By Stephen Hennessey and Jocelyn Syrstad
Collegian Staff Writer
Bubba Jenkins admits he wasn't even in shape at this point last season.
Each practice, even though the season has not started, has been harder than last year's most difficult practice, redshirt sophomore Clay Steadman said.
The wrestlers were used to training for an extended period of time in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, but not spending a Friday night there for breaking a team rule.
Welcome to the Penn State wrestling team's version of Friday Night Lights.
The itinerary entails sweeping the filth off the practice mats with a broom, cleaning with a mop and running up and down the length of the four giant practice mats, paper towel in hand, to dry the floor that has been the training ground for 98 NCAA All-Americans. After cleaning, wrestlers study in the bleachers of the facility, without any conversation, cell phones or iPods.
"It's something you don't want to get, but it's really easy to get, "freshman wrestler Ed Ruth said. "As soon as you get it, you're like, 'I've got Friday Night Lights.' It's not really a surprise when you get it, it's just that in public school they give you disciplinary actions, but they give you like a strike or a demerit or something to build up to that. But this, you just get it right away. It's like sink or die."
Wrestling legend Cael Sanderson took over for Troy Sunderland as head coach of the Nittany Lion wrestling program in April and Friday Night Lights is part of the no-nonsense culture he has implemented since Day 1.
Jenkins had to attend Friday Night Lights for arriving at a meeting two minutes before it started. Under Sanderson, wrestlers must show up five minutes before any team meeting.
The philosophy isn't only limited to wrestling, either. Junior Christian Harr said coaches now check if the wrestlers are attending their classes by dropping in on a class and doing random visits. If the wrestler isn't there, punishment, usually in the form of Friday Night Lights, will ensue.
New weight training and conditioning coach Shawn Contos thinks the wrestlers were likely comfortable with doing as they wished last year. Attending practice late wasn't as big of a deal. Pushing past that comfort level and believing the sky is the limit doesn't only translate to success in wrestling, but in all aspects of life, he says.
It worked at Iowa State, Sanderson's alma mater and former coaching spot, so the staff ushered in the same philosophy to bring the Penn State wrestling program back to the top of the medal podium at the NCAA Tournament.
"You can only be good at two things in college, and there's three areas: wrestling, academics and social life, "Steadman said, referring to his head coach's words of wisdom.
So far, the wrestlers have heeded the coach's advice.
"Those two [areas] better be wrestling and school, and if they're not, then you're not going to be around this program long, "returning assistant Aaron Anspach said. "Most of the guys that are here, are here because they want to win."
A different mindset
Jenkins applied pressure to Chad Dubin's head, forcing it into the blue wrestling mat. Jenkins, now in his fourth year in the Nittany Lion program, wasn't content with only earning a takedown of the 40-something-year old.
Seconds later, Jenkins turned the man onto his back and kept him there.
Dubin, a short, muscular training partner and former two-time All American who often visits practices, was manhandled and overpowered by Jenkins.
Jenkins, though, has always been about speed. The Virginia Beach native reached the finals of the 149-pound weight class at the 2007 NCAA Tournament with explosiveness and agility comparable to boxer Roy Jones Jr.
Now, though, Jenkins is convinced he can utilize extra muscle on his body. He says he will likely regret adding the weight when it comes time to slim down to his 149-pound weight class.
Still, it's about taking the extra step and winning a national championship. Last year's 0-2 performance at NCAAs is a constant reminder of his goal.
Jenkins' new coach still believes he has the potential to be a national champion and hope his 149-pounder is still hungry.
"To me, nothing is more motivating than losses, "Sanderson said. "I hope that he's motivated to get back in there and get his name back up to the top of the weight class. So far, he's been doing a great job. He's just so talented and things come so naturally for him in all areas. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. He's doing a nice job right now."
Jenkins put on about 10-15 pounds since the end of last season as a result of the demanding weight training program implemented by this year's coaching staff.
Contos, who came over from Iowa State to become Penn State's new strength coach, equates transitioning this team into a "great "team to taking a block of clay and molding it into something special.
The team and the newly-formulated program is set apart by twice-weekly morning practices run by Contos, the strength and conditioning coach, that are designed to keep the wrestlers strong and conditioned year round.
"The intensity is a lot higher, "senior Dan Vallimont said. "Practices are a lot tougher, and they kind of make us feel like we have to have a sense of urgency right now. It's only September, but they're really putting the pressure on us right away, which is good."
Contos compares a wrestling match to a sprint, not a marathon. Accordingly, he has geared the team's training like a match.
