UNIVERSITY PARK — Jordan Conaway’s future was set. Then it all came crashing down.
The former New Oxford High School wrestling star — the Colonials’ all-time wins leader — committed during his senior high school season to wrestle for Liberty University. After he went on a 38-3 run and won a PIAA championship handily at 112 pounds, Conaway got a phone call from Liberty coach Jesse Castro that changed everything.
Liberty was dropping its wrestling program to a club-level sport. In mere minutes, Conaway had lost his scholarship and the chance to compete for a Division-I team.
Until Cael Sanderson called.
Now, two years later, Conaway — who walked onto the Penn State team at Sanderson’s beckoning — has earned a new scholarship and a fresh opportunity to step into the starting spot at 133 pounds for the two-time defending national champion.
“We knew he’d be a guy that would be in the lineup,” Sanderson said.
After Conaway beat Evan Silver, a four-time New Jersey state champion and the country’s top-ranked recruit at 112 pounds at the 2011 Dapper Dan Classic, Sanderson was sold on the soft-spoken New Oxford graduate.
“Even after he’d signed there, I think throughout that year he really came out and continued to improve,” Sanderson said. “Seeing him in the state championship, he beat some very good kids and you could just see the look in his eye, and the composure and the poise he showed out there. And then in the Dapper Dan against the nation’s best guy, he was legit.”
Conaway, who has added a few pounds to his slight frame by spending copious amounts of time inside the team’s weight room in the offseason, earned the chance to start with an impressive performance at last week’s intrasquad dual.
Wrestling in the season’s first bout, Conaway got the better of Frank Martellotti, winning a 5-1 decision that featured a pinpoint single-leg takedown and rideout of the bigger wrestler in the first period.
“I’ve definitely gotten stronger since last year, so I feel better wrestling the kids in the room that are a little bigger than me. So that definitely helped out,” Conaway said. “I’m still a little undersized but I think strengthwise, I think I’m a lot better than last year.”
But Conaway hasn’t sacrificed any of his most notable attribute, one that gave him a nearly constant advantage over his high school adversaries — speed.
He popped up out from under Martellotti quickly to start their second period at wrestle-offs and immediately went back on the offensive, landing another single leg to put the bout against the more experienced Martellotti away early.
“He was very slick and technically very quick,” Sanderson said. “When you’re wrestling a guy like Martellotti, you’ve got to finish quickly or you end up in a stalemate. That’s been something that he’s obviously adjusted to.”
And with a year on campus combined with a season spent wrestling unattached, the quiet, composed Conaway has adjusted to college life and wrestling.
He went 11-5 in open tournaments last season with a pin and two technical falls.
“I think I’m a little bit more physical and I guess I’m wrestling tougher,” Conaway said. “Wrestling through every position, it’s a lot tougher (in college). I think I’ve definitely gotten better in those aspects, especially being here a year and redshirting.”
While Conaway’s quick progress during his redshirt season couldn’t be gleaned from inside of Rec Hall — he has yet to make his on-campus debut in a bout against a non-Nittany Lion opponent — his standing as one of the team’s more prized reserves was evident late in the season.
Sanderson and the rest of the coaching staff decided they’d bring Conaway with them as a workout partner for Martellotti and eventual NCAA runner-up Nico Megaludis to the Big Ten tournament in West Lafayette, Ind. Conaway joined the Nittany Lions again in St. Louis for the NCAA tournament.
“That’s why we took him to those tournaments last year because we wanted him to get a feel for the environment and being around it,” Sanderson said. “We wanted him to get a feel and kind of know what he’s preparing for.”
Two years ago, Conaway felt unprepared and was unsure of his future.
When Liberty dropped its program, he thought he’d have to start from scratch. It gnawed at him that he wouldn’t be able to compete for his dream school, an opportunity that the deeply religious Conaway coveted from early on in the recruiting process.
Either way, Conaway has found a new home and a new opportunity for himself in Happy Valley.
“I didn’t understand why God would close that door and then open up this one,” Conaway said. “Wrestlingwise, it’s been for the better. Spiritually, too. Just because I didn’t go to a Christian school it doesn’t mean I’m falling away. I’ve found things to do here. So yeah, I think it’s been a blessing in disguise.”