With hundreds of puzzle pieces laid out on a wooden table in front of them, David Taylor and Ed Ruth slide into leather-wrapped chairs inside Penn State’s Lorenzo Wrestling Complex.
The puzzle — a wilderness scene wherein a trophy buck stands along a leafless tree line — is beginning to take shape, but Taylor and Ruth aren’t here to finish it up. Instead, they’re preparing to embark on a different task, a looming conquest in which Taylor and Ruth will undoubtedly serve as the cornerstone pieces.
If Penn State is to win its third consecutive NCAA wrestling championship, the Nittany Lions will need Taylor and Ruth, two of the most dominant college wrestlers in the country, to be at their bests.
Neither is lacking confidence at this point.
Taylor, the reigning Hodge Trophy winner, and Ruth, who hasn’t lost a match in two years, are ready to lead the Nittany Lions into the Wells Fargo Center in Des Moines, Iowa, where Penn State will send 10 wrestlers into action. Although they’ve achieved similar levels of dominance since donning blue and white singlets, their quests to become the faces of college wrestling came at high prices.
Wild Wild West
Evanston, Wyo., a town with a population of just over 12,000 people, sits tucked up against the state’s border with Utah.
By the time David Taylor, Sr. traded in the family Suburban for a minivan in the early 2000s, the old Chevy had turned over nearly 160,000 miles from Evanston — a staging area for the wrestling career of a young David Taylor — to tournaments throughout the western states.
It’s hard for Taylor to pinpoint when he became so addicted to wrestling, he’s been doing it so long. He estimates that by the time he was eight, he had decided it was the only sport for him. But training partners in Evanston were few and far between. As a result, Taylor fordged an early bond with Jason Chamberlain, now at Boise State and the No. 2 seed at 149 pounds in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Chamberlain, who hails from Springville, Utah — about two hours southwest of Evanston — often found himself inside the Taylor family’s Suburban for weekend road trips.
By the time Taylor was 10, he had already wrestled an alarming number of bouts. He never missed a weigh-in and as a result, never missed a homework assignment either. He’d have his wrestling bag packed, sitting at the top of the stairs ready to go, his schoolwork finished. Sometimes he had to finish it on a plane — the tray table served as a perfect desk — and as Taylor Sr., a pilot with Delta Airlines remembers, his son was always working furiously before the jet even lifted off.
But most of their travel came in that Suburban.
“I think every single weekend, my parents got in the car and we would drive to Colorado, Utah, Idaho, somewhere else in Wyoming,” Taylor said. “I think I wrestled 200 matches that year because that’s how I got mat time, was in tournaments.”
Looking for his niche
By the time he entered his junior year of high school at Susquehanna Township in Harrisburg, Ed Ruth had already developed the infectious, happy-go-lucky personality that has endeared him to his teammates.
He just wasn’t sure if traditional team sports were for him.
He had excelled in swimming pools and on tracks, and was beginning to develop a knack for punishing opponents with a hard-hitting style he employed as a 170-pound linebacker and fullback for the Indians. But something was amiss. He didn’t get the same satisfaction from swimming, track and field and football that he did from wrestling.
Ruth said that’s because he knew there was nothing he could do if a teammate stumbled in a relay or missed a tackle or key block.
“When I step out on the mat for wrestling and I step off the mat, there’s nobody to yell at,” Ruth said. “It’s just me, myself and I.”
Still, Ruth, whose best finish in PIAA tournament was fourth, wasn’t even convinced he could make it as a wrestler. Susquehanna Township wasn’t a powerhouse program, and it was hard to stay motivated knowing he wouldn’t get much better, not having top-tier mentors or training partners.
“Wrestling was his least favorite sport,” Ruth’s mom, Thanayi, said.
But Ruth stuck with it and found a club, Iron Eagle, in nearby Camp Hill, where former Penn State wrestler Marat Tomaev was starting out as a coach. Around the same time, Thanayi ran into a few Blair Academy wrestlers in Millersville, and was impressed with their gear, emblazoned with the flashy buccaneer logo, and overall way they carried themselves.
Ironically, Tomaev was a graduate of the New Jersey school and suggested Ruth finish his high school career learning from one of the best wrestling coaches on the East Coast — Jeff Buxton, who guided the Buccaneers to 31 consecutive National Prep Championships from 1981 to 2012.
“I think coming to Blair, for him was an eye-opening experience. Educationally, as well as athletically, where he had put himself in a situation where he was wrestling almost every day,” Buxton, now retired, said. “I don’t think up until that point that he really enjoyed the sport.
“Suddenly, he had good workout partners and was on a good team, and I think he really got excited about the sport when he was there.”
And Buxton got excited about Ruth’s potential. He noticed right off the bat, the strength in Ruth’s massive hands but jokingly would refer to his newest pupil as “the best worst wrestler” he’d ever coached. It was Ruth’s unorthodox style, one that isn’t taught, that earned him this reputation.
At Blair, Ruth realized creativity was his ticket to stardom. He focused on honing his own unique brand of wrestling rather than try to correct what other coaches had tried to train out of his game.
“That kind of just fed into my style more because as soon as I took a shot, as soon as I had a leg over my head, 80 percent or 90 percent of guys would take it in one direction. I’d take it in another direction and you just changed the whole playing field,” Ruth said. “Especially when I was in big matches and I was wrestling guys, they didn’t know what I was doing. I was catching them with certain moves that other people hadn’t seen before and I was like, ‘Wow, I could really take off with this stuff.’”