The wrestlers lift heavily on Mondays, leaving them sore on Tuesdays. Thursdays are set aside for intense endurance workouts, the details of which Contos would not divulge.
Quentin Wright, an All-American last season as a true freshman, wanted to bulk up this offseason. As a tall and lanky 174-pounder, Wright still finished sixth at NCAAs. With more muscle, he knew he could be more dangerous of a wrestler. He lifted all summer long and showed up noticeably stronger, prepared to wrestle at a higher weight class.
"He's one of the hardest workers I've ever met in my life. This workout is good for him because he feels he's getting stronger and belief in the system and the program is going to help you reach your goals.
Sanderson has also implemented a dress code for every wrestler to follow. Every day, the Lions don blue shorts and gray t-shirts at practice.
The new head coach preaches that the two hours of practice should be their two most highly productive hours of each wrestler's day, assistant coach Casey Cunningham said.
Sanderson has instigated a new philosophy of endurance training. Instead of focusing on sprints and aerobic workouts, practices are more match-based. Work up endurance in a seven-minute match, master that fitness level, and a wrestler will be ready, Anspach said.
"You think you get to this level and you have a good foundation of this stuff, "junior Brad Pataky said, "and you get a new technician and an Olympic gold medalist and you learn a lot of new things. It's great."
Pataky couldn't be happier -- he's wrestling for a coach who he grew up idolizing. But more than that, he's wrestling for a coaching staff that can mold him into a national champion.
He's all ears when one of his coaches instructs him. Wrestling is a hobby, he explained, but it's his favorite hobby. It's simply fun to train for success, Pataky said.
"In the past, and there's nothing wrong with this, we focused more on running and getting shape through training your mind, "Anspach said. "Now the philosophy is we're going to challenge your mind, but we're going to do it through wrestling situations that are going to help our muscle memory and positions and make us better wrestlers."
Cyler Sanderson had a decision to make.
The senior 157-pounder refers to his brothers, Cael and assistant coach Cody, as his heroes. Cyler has idolized them since he was born.
When Cyler's brothers moved from Iowa State to coach at Penn State, he couldn't decide what his best option was. His best friends and teammates for four years and a program that he committed to was a strong pull. Ultimately, his family bond was too strong, and he opted to follow his brothers to Penn State.
"Wrestling is my favorite thing to do in the whole world, and if I can do that with my brothers and my family that makes it even better, "Cyler said. "When it came down to it, family's always first. I don't think I could of wrestled there and not have my brothers there. I want them in my corner."
But coming to Penn State wasn't only about keeping his corner coaches. It was about restoring the glory of the Nittany Lion program.
Steve Sanderson, father of the three new Penn State Sandersons, always told his sons that you "reap what you sow."
That's the mentality it will take to bring the Penn State wrestling program to its peak.
"Penn State is going to be a powerhouse in the near future, "Cyler said. "Cael has brought a lot of enthusiasm to this team. It won't be long before Penn State is winning national championships."
Jenkins equates wrestling for Sanderson to wrestling for Michael Jordan. If the best athlete in a sport is one's coach, he will listen, Jenkins said.
The wrestlers have dedicated themselves to not partying as frequently as they did last year. Steadman doesn't mind -- to achieve his goal of being a national champion, he knows he must adhere to these guidelines.
Weekend nights are often spent playing video games.
"We're finally coming together more as a team as opposed to everyone kind of doing their own thing or having their own things going on, "redshirt sophomore Frank Molinaro said.
Cyler has never been in Rec Hall but has heard the stories of its legacy -- the packed bleachers, fans stacked like sardines, six rows deep around the walkway at the top of the gymnasium.
These fans were passionate about their team. That passion was absent at most home dual meets last season, notably back-to-back weekend dual meets against the top-two ranked programs in the nation, Iowa and Ohio State. The Lions lost both meets by a total of 49 points, and fans exited the gym without emitting energy toward their effort.
The Lions have finished in the top five at the NCAA Tournament 22 times since 1935, but have only won it once, in 1953.
The program's goal is to win a national title. Sanderson says it. Cunningham says it. All the wrestlers say it. It's an overarching goal the team finds more tangible.
Achieving this begins with the attitude of having a fighting team, Cunningham said.
It starts by hiring a national wrestling legend to resurrect a program, bringing in trusted assistants, signing top level recruits and convincing a team of wrestlers they are capable of achieving great things.
"There's obviously a ton of momentum with everything since the transition took place, "assistant coach Matt Dernlan said. "The guys feel it, we feel it, I feel it, everywhere you go there's energy and enthusiasm. You can feel that momentum pushing behind us. That's pretty exciting to feel it and be a part of it."