How Penn State and Cael Sanderson recruit a wrestling dynasty, 10 NCAA titles and counting

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PJ Duke struggled with the idea of Cael Sanderson coming to his house and eating dinner with his family. The first few days of in-home visits had been a whirlwind for the 17-year-old, who is one of the top wrestling recruits in the country.
“It’s a little weird how the first time you’re meeting some of these coaches in person is them just knocking at your door,” Duke said. “My parents were a little skeptical about everyone.”
Coaches from Iowa and Ohio State had already spent two hours each dining with Duke and his family. Everyone had their pitch as they flocked to New York to try to convince Duke that they needed him.
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Duke is no stranger to being the center of attention on the mat. Last year during a wrestling tournament in Florida, the referees stopped everyone else’s match when it was Duke’s turn. Even the officials wanted to watch him. When one wins a high school state title at 13 years old, attention is inevitable.
Still, nothing prepares any wrestling-obsessed person, let alone a teenager, for the moment when Sanderson, one of the greatest wrestlers of all time and coach of the Penn State wrestling dynasty, is coming to their home to recruit them.
“My mom was like, ‘We’ve gotta make a good dinner and clean the house a little bit,’” said Will Henckel, a fellow Class of 2025 prospect who is committed to Penn State. “I was kind of just thinking, like, what am I gonna say?”
Duke, like his peers, only knows Penn State wrestling with Sanderson at the helm. He was there in the stands in Madison Square Garden in 2016 when the Nittany Lions won the NCAA championship. This next wave of Penn State wrestlers trying to extend the dynasty was too young to have witnessed Sanderson’s unblemished collegiate career at Iowa State, which concluded in 2002. They weren’t born by the time he won Olympic gold in Greece in 2004, either.
But they’ve watched and studied him on YouTube, in awe of his patented ankle pick and curious like everyone else how one achieves the highest level of success as an athlete and then somehow one-ups himself as a coach.
“Everyone in wrestling knows if you want to win you go to Penn State,” Duke said. “They almost have a monopoly on wrestling in the U.S.”
Cael Sanderson won Olympic gold after going 159-0 at Iowa State. (Ramzi Haidar / AFP via Getty Images)
Penn State has won 10 of the past 12 team national championships, all of them coming since hiring Sanderson in 2009. The Nittany Lions head to Kansas City’s T-Mobile Center this week for the NCAA championships, which run Thursday through Saturday, with 10 wrestlers qualified — one in each weight class. Sanderson’s group, perhaps his best team yet, is the overwhelming favorite to win another team national title and could end the weekend with Aaron Brooks and Carter Starocci becoming four-time NCAA individual champions, a feat accomplished by only five wrestlers before them. Sanderson is, of course, part of the exclusive club.
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NCAAs have become a showcase for Penn State wrestling, which is in the midst of one of the most dominant runs in any sport at any level. The best comparison to the Nittany Lions’ success is Iowa’s legendary run under Dan Gable, when the Hawkeyes won 15 team national championships in 21 seasons.
After 10 championships, there is no complacency, but in some ways the success sells itself to the best of the best in the high school ranks.
“We probably spend a lot less time recruiting than we should,” Sanderson said. “We rely a lot on kids that want to come here just letting us know that because they’re trying to find the right fit and we’re trying to find the right fit.”
When one of the most iconic wrestlers of all time pivots to becoming one of the most successful wrestling coaches and recruits you, there can be nervousness mixed with excitement. There’s no one like Sanderson.
“When you meet an icon like that and he wants you, it’s hard to say no to that,” said Kevin Gallagher, head coach at Minisink Valley High School in Slate Hill, N.Y. Gallagher will have two of his wrestlers at Penn State in the coming years, Duke and Class of 2024 standout Zack Ryder. “It’s a big deal when a guy like that meets you. Even for people who don’t know wrestling, I’m like, it’s like (Nick) Saban or (Mike) Krzyzewski coming. It’s the same level.”
The momentary intimidation any young wrestler might feel when first meeting Sanderson is often brushed away by one of the coach’s many dad jokes. Sanderson, 44, has a dry sense of humor that can help lessen the nerves.
“The cool thing is like he’s a regular dude,” Brooks said. “Coach Cael is a little awkward. Once he gets more comfortable around you, then his jokes really come out.”
There is something calming about talking to Sanderson, which Duke and his family noted. His voice is often low and soft. While other programs recruiting Duke mentioned Penn State in their pitch, Sanderson never said a word about another school, Duke said.
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There’s no need to. Penn State wrestling is in a race against itself, and the goals for many stretch beyond national championships.
“A lot of the time we were just talking at the table and sometimes it would get a little quiet,” Duke recalled. “Most of it was him just saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got the best program in the country. If you wanna win national titles, Olympic titles, this is the best place to be.’
“It’s backed up by facts, so he doesn’t really have to do too much talking.”
No dynasty can be sustained forever, but there are ample reasons to believe Penn State has the people and infrastructure in place to continue at this mind-bending pace for years to come. As long as Sanderson is here with his trusted confidants as assistant coaches, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to dethrone the Nittany Lions.
State College is home to a U.S. Olympic Regional Training Center, which has helped Happy Valley become the country’s epicenter of wrestling. World-class wrestlers and Olympians train in the same facility as Penn State’s team. Zain Retherford and Olympic gold medalist David Taylor walk in for practice just like Starocci and Brooks. Bo Nickal has partnered with America’s Top Team to open an MMA center in nearby Pleasant Gap, 10 minutes from Penn State’s campus. All won multiple college national championships under Sanderson.
Because of the training center, top young wrestlers don’t have to move after graduation to train if they don’t want to. All of the resources are in place.
“When I walk in there, I’m like, ‘Wow.’ There’s multiple Olympic champs in there, multiple world champs in there, NCAA champs. It’s crazy,” Ryder said. “I just have to breathe sometimes because I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ This is crazy that I’m in this position. This is the best room in the world. Not just in the country, but the world.”
Two-time Penn State NCAA champion David Taylor won Olympic gold in 2021. (Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images)
Many young wrestlers have grown up idolizing Taylor, Sanderson’s 33-year-old protege. The “Magic Man” is twice the winner of the Hodge Trophy as the nation’s top college wrestler. He’s also a reigning Olympic gold medalist and a three-time world title holder. He launched his own training facility, M2, not far from Nickal’s.
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Like Nittany Lions wrestlers Levi Haines and Tyler Kasak have done in previous years, Ryder is completing his senior year of high school online. He’s living in State College so he can train under Taylor at M2. Duke is contemplating whether to go the same route next year.
“There’s no better place to go,” said Gallagher, Ryder and Duke’s high school coach. “You walk around and bump into David Taylor, Kyle Snyder, Kyle Dake — there’s Olympic champions all over the place. What am I gonna say? ‘Well, if you stay here we got a pretty good practice partner who took third in sectionals last year?’”
The training route of Haines, Kasak and Ryder could become the norm for Penn State commits, but Ryder said Sanderson and Penn State’s coaches did not push for him to do so. They told Duke it’s his decision to make. It’s not a path for everyone, especially those likely to redshirt once they get to college.
“It’s an amazing experience,” said Ryder, whose mom retired and moved to State College with him. “Me and David have a great bond and a great friendship. He’s a guy that I’ve looked up to. Coach Dave is an awesome human being.”
Though the presence of the regional training center and Taylor’s program bolster the dynasty, it all still starts with Sanderson’s approach to identifying and recruiting wrestlers who want to compete at the highest level.
“Sometimes there are surprises either way, good and bad, but I think kids don’t change a whole lot with their attitudes and how they approach things, especially as they get toward the end of their high school career,” Sanderson said. “A lot of that has to do with who they’re surrounded by and the perspectives that they have.
“It’s not because of anything we’re doing, it’s because of the way they were raised and the role models that they had in their lives.”
Will Henckel had taken official visits to Rutgers, Cornell, Arizona State, Iowa and Nebraska by the time he visited Penn State. The 2025 prospect from Connecticut didn’t expect one of the highlights of his official visit to come from playing the board game Blokus against Sanderson.
Henckel couldn’t beat his future coach. He’s since bought the game to practice.
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“It was a lot different than all my other officials,” Henckel said. “A lot of people take photos on visits. We didn’t take any. … At the end of the night, we just played board games for a few hours. We were all trying to beat Cael.”
Henckel and other prospects gathered outside the locker room chatting while playing the strategy game. He said with every move Sanderson would talk under his breath and kept asking if he was sure he wanted to position the block there. Sanderson was forcing his future wrestler to second-guess himself.
“I think it was just trying to build relationships with us and seeing almost how we compete in a way,” Henckel said. “I think he wanted to see how we talked with everybody and how we were socially. Everybody just kind of opened up.”
While Sanderson has his pick of athletes lining up to wrestle for him, identifying people who align with the characteristics he finds most important has been one of the biggest reasons for the success. He wants wrestlers who are tough and who compete well. They also need to be willing to buy into stepping into a facility that’s loaded with talent.
Zack Ryder is training in State College before enrolling at Penn State. (Courtesy of Zack Ryder)
Trying to filter through who fits at Penn State means Sanderson likes to talk to as many people around the wrestler as he can. When he recruited Brooks, Sanderson asked a handful of Brooks’ teammates questions like who in the room hates to lose the most and who works the hardest. Once Sanderson left, Brooks’ teammates filled him in on what had happened.
“That’s different,” Brooks said. “When a lot of other coaches come out, it was like we want you because of what we’ve seen. He wanted to ask those around me. He didn’t want to ask me because he knew I’d give him the answer that he wanted to hear. …I thought that was cool. … My teammates were like, ‘We told the truth! It was you.’”
Sanderson has also masterfully used the transfer portal to help construct this particular roster, which by the end of the weekend might hold up as his best yet at Penn State. Transfers like Mitchell Mesenbrink (Cal Baptist), Bernie Truax (Cal Poly) and Aaron Nagao (Minnesota) all joined Penn State within the past year.
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Truax, a three-time All-American, said when he decided to transfer and heard from Sanderson, was “kind of shocked” at first. Truax said he’s watched film of Sanderson for as long as he can remember.
Mesenbrink said Penn State was the last school that called him at the end of a busy day of fielding transfer inquiries.
“I remember getting really excited about the text and then getting the phone call,” Mesenbrink said. “Talking to my mom and dad afterward and being like, ‘Penn State called me! Coach Cael called me!’ It was pretty cool.”
GO DEEPER The origins of college sports’ most dominant dynasty: How Penn State hired Cael Sanderson
Having experienced other programs, Penn State’s transfers know what makes the Nittany Lions different. The recruiting pitch is as straightforward as possible, too.
“His approach is like, ‘You know what we deliver. Either you wanna be here or you don’t,’” said heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet, who initially signed with Ohio State as the top-ranked prospect in the country before transferring to Penn State. “They’re not gonna break out the balloons for you, which is nice because a lot of other programs kind of pulled out all the stops but you kind of see what you’re gonna get before you get here.”
That no-frills approach helps explain why Penn State doesn’t do photo shoots during recruiting visits. While they’ve become customary in every sport, if a wrestler really wants to be at Penn State, a staged photo in a singlet isn’t necessary.
“They want kids that want to be there,” Henckel said. “I interpreted as if you’re there to just say and pose that you took an official to Penn State you don’t really want to be there, you just want to show it off.”
Winning NCAA championships and then taking the photo afterward is what they want.
“If we have to spend a lot of time trying to talk somebody into coming here,” Sanderson said, “that hasn’t always worked out the best for us.”
(Top photo of Carter Starocci and Cael Sanderson: Brett Rojo / USA Today)

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