When they return home Sunday evening, Penn State wrestlers will have spent nearly 15 hours on a bus and covered almost 920 miles on a road trip through Ann Arbor and East Lansing, Michigan.
These types of treks are nothing out of the ordinary for Penn State’s Kade Moss. The redshirt freshman 141-pounder is used to spending time away from home. He’s still getting used to the grind of a college wrestling season, however.
Moss — who spent two years on a religious mission in Mexico City and redshirted last season — is still getting his legs back under him. His next opportunity will come Friday when the No. 5 Nittany Lions (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) take on the No. 16 Michigan Wolverines (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) at Cliff Keen Arena at 7 p.m.
“I took basically three years off after high school,” Moss said before Penn State’s practice Tuesday. “So it took a while to get back into shape where I can push the pace the whole seven minutes.”
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The South Jordan, Utah native came to Penn State used to success. He went 142-14 at Bingham High School and won four state titles before leaving for his missionary work with the Mormon Church. When he returned, Moss, who spent two years living among nearly 22 million people in Mexico City, had grown used to day-to-day life in the sprawling metropolis. He had an invite to Penn State’s University Park Campus waiting for him. Moss originally committed to Boise State in 2010.
When Moss visited State College, reality differed from his perceptions.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a small sort of town,” Moss said. “When you think of Penn State, I thought it was going to be a big town. But I love it. It’s got a really home sort of feel. Classes are great. I’ve got awesome teammates. I call it home.”
And Moss said he feels like he’s well through the adjustment phase. Now it’s a matter of dialing in his abilities and catching up with the rest of the 141-pound field. Most of them didn’t take the time away from the sport Moss did.
Like his teammate Matt Brown who did a two-year mission in Africa, Moss had no personal trainer, no exercise equipment, no free weights and no coaches in his ear in Mexico. Brown dug ditches and wells to stay in shape. Moss, who performed similar services on his mission, had to make the most of his time to stay in shape.
“I don’t think it’s an advantage by any means,” Sanderson said of athletes-turned-missionaries. “At the Rutgers match a guy kept yelling something about being a 30-year-old at Brown when he was wrestling.”
Brown is actually 25. Moss is 22.
While maybe he didn’t gain any athletic advantage and instead sacrificed two years of wrestling, Moss believes his missionary work gave him a mental edge heading into college.
“It’s an eye-opener,” Moss said. “Really, one thing that I came away with from there was gratitude for the blessings that I have in my life. I’m grateful for this opportunity to wrestle here, to get an education, to have this good life. It was a huge character-builder. It was a different level of toughness. It wasn’t just physical toughness that you get in wrestling. It was mental and it really helped a lot.”
Moss knows the physical aspect will come in time. So does Sanderson.
Up next is another matchup with a ranked opponent. Moss will likely face Michigan’s No. 17 George Fisher on Friday.
“When you see Kade, he’s getting his conditioning back, he’s getting his timing back, his strength back,” Sanderson said. “It’s a lot to say, ‘Hey, come in here and wrestle as a freshman at this school and with our schedule but I think he’s doing a great job and they come back, they’re a little more mentally and physically mature. They’ve taken care of themselves for two years and been responsible for themselves for two years. So it’s a good thing.”
Moss was originally committed to Boise State. But his interest in Penn State was piqued by an old friend who helped lead the Nittany Lions to the national spotlight for four straight seasons. Moss grew up wrestling with former Penn State great David Taylor.
Taylor and his family lived about two hours away in Wyoming and both Moss and Taylor wrestled for the Treehouse Athletic Club in Draper, Utah. Taylor would make the drive with his parents almost every day to wrestle with other club members.
“He always kicked my butt but it was good for me,” Moss said. “I remember going to a tournament once with David when we were little and they came on the intercom before we started wrestling and they said, ‘Parents, no need to worry, David Taylor will not be wrestling in this tournament.’ Because parents were mad that David was there. We were like 12 or 11 and he would just beat up on these kids and they didn’t like us there at the tournament.”
Sanderson is hoping Penn State can get back to whipping opponents this weekend.
Michigan has a solid team with seven ranked wrestlers expected to be in action.
“On paper, they’re favored in the majority of the weight classes so we’re excited about that,” Sanderson said. “It seems like we’re at Michigan every year, though. We were there last year, the year before. It’s just how it works out.”
Expect battles between ranked opponents at five weight classes. Penn State’s No. 9 Jimmy Gulibon will likely face No. 8 Rossi Bruno at 133 pounds while No. 18 Zack Beitz is expected to meet Michigan’s No. 9 Alex Pantaleo at 149. At 184 pounds, Penn State’s No. 17 Matt McCutcheon will get a shot at No. 10 Domenic Abounader. Penn State’s No. 5 Morgan McIntosh will likely face No. 8 Max Huntley at 197 and No. 6 Jimmy Lawson is expected to wrestle No. 7 Adam Coon at 285.
“They have a nice little intimate atmosphere there, the Cliff Keen Arena,” Sanderson said. “It’s a great place to wrestle. They have a good team so we’re definitely excited about it.”
No. 8 Jordan Conaway (125), Garett Hammond (165) and No. 3 Brown (174) will also wrestle for Penn State. The Nittany Lions will use either No. 8 Dylan Alton or Cody Law at 157. Michigan’s lineup likely will include Conor Youtsey (125), No. 13 Brian Murphy (157), Taylor Massa (165) and Jake Salazar (174).