In the midst of a polar vortex, with heavy traffic around town, 15,703 people hurried home from work and braved the cold to watch the top-ranked Penn State wrestling team take on its toughest opponent of the season in No. 4 Michigan.
That attendance, the sixth-largest indoor crowd in NCAA wrestling history, wouldn’t be possible in the much smaller Rec Hall, the Nittany Lions’ home for most of the season. Yet despite the smoke and flames shooting from the rafters, along with a blue-and-white light show, many fans — as well as coach Cael Sanderson — still prefer Rec Hall.
“We like wrestling in the BJC ... I think we could move over there, but there’s just something about Rec Hall that’s going to be hard to get us out of here,” Sanderson told reporters earlier in the week, at the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex in Rec Hall. “This is our home base. This is where we train, the locker room is here.”
But Sanderson did acknowledge that the BJC is starting to feel more and more like home.
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Fans who lined the concourse ahead of Friday’s dual were split. Doug Hayes and Mark Marsteller, who both traveled to State College from Erie, both wish Penn State would have at least two duals per year — if the strength of schedule would support it — at the 16,000-seat venue.
Hayes’ brother-in-law, John Boyer, however, has had season tickets for 30 years and much prefers Rec Hall for the “atmosphere, electricity and closeness.”
But that doesn’t mean Friday was without its moments. Not at all. After securing a takedown with less than a half-second left in sudden victory, Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph waved his arms up and down, prompting the crowd to rise to its feet. Thousands of fans pumped their fists in the air and cheered.
It’s for moments like that — which can only be provided when watching some of the best wrestlers on the planet duke it out — that fellow Nittany Lions fan Brian Hummel thinks all matches should be in the BJC.
“Rec Hall, there isn’t a bad seat in Rec Hall, but I think wrestling should be here,” he said. “My opinion is this is the most winning program at Penn State, why do they wrestle at the smallest place?”
Hummel, who lives in State College, attended the match with his 7-year-old son Samuel, and got tickets for his son’s entire wrestling team.
“I just think that their wrestling program should have a really awesome stadium like Iowa and all those places, but then again, Rec Hall’s got a lot of memories,” he said.
It is those memories that make Rec Hall the preferred venue for John Sciabica, whose brother Dennis Sciabica wrestled for Penn State from 1974-76.
“Rec Hall is where the dynasty began,” he said. “There’s just a lot more nostalgia than anything you could ever imagine. It’s the hallowed ground of Rich Lorenzo, Coach (Bill) Koll and all the former coaches. You walk those halls and you see the pictures of all the guys who had been there years and years ago.”
For Sciabica, all the lights, smoke and fire are a distraction from the “battle between titans” that he says brings people to Penn State wrestling matches in the first place.
But wrestler Anthony Cassar, who put up an impressive 19-8 performance over a top-10 opponent, has been patiently waiting for five years to experience the atmosphere of the raised stage and nearly 16,000 fans. Even though he said the experience was all he imagined, he’s not ready to pick one venue over the other.
“I was definitely hyped going into it and I feed off of energy,” he said Friday night, “but there’s a lot of great energy at Rec Hall, so I like both atmospheres.”