UNIVERSITY PARK — Not much has changed for James English or James Vollrath in the multiple years each has spent in the Penn State wrestling program.
English, a fifth-year senior, and Vollrath, a redshirt junior, have approached every wrestling season the same way. Each time either has stepped inside Penn State’s Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, they’ve done so with the intent to improve, challenge for starting spots and eventually chase national championships.
Now, both have opportunities to turn those aspirations into reality.
After successful Southern Scuffle runs in which Vollrath nearly won the 157-pound title and English finished third at 149 pounds, both can expect a full workload indefinitely.
Starters Andrew and Dylan Alton are currently serving a suspension after they were cited for their roles in an altercation over the team’s holiday break. Before his team’s practice on Tuesday, Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said the Altons would remain out of competition for a month, dating the suspension from the incident that occured on Dec. 22.
Sanderson indicated the Altons will have to earn their way back into the starting lineup after the suspension ends.
In the meantime, Sanderson has confidence English and Vollrath can handle the Nittany Lions’ upcoming dual-meet slate which includes home duals against Michigan State (Jan. 14), Wisconsin (Jan. 18), No. 17 Nebraska (Jan. 27) and a trip to No. 21 Purdue (Jan. 20).
English, who has missed large stretches of his career with multiple injuries, was granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA earlier this month and has routinely displayed an ability to grind throughout his career. He filled in for Andrew Alton when the latter was injured earlier this season and didn’t cause the No. 1 Nittany Lions any hiccups. English went 7-1 (2-0 duals) before the Scuffle. All-in-all English is 43-13 over an injury-plagued career including a 13-2 mark so far this season.
“I’ve gotten in a ton of matches this year, I think I’ve got 15 matches so far. It hasn’t really affected me,” English said of swapping in and out of the lineup. “I’m just coming in with the same attitude every day. My goal is to be a national champ so that’s how I come in and train every day.”
Vollrath has adopted the same outlook. Being a reserve wrestler for much of his three-plus year career in which he’s wrestled in just three dual meets and one Big Ten tournament hasn’t deterred him.
“It’s always frustrating to be the second guy but when I do get the opportunity to come in and help out Penn State, that’s what I’m here for,” Vollrath said. “I could go to other schools and wrestle anywhere else, but I chose to be here because I love Penn State and it’s the best program in the country.”
Sparring with such vaunted wrestlers as the Altons, David Taylor, former Nittany Lion Frank Molinaro and others who enter the practice domain of the two-time defending national champions has helped both English and Vollrath keep their edge.
Neither disappointed at the Scuffle, a tournament regarded as the nation’s toughest next to the NCAA Tournament in March.
English racked up 18.5 team points for the Lions with a pin and four decision wins in which he outscored his opponents 21-7. In his lone loss, English prevented No. 1 Jordan Oliver of Oklahoma State from getting bonus points in a 12-6 decision.
Vollrath, who won the East Stroudsburg Open earlier this saeson, excelled in the 157-pound bracket, scoring 19 team points and making it all the way to the finals with two major decisions and two gritty decision wins. He edged No. 8 Alex Dieringer of Oklahoma State 2-1 in a tiebreak period in the semis.
Vollrath eventually lost to Virginia’s No. 14 Jedd Moore in sudden victory in the finals.
After the Scuffle, assistant coach Casey Cunningham noted their performances as what the coaching staff expected of English and Vollrath. He echoed Sanderson’s confidence in both wrestlers moving forward.
For English, his confidence has always been high at 149 pounds — the weight he’s always competed at since arriving at Penn State. Vollrath on the other hand has had some adjusting to do this season. He began his career in Happy Valley at 157 but moved up to 165 pounds toward the end of the 2010-11 season. Last season Vollrath wrestled 16 bouts at 157 pounds.
“I was struggling early in the year but now my weight is where I want it to be and I’m starting to feel better,” Vollrath said of his weight-cutting process. “My conditioning is starting to come around. So I feel pretty good.”
While English and Vollrath handle dual duties for Penn State over the next month, the Altons will continue to work out with the team. They cannot compete unless they do so on their own in open tournaments, unattached and at their own expenses.
The twin brothers did travel with the team to Chattanooga and were able to watch their teammates win their third straight Southern Scuffle crown.
“It was hard watching. You always want to be out there wrestling and competing,” Dylan Alton said. “Overall, I was proud of my teammates and they wrestled real well and came out on top.”
After returning from Chattanooga, the Altons entered the Franklin and Marshall Open and easily won titles at 149 and 157.
Whether or not either will be able to work their way back into the lineup could depend on multiple factors as the second half of the season unfolds. English said he expects to wrestle-off with Andrew Alton when the suspension is lifted.
“That’s all up to Coach Cael,” Dylan Alton said. “It’s all in his hands.”