Cael Sanderson isn't used to finishing second. Iowa State's second-year coach and his wrestlers have their sights set on winning it all after a surprising runner-up effort at last March's NCAA Championships. That's not just talk,
These Cyclones, as young as they are, are legitimate national title contenders.
``We can do it,'' said Jake Varner, an NCAA finalist last year at 184 pounds and one of six returning national tournament qualifiers. ``Nobody thought we could do it last year as freshmen and we were real close. We are a year older now and we are going to do even better.''
The ``we'' Varner is referring to are sophomore classmates Cyler Sanderson, Nick Gallick, Mitch Mueller (Iowa City West), Dave Zabriskie and Nick Fanthorpe, young guns who helped ISU to its first conference title in two decades and its best NCAA
finish since 2002.
Sanderson, Zabriskie and Fanthorpe were each one win shy of earning All-American status. Each of the sophomores - except Varner and Zabriskie at heavyweight - is moving up a weight class. The group will be the foundation of the program for what
promises to be three very successful seasons. Going back to his final year as an assistant under former coach Bobby Douglas, Sanderson has recruited as well as anyone in the country.
Joining the six sophomores this year is red-shirt freshman Jonathan Reader, ISU's likely starter at 165 pounds. There are zero juniors on the roster and there may only be one senior (197-pound David Bertolino) who is a regular in the lineup this
``We are going to be dangerous,'' Varner said. ``Each year you get better and we've got three years. We are going to be good. This could be the start.''
Reader is one of the guys having to replace three All-American seniors from a year ago in Trent and Travis Paulson and last year's 197-pound runner-up Kurt Backes.
The Davison, Mich., native finished his high school career with a record of 234-6, including a 60-0 senior season that included 56 pins. To say his arrival on the mat is highly anticipated would be an understatement.
``His goal is to be a national champion,'' said Cael Sanderson. ``He's ready to go. He's fun to watch and going to be a crowd pleaser.''
Reader emulates his coach in the way he views his job on the mat.
``Hustle, hustle, hustle,'' Reader said. ``I'm going out to hustle and outwork my opponent every time and make them not want to wrestle me again. I'm not worried about the beginning about the season and wins and losses. I'm training for March.''
As many as two of the 10 spots could be filled by true freshmen.
Sanderson prefers red-shirting his first-year wrestlers, like Douglas did with him, but there are always exceptions to the rule. ISU is No.2 in W.I.N. Magazine's preseason rankings, behind defending champion Minnesota and one spot ahead of Iowa.
``If you've got a chance to win a national title you've got to take that chance,'' he said. ``We are going to wrestle the guy who is most capable of helping us win a national championship.''
Sanderson now is to the point of refining his coaching methods. Last year was one of planning for him and his staff, which includes brother, Cody, and two-time Minnesota NCAA champion Tim Hartung.
Despite his age, 28, and lack of coaching experience, Sanderson handled himself like a veteran.
``He seemed pretty confident last year,'' Varner said. ``You look at him and he just looks confident. That's a good thing.''
ISU went 13-3 last season in dual meets and won its four matches against Big 12 Conference foes Oklahoma State, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. The Cyclones also won their first Midlands tournament team title since 1981.
Sanderson's impact should not be understated.
``He's the best coach in the world,'' Reader said. ``Not only him, we've got the best coaches in the country in this room. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.''
ISU's season opens Nov. 8 against Northern Illinois at Hilton