UNIVERSITY PARK — In the wide corridor that leads to the entrance of Penn State’s Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, there’s a lit display featuring the names and faces of all the grapplers who have come through the program and reached the elusive 100-win mark.
Just inside the room, where it’s noticeably hotter and reeks of sweat, and pop music pumping through the wide-open space, Quentin Wright is caught in a mad scramble with Les Sigman.
Sigman isn’t a typical collegiate foe. He’s a former U.S. National Team member, a former U.S. Open champ who made a post-college career out of battering some of the best opponents the international circuit had to offer.
Wright isn’t your average college wrestler. The three-time All-American from just up the road in Wingate has made a career of wowing his loyal fans inside Rec Hall. He’s tasted ultimate victory, having won a national title two years ago. He’s felt the sting of a most crushing loss in last season’s NCAA finals, where he finished as runner-up to childhood friend, Steve Bosak.
“Q,” as his friends and teammates call him, will tell you, his ultimate goal this season is to return to the top of the podium at NCAAs. Anything less would be a letdown for him. He’s got plenty of time to prepare. The NCAA tournament awaits in March. Right now, Wright is readying for his next match, and with 99 wins on his resume, a chance to join those who came before him inside the 100-wins club display.
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Imagine the predicament of Jackson Hein, or whoever the No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers (6-2, 3-0 Big Ten) send to the mat at 197 pounds on Friday.
Not only will Hein, ranked No. 20 with a 14-4 record, be tasked with trying to beat a more experienced wrestler in Wright (15-0), he’ll be up against a rabid, sold-out crowd hungry to see their hometown man get his 100th win.
“Quentin probably gets the loudest response when his name is announced at matches,” former Penn State wrestler Mark McKnight said. “People have watched this kid from the time he was in elementary, to high school, all the way up to college.”
They haven’t had to go very far.
Wright, who went 39-0 with 27 pins as a senior at Bald Eagle Area, won the 165-pound title at the Nittany Lion Open as a high schooler. McKnight, then a senior 125-pounder for the Nittany Lions, wasn’t surprised.
He first got wind of the then-lanky Wright when the BEA wrestler would come and work out with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. McKnight had grown up wrestling with Wright’s older brother, Landis, and soon got his hands on the younger Wright.
“The next thing I know, I’m wrestling this high school wrestler who’s trying to throw me and I’m trying to throw him,” McKnight said. “That’s when I opened my eyes and realized who Quentin was, and what he was capable of.”
As Wright’s high school career came to an end, it was at an uncertain time for the Nittany Lion program. With the exception of a second-place finish in 1993, Penn State hadn’t come close to winning an NCAA championship since 1953, despite the droves of talent within the state. Time and time again, Penn State fans had watched as talented Pennsylvania wrestlers made their way out of Pennsylvania.
Waynesburg’s Coleman Scott headed to Oklahoma State. North Allegheny’s Jake Herbert made tracks for Northwestern. Loyalsock’s Chris Fleeger headed to Purdue. Greensburg Salem’s Donnie Jones donned a West Virginia singlet.
When vaunted recruits stayed in-state, they headed east or west. Troy Letters made a name for himself at Lehigh. Joey Eckloff enrolled at Pittsburgh.
Wright, rated as a five-star recruit by InterMat and the No. 12 recruit at any weight in the country, signed with Penn State.
“That was one of the criticisms of the old Penn State, was all these top recruits from Pennsylvania were leaving and they were going to other schools and they’re becoming All-Americans and national champions for other schools,” McKnight said. “I think that was one of the reasons why, there were tons of them, but when Cael (Sanderson) came in, one of the huge draws was to keep these Pa. boys in Pennsylvania, wrestling for Penn State. Quentin was one of the frontrunners for doing that.”
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While Sanderson’s hiring gave Penn State a leg-up in in-state recruiting battles with the name recognition the Olympic champ brought to the program, he and his assistants inherited a program that had talent to build on.
New Jersey star Frank Molinaro was here, so was Wright, who was coming off an All-America season as a true freshman.
