Penn State wrestling, a history of dominance
Matt Parker, a former 125-pound Lehigh wrestler, didn’t need to sleep on his transfer decision.
He initially planned to. But, 30 minutes after Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson left his Sellersville, Pa., home Wednesday, the redshirt sophomore called him to commit. Looking back on that moment, Parker’s voice rose as he spoke quickly — his adrenaline evident even through the phone line.
“I have nothing but excitement for my future at Penn State,” Parker told the CDT. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that many people dream of — and I, myself, dreamed of as a kid — and to have that in front of me, it doesn’t even feel real. It’s such a special program.”
Parker, who said he should be recovered from hand-related surgery by next month, is expected to immediately compete for the starting job at 125 pounds. He’ll likely vie for the spot with redshirt freshman Brody Teske and junior Devin Schnupp, who finished 6-17 last season.
For Parker, his decision Wednesday — which he publicly announced via Twitter on Thursday afternoon — concludes a long journey fret with uncertainty and question marks.
His talent was never in question. He was a top-100 prospect by InterMat and FloWrestling at Pennridge High School and was considered a top-10 national recruit in his weight class. In his freshman campaign at Lehigh, he was 12-2 competing unattached in open tournaments and was named Lehigh’s Deferred Eligibility Wrestler of the Year.
But, in March 2018, he tore a ligament on the left side of his hand and was forced to undergo surgery. He rehabbed, looked ready and was prepared to compete as a sophomore — but something just didn’t feel right. His doctors realized soon thereafter the surgery had gone wrong, and Parker was forced to miss all of last season and undergo another surgery. He withdrew from Lehigh for the spring semester, entered the transfer portal — and, after a whirlwind recruitment, is now the newest Nittany Lion.
“I knew Lehigh wasn’t the place that I wanted to be anymore; I didn’t think I could achieve my goals there,” Parker said. “Nothing against those coaches — I have nothing but respect for them — but I knew I needed to go to a program that I could achieve what I wanted to. And, obviously, Penn State is the best place to do that.”
And what are those goals? Simple, Parker said. He wants a national title at 125 pounds. When Sanderson asked him Wednesday whether that’s something he wanted even as a kid, Parker nodded. “Then this is the place to do it,” he remembered Sanderson telling him.
If Parker wasn’t won over before, he was at that moment. Shortly after Sanderson left, he turned to his parents and told them he needed to go to Penn State. They agreed, he called up Sanderson, and the rest is history.
“I have a lot of work to do; I don’t want anything given to me,” Parker said. “I’m just excited to work as hard as I can and prove to people what I’m capable of.”
His former high school coach at Pennridge, RP Norley, said that won’t be a problem.
The two remain close, as Norley has known Parker since he was in grade school. Even then, Parker’s work ethic was evident. Norley still recalled with a laugh when Parker’s older brother was preparing for regionals as a freshman. Norley found the younger Parker in the gym, cranking out curls, squats and shoulder presses — as a fifth-grader.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Norley said. “Matt was so pumped up for his brother and so nervous for his brother and so in the match mentally, he just started training and working out in the back.”
Norley added: “Matt is, hands-down, one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen.”
The moment Parker added his name to the transfer portal, Norley said he received several calls from interested programs. Penn State assistant Cody Sanderson and Norley first spoke just over a month ago, and Parker visited campus April 8-9.
Parker, who has at least three years of eligibility remaining, wouldn’t have believed in the winter that he’d be a Nittany Lion at this point. “I honestly probably would’ve thought somebody was crazy to say I’d go to Penn State,” Parker said with a laugh. But he seems to be a natural fit.
His up-tempo wrestling style complements Penn State’s bonus-point mentality. He likes to wrestle on his feet, take his shots and never stop attacking. “My goal is every match to score as much as I can and to put a show on for the fans,” he said.
In a lot of ways, that describes Parker’s approach to life. He never gave up and kept pushing, even when times seemed dark in the wake of his injury. But he told himself back then, during the first surgery and again after the second, that everything happens for a reason.
“I knew that although it seemed like everything was going wrong with me that there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” Parker said.
“And I’m fortunate enough to say now that the light at the end of the tunnel was going to Penn State University.”