What makes a team dominant? Cael Sanderson gives his take on that and more ahead of NCAAs
One year ago, Penn State wrestlers Anthony Cassar and Shakur Rasheed couldn’t have felt more different than they do now.
Last season Cassar felt “severely depressed” after being left behind in the postseason. His close friend and teammate, Shakur Rasheed, had won the starting job at 197 pounds — but Rasheed felt immense pressure to score bonus points and prove he was the right pick over fellow 197-pounder Cassar.
Now, after Cassar bulked up to heavyweight and Rasheed moved down to 184 pounds, the pair that’s joked about sunbathing and fixing their hair together couldn’t be happier. Cassar smiled Monday afternoon as the 2019 Big Ten champ and Rasheed said that past pressure is behind him.
For the first time in the fifth-year seniors’ careers, they’re going to the NCAA Wrestling Championships together. And that wasn’t lost on either wrestler Monday at the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex.
“This year, we get the best of both worlds,” Cassar said. “So it’s going to be fun.”
Added Rasheed: “That is my brother. It feels good.”
Rasheed is the class clown of the wrestling room, a charismatic jokester known for breaking up monotony and making his teammates laugh. Cassar is an optimist who likes to laugh, a New Jersey native who prefers to relax on the beach — sometimes next to Rasheed.
They both want the best for each other. And, last year, that proved tricky.
Both Cassar and Rasheed have consistently said they’re here to compete for championships and titles. But, last season, that meant one wrestler couldn’t reach his goal without stopping the other from reaching his. (If Rasheed started in the postesason, that meant Cassar couldn’t.) Granted, that’s part of the sport and they didn’t take it personally — but that doesn’t mean it was easy for either of them.
Cassar remembered taking a week or two to let everything sink in. He had trained every day, watched his nutrition and practiced at any opportunity. And for what? He swore he didn’t doubt himself — but anger pulsed through his body. “That was as nationals was going on,” Cassar recalled. “And, when it ended, I just decided: I was like, all right, let’s get back to work. And that following day I was back to work, and here we are.”
Rasheed said, in the conference tournament, he felt sad for Cassar. And, as a result, he felt as if he had to represent both of them on the mat. That mindset was clear to everyone who watched him press in the 2018 Big Ten Championships — when Rasheed was the runner-up in a tournament where he felt he severely underachieved on his path to the final. He finished seventh at nationals, wrestling better but still feeling added pressure.
“He just kind of got wrapped up in his own thoughts,” coach Cael Sanderson said, “which made it difficult.”
That pressure is gone now, with the presence of Cassar. Rasheed is 18-0 and earned the No. 2 seed (184 pounds) in the national tournament, while Cassar is also the No. 2 seed at heavyweight with a 25-1 record.
The two haven’t talked much this season about heading to the NCAA Wrestling Championships together. Cassar said they haven’t needed to — it’s been in the back of their minds the whole time.
“More of just an unspoken agreement that this is what we’re training for,” he said. “We trained a lot together in the offseason, and we have a common agreement that this is the main goal and, when it comes around, be ready to scrap and achieve our goals.”
The two arrived on campus in 2014, both suffering injuries and setbacks that marred their careers up until last season. Rasheed then broke out at the Southern Scuffle, while Cassar remained an afterthought until he earned an opportunity this season.
But, through it all, they persisted. (“God has blessed me with a lot of grit,” Cassar added.) A year ago, no one was projecting Cassar to be a No. 2 seed and no one knew whether Rasheed would still have the necessary stamina to dominate at 184 pounds.
Now, they’re both finally set to tackle the tournament they chatted about together five years ago. Cassar said it means “a lot.” Rasheed, who will sport a leg brace at nationals, just smiled before cracking a joke that was maybe steeped in a little truth.
“If we both win national titles, we can do a lot of things that you guys don’t hear about,” he said. “That’s laying out in the sun, looking for chicks, everything.
“So it’s going to be real fun.”