“It starts somewhere and not only do you have to get the right kids and the best kids, but they have to have success because word of mouth is the biggest recruiter people have.” Sanderson said. “To come in and show he could be successful, yeah, I think that’s a big deal. Because when it really comes down to it, I don’t think people really want to travel hundreds and hundreds of miles away from home. Their parents want to see them wrestle. Their local communities want to see them wrestle, and if you can stay as close to home as possible, it’s a no-brainer.”
Wright redshirted during Sanderson’s first year, then went on a 21-6 run in 2010-11 that saw him battle through a midseason injury to win the national championship at 184 pounds. Along the way, he earned respect as a leader on and off the mat for Penn State’s crop of young, talented newcomers.
Among them, Ohio’s David Taylor and Harrisburg’s Ed Ruth, both of whom shared redshirt seasons with Wright.
“When I got here, he really took me under his wing and I spent a lot of time with Quentin. He really helped me adjust and get acclimated to Penn State,” Taylor said. “The (current) Penn State program, it began with Quentin. A lot of kids weren’t coming to Penn State, and he came here and his freshman year was pretty well, and when Coach Cael came and we all followed, him and Frank (Molinaro) were the older guys. Really, the big reason we’re here now and doing what we’re doing is because of those guys that came here and they were working hard.”
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Wright has always been an example-setter since he arrived on Penn State’s campus. He’s not cocky. Doesn’t disrespect his opponents. Always sticks up for his teammates.
Visibly shaken and upset after losing to Bosak in the 184-pound finals last season, Wright emerged from his team’s locker room and graciously granted interviews. He spoke highly of his old friend and refused to question Bosak’s takedown in overtime that sealed the match.
Eventually, Wright allowed an infectious smile to creep across his face as he vowed to work harder than ever before in his senior season.
Now that that season is here, Wright hasn’t had the opportunity to speak with reporters as much. Not because he’d rather not, but because he’s literally always working out.
With Sigman. With Olympic champions Jake Varner and Sanderson. And with assistant coach Casey Cunningham, whose reputation as a grinder in the practice room has caused some Penn State wrestlers to stay away from him for fear of losing confidence.
Wright’s confidence is pretty high right now. He’s gotten off to slow starts before in his career. This year, he’s undefeated thus far. His seven falls are second on the team to only Andrew Alton who has nine.
Recently, Cunningham observed Wright and Sigman before Penn State’s practice began. Cunningham noted how much Wright has improved in just a year. He also sees the urgency in Wright’s approach.
“I’ve seen more this year of him seeking out those opponents. And that’s a big deal,” Cunningham said. “There’s a difference between us saying, ‘This is who you have to go with’ and him asking us if he can go with a Jake Varner, a Les Sigman and Cael. And I have an opportunity to wrestle with him some, too. That’s him making a choice that he wants to take the next step.”
For now, the next step is beating whoever Wisconsin sends to face him.
The next step is winning No. 100. Afterward, Wright will tell you it’s about the next match. Eventually the national title will be up for grabs. Wright intends to grab it and do so much more.
“He’s got his goals higher than ever,” Cunningham said. “He wants to go make the world team, win a world championship, win an Olympic championship. With that in mind, it motivates him to go with those guys.”
While Wright’s friendly disposition has earned him a nice guy reputation off the mat, his throw-you-from-any-position style has endeared him as a bruiser, a beast of a 197-pounder to most well-scouted opponents. Most would like to avoid him in a tournament bracket, if possible.
Taylor has seen it, having traveled the country with his older teammate to tournament after tournament, dual after dual. He and the rest of his teammates are glad they’ll have matside seats to the closing chapter of one of the more storied Penn State wrestling careers in a long time.
“This year, he’s definitely got that in his mind that he wants to win and go out with a bang, and he’s doing a great job,” Taylor said. “He’s up a weight class, he’s undefeated and there’s no doubt in my mind that he can continue to go undefeated and he should be the best guy in the country at the end of the year.”