And Ruth blossomed quickly.
He helped Blair dominate the Walsh Ironman Tournament in 2008, defeating the top-seeded wrestler, Monroeville’s Chris Phillips 3-2 in the quarterfinals before beating future Iowa rival Ethan Lofthouse 10-5 for the 171-pound title.
After the tournament, then-Cal Poly assistant Mark Perry made a trip to New Jersey to try and recruit Ruth.
“When he came out to recruit him, he was blown away by him also,” Buxton said. “And I think the one thing that really stuck out in Mark’s eyes was, ‘This guy can wrestle all day.’ I said, ‘Heck, yeah, he can.’”
Commitment in Utah
Before the Taylors relocated to St. Paris, Ohio, when David Taylor was in sixth grade, they were able to establish contact with one of the most notable wrestling families on the planet.
Some of the tournaments Taylor took part in were in Heber City, Utah, Cael Sanderson’s hometown. At that point, Sanderson was about to kick off the most remarkable college wrestling career in history and David Taylor Sr. had met and talked to Steve Sanderson, Cael’s father.
They chatted wrestling, of course, most notably where could Taylor train effectively in preparation for the Western Regional tournament, as all the kids back in Evanston had moved on to baseball by that time of the year.
Sheperded to Heber City by his mom, Kathy, Taylor met brothers Cael, Cody and Cole Sanderson at an open practice a few weeks later. An energetic kid, Taylor was hopping on Cael’s back, trying to choke out the soon-to-be four-time NCAA champ.
“My earliest memories of David, he was just a little squirt, little skinny kid and he was just wrestling hard,” Sanderson said. “He was drilling with the intensity of a college wrestler or a very good high school wrestler.
“That’s the image I have of him as a little kid.”
And Taylor began paying attention to Sanderson’s exploits at Iowa State. He won bout after bout, and national title after national title. As the years went on, Taylor’s interest was piqued with each Sanderson win.
“As I grew up, he was the guy that was going undefeated and doing all of that stuff, and I thought that was cool that I knew who he was. I don’t know if he remembered me, but I would always go up and try to say ‘hi’ to him,” Taylor said. “He became my idol growing up.”
By the time he arrived at St. Paris Graham High School, Taylor had grown into one of the most dangerous high school wrestlers in the nation. He went 180-2 for the Falcons all while committing to Sanderson — by then coaching at Iowa State — as a junior.
When Sanderson took the job at Penn State in time for what was going to be Taylor’s freshman season, Taylor had some thinking to do. He didn’t want to lose a year of eligibility by transferring, but he wanted to wrestle for Sanderson at all costs.
In the end, it worked out and he redshirted for the Nittany Lions in Sanderson’s first year.
“I thought there were a few programs that would make me the best I could possibly be and I knew that being with Cael was definitely one of those places,” Taylor said. “Who knows what would’ve happened at the time? But I have to say, it’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life coming here with what we’ve done as a team and what I’ve accomplished for myself, I just think with this coaching staff it’s been the best combination I could’ve asked for.”
Ruth committed to wrestle for then-Penn State coach Troy Sunderland, but never got the chance, as Sanderson was hired as his replacement in time for Ruth’s freshman season, as well.
“At first, I was like, ‘Who’s Cael?’” Ruth said. “Everybody was like, ‘How do you not know Cael?’ I said, ‘Ok, I have his shoes, but who is Cael?’”
So Ruth took to the internet, did some reading and research. It didn’t take long for him to perk up about his new coach.
And as he did in his only year at Blair Academy, Ruth soon found out he had a lot more to learn about wrestling. The first time he wrestled Sanderson, Ruth became furious with himself for his ineffectiveness.
“There weren’t too many coaches I couldn’t get in on their legs,” Ruth said. “I couldn’t even touch his toes when I first got here. There was nothing I could do.”
But after a redshirt year, Ruth stepped in — alongside Taylor — and helped lead Penn State to its first NCAA title since 1953. It proved to be a learning experience for both Taylor and Ruth, as Taylor was pinned by former Penn Stater Bubba Jenkins in the finals at 157 pounds and Ruth suffered a leg injury in the semis against Stanford’s Nick Amuchastegui.
That was the last match he lost.
Present and future
Quentin Wright will be out of eligibility following this week’s tournament finals, so he’s going to savor every moment.
Particularly, he’ll be watching his two younger teammates, Ruth and Taylor, who have helped Wright — who will be going for his fourth All-American honor — carry the load for the Nittany Lions since Sanderson took over. Wright will also look to win his second individual national title, like Ruth and Taylor.
“I think winning the first one’s probably the easiest,” Sanderson said. “It takes a lot of strength and character to come back and win two. I’m always excited to see how these guys will respond to these circumstances.”
Wright and the rest of the Nittany Lions watched as Taylor nearly pinned his way to the 165-pound title and Ruth added two pins, two major decisions and a technical fall in a romp to the 174-pound championship last season in St. Louis.
Now, Taylor will enter seemingly destined for a showdown with rival Kyle Dake of Cornell in the 165-pound finale while Ruth will try his hand at 184 pounds this season.
Wright can’t wait to see how his two teammates, who’ve gone 193-4 so far in their collegiate careers, fare.
“I’m excited to see what they’re going to do,” Wright said. “After the season, I’ll probably get to watch their films and be like, ‘Man, I got to see them do that.’”