own right. After the NCAA canceled the 2020 season due to COVID-19, the Nittany Lions came ready for a fight but narrowly lost the championship to the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2021. But in 2022, the dynasty continued its hold, as the team won its ninth national championship under Sanderson and put five individual wrestlers on top of the podium for the win. 

When you hold 10 out of the past 12 contested championships, have a coach that has been dedicated to the team for more than a decade and a long list of past alum who have won every title you can think of, it’s easy to recruit up-and-coming wrestlers to your program, and that’s exactly what Sanderson has done. Penn State has ranked in the top recruiting classes almost every year since Sanderson has been head coach. With that, it’s not hard to see why — and how — they continue to win year after year. 

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The Cael Sanderson era at Penn State has ushered in new expectations for the wrestling program. Since his arrival, he has turned the program into one of the best in the country, bringing in a wave of championships, title winners, expectations and a lot of success. With Sanderson on track to become one of the best wrestling coaches of all time — and with several recruiting classes bringing in some of the best in the country to help him out — only time will tell what Penn State wrestling will turn into, and just how long the dynasty will continue. 

What are your thoughts on Cael Sanderson and the Penn State wrestling team? Tweet us @VALLEYMag with your favorite moments from the dynasty!


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