Winter/Spring Sports: Hopes high for PSU's “2nd Season”
Penn State’s head coach Cael Sanderson had already achieved legendary status as a competitor in his sport long before stepping foot in Happy Valley, and now he is well on his way to cementing a similar standing among the greatest college wrestling coaches of all time, with eight team titles and a bevy of individual national champions on his resume. Sanderson may need to muster every ounce of the coaching acumen that brought him (and Penn State) here, as his squad enters a potentially-challenging season in its usual catbird seat. Once again defending national champions, the Nittany Lions will find themselves in a very familiar position this year, not only as “the hunted” (Penn State has long since transformed into college wrestling’s version of the Alabama/Patriots-style dynasty that other fan bases love to hate), but also seeking to replace the contributions of two generational talents. Not all that long ago, the departed dynamic duo of Ed Ruth and David Taylor felt like the sort of twin titans whose like might not be seen again. Amazingly, the nigh-unstoppable machine that is Penn State wrestling responded by almost immediately replacing these two all-time greats with a pair of wrestlers who earned perhaps even greater renown in Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal. It’s hard to imagine lightning striking thrice in terms of truly replacing Nolf’s and Nickal’s consistent greatness, meaning the pressure will shift to returning leaders like Vincenzo Joseph, Mark Hall, Shakur Rasheed, and Anthony Cassar along with exciting, but developing young star Roman Bravo-Young to uphold State’s burgeoning championship tradition. In the center of it all, calm as the eye of a storm, will be Sanderson, ready to face down the dual challenges of uncertainty and complacency, even as the national field creeps up on Penn State in terms of depth and talent (especially a loaded Iowa team desperate to reclaim the college wrestling throne).
It is probably fair to say that this season feels like a “now or never” moment for Patrick Chambers and Penn State’s perpetually snake-bitten men’s basketball program as the Nittany Lions chase an elusive March Madness appearance with quite possibly their most complete roster of the Chambers era. After 2017-18 Big Ten scoring leader Tony Carr bolted for the professional ranks and big man Mike Watkins struggled with health and personal issues, last season began nightmarishly for the Lions, who dropped their first nine conference games before finally winning at Northwestern at the beginning of February. To Chambers’ credit, he kept his team together and focused, and they evolved into something of a dangerous draw down the stretch. Penn State rebounded to finish 7-13 in the B1G (14-18 overall) with wins over #6 Michigan and #17 Maryland, a run that put at least a bit of distance between an embattled head coach and his detractors. But a lack of postseason success – eight seasons with zero NCAA Tournament appearances – will continue to dog Chambers until his team finally makes that leap, and with an unusual degree of interchangeability amongst the Big Ten’s middle-tier programs and a Penn State roster featuring some legit star power, this could (and maybe must) be the season it happens. Senior forward Lamar Stevens, the last remaining Lion from the Roman Catholic Trio of Chambers’ prized 2016 recruiting class (which also included Carr) has received copious preseason All-Big Ten attention and with good reason. If fellow senior Watkins can add more scoring to his rebounding and shot-blocking, it could really open things up for Stevens, who has the potential to go down as one of the best players ever in Happy Valley, to shine.
For Penn State’s women’s basketball program, this season is all about new energy and excitement stemming from a change at the top, with the hiring of new head coach Carolyn Kieger, formerly of Marquette. Kieger arrived in the spring and, as is necessity in college sports (and habit here in Happy Valley with James Franklin setting the pace), immediately hit the ground running, meeting Penn Staters and quickly learning about the passionate fan base. She also met with the team to build relationships with the current players (some of whom she recruited while at Marquette), and she even talked shop a little with men’s coach Pat Chambers — the two have extended open invites to one another to watch both team’s practices. In an exclusive Q&A with HappyValley.com, Coach Kieger opened up about her vision for the future of Penn State women's hoops:
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity for a place that’s had a tremendous amount of success in the past, great legacy, and one that I’ve watched as I grew up, not only as a player, but as a coach. So to be here with a chance to get it back on the national stage and national prominence is one that I’m very excited about and don’t take lightly... the more I started to research, the more I started to learn, the more excited I got, and just really thought that this opportunity to re-energize the community, get everybody back involved, I think this is a place that we can get 12,000 fans in the stands if we do it right and we build it the right way. And I don’t think you can say that at many different institutions for women’s basketball.”
MEN’S ICE HOCKEY
Only six years ago, Penn State opened the sparkling new Pegula Ice Arena, a world-class ice hockey facility befitting one of the nation’s most historically successful college athletics programs. The University harbored big ambitions for the addition of ice hockey, but also had plenty of outside skeptics within what had always been among the more cloistered and regional communities in college sports. Sure, the Nittany Lions had a brand name with plenty of money behind it, but surviving, let alone thriving, at the highest level of collegiate competition was going to take some time. At the outset, some even speculated that Penn State, no matter its tradition or resources, would take a full season of baptism by fire (ice?) before it won a single game. And yet, here we are: These years have seen the historic establishment of a true Big Ten ice hockey conference, bringing some of the greatest rivalries in college sports to the ice each year (ask the traditionalists about Penn State “ruining college hockey”). The Lions have already claimed the conference championship once in two appearances in the title game, twice gone to the NCAA postseason tournament, spent time ranked as the number one team in the country, and last year produced an NCAA scoring champion (Alex Limoges). The rise of coach Guy Gadowsky’s team has been rapid, wild, and fun with the 2019-20 season shaping up to be perhaps the best yet. THON enthusiast and #cawlidgehawkey guru John Buccigross of ESPN has the Lions fourth in his preseason rankings, and Penn State appears to have assembled a team with the speed, depth, and talent to legitimately compete for a spot in the Frozen Four, an accomplishment that would only further cement the dream made reality that began with Pegula’s inaugural home series over Homecoming Weekend 2013.