Penn State Wrestling

How Penn State wrestling plans to balance NCAA, Olympic dreams this season

After getting his hand raised as the heavyweight national champion at the end of last season in Pittsburgh, Penn State’s Anthony Cassar was uncertain about whether he wanted to return to the Nittany Lions to use any of the two additional years of eligibility granted to him by the NCAA.

What he wasn’t uncertain about, however, was his ultimate goal — to be an Olympic champion.

Having sat down with his coaches and parents to determine his best path toward reaching that goal, Cassar decided to return to the Nittany Lions as a sixth-year senior, and wrestle a modified schedule that will also include some freestyle competition to prepare for the chance to make the Olympic team and compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics July 24-Aug. 9.

“I’ll be competing in a couple freestyle tournaments throughout the season, wrestling a somewhat modified college season as well,” he said at media availability Tuesday. “So kind of mixing them both in, staying sharp, getting ready to go for postseason.”

While he didn’t specify who, Nittany Lions coach Cael Sanderson said he believes there’s four or five guys on his roster who have aspirations to compete in the 2020 Olympic wrestling trials, held at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center April 4-5 — just two weeks after the NCAA Wrestling Championships. To give them the opportunity to do that while still competing for the Nittany Lions, Penn State structured its schedule around some of the qualifying tournaments — such as Senior Nationals Dec. 20-22 in Fort Worth, Texas.

While Cassar and some other Nittany Lions might miss a few duals as they work to prepare for the Olympic trials, Sanderson said they’ll have to “get creative” with the lineup to give the team its best shot at winning, while also setting guys up for individual success on the international stage.

While some collegiate wrestlers, including Penn State’s Mason Manville, will be taking Olympic redshirts, others have opted for the modified schedule. For Cassar, competing with the Nittany Lions for another year just made sense.

“We’ve had a lot of success, probably the most success, with guys coming off the college season then competing in Worlds or Olympics,” he said. “I think just the aspect of staying sharp and still being super involved with the coaches and the training regime and having a routine, there’s a lot of things that go into it that I think will ultimately prepare me best.”

Penn State wrestlers Joseph Vincenzo, Anthony Cassar and Mark Hall laugh as they pose together for a photo during media day on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. Abby Drey

Sanderson also pointed to the recent international success of athletes coming straight off college seasons — such as 2016 Olympic gold medalist Kyle Snyder and bronze medalist J’Den Cox — when explaining the benefits of simultaneously pursuing both NCAA and Olympic dreams. Sanderson won silver at the 2003 World Championships in New York City, a year after his graduation from Iowa State. He won Olympic gold the following year in Athens.

“I think I’m confident, just based on history, that running through the NCAA season can be a blessing,” Sanderson said. “We’ve had several guys in the last few cycles alone who have come off an NCAA season and they make a world team and win medals. They’re going to be in great shape. It’s a different style of wrestling — and you’re probably not going to be traveling the world as much — but you can get better and be prepared going through an NCAA season, especially in a program like ours or the ones that have (regional training centers).

“You’re going to be training with elite-level, Olympic-level athletes on a regular basis.”

Penn State’s Olympic Regional Training Center — the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club — got a big boost earlier this fall, when four-time World medalist and Olympic gold medalist Snyder announced he was transferring from his alma mater Ohio State’s RTC to train in State College.

Cassar, who said he was “pumped” when he heard that news, has gotten the chance to train with Snyder several times over the past few weeks, and said he’s already “jumped levels” by getting that opportunity.

Snyder joins fellow U.S. freestyle stars such as 2012 Olympic champ Jake Varner, 2018 World Champion David Taylor, two-time senior World Team member Zain Retherford and recent U23 World champ Bo Nickal in the Nittany Lion wrestling room. International competitors such as 2012 Olympic silver medalist Jamie Espinal, of Puerto Rico, two-time World medalist Bekzod Abdurakhmanov, of Uzbekistan, and 2011 World silver medalist Franklin Gomez, of Puerto Rico, also train at Penn State

While Penn State’s room also boasts past Greco-Roman World Team member Ben Provisor, Sanderson said it made more sense for 2017 Greco World Team member Manville to take the Olympic redshirt and spend more time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he can be around that discipline full time.

Penn State wrestler Aaron Brooks answers questions for the media on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. Abby Drey

But for freestyle wrestlers like true freshman Aaron Brooks, who spent a year after graduating from North Hagerstown High School training at the OTC before enrolling at Penn State, being in Penn State’s room actually offers more consistent exposure to the high-level senior athletes.

“At the OTC ... they come maybe once a month or once every two months, but here it’s like an everyday thing,” he said. “At the OTC, you don’t get those national team guys there every day. You get them there a couple times a year.”

Brooks, the 2017 Junior World silver medalist and 2017 Cadet World champ, plans to redshirt this year as past All-American Shakur Rasheed elected to take the additional year of eligibility awarded to him by the NCAA due to injury and start for the Nittany Lions at 184 pounds. Sanderson confirmed Tuesday that Rasheed tore his ACL midway through last season and had surgery after NCAAs.

Because of his past freestyle success — as a Cadet World champion and a two-time Junior World champion — there was speculation that three-time NCAA finalist Mark Hall would choose to take an Olympic redshirt. However, the 2017 NCAA champ decided to wrestle his senior season this year with the Nittany Lions.

His main motivation behind not redshirting, he said, was because he’s anxious to start his career, focus more on freestyle and get into coaching.

“I kind of just wanted to be done with school,” he said. “I’m excited for senior year. I mean, there’s obviously a lot more to it than that, but that was big to me. I just want to get on with a career and wrestling freestyle, things like that.”

Because his college weight of 174 falls between two Olympic weights, Hall said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll wrestle the modified freestyle/folkstyle schedule like some of teammates, as having to cut and gain weight throughout the season wouldn’t be ideal for his dreams of winning another NCAA championship.

With only six Olympic freestyle weight classes, making the team isn’t easy, and Sanderson said the competition level this year will “probably be the best it’s ever been.” But he’s also confident in Penn State’s ability to set its athletes up for success beyond the college realm.

“We want to have the best training opportunity in the world,” Sanderson said. “That’s my job as the coach at Penn State, to do what it takes to make sure we have that. Then it’s the kids’ job to take advantage of it.

“It’s not about being the best in the room, it’s about being the best in the world, and that’s what we’re trying to create.”

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Lauren Muthler covers what’s happening right now in Centre County, from breaking news, road closures and weather, to cool and interesting stories she finds along the way. Oh, and Penn State wrestling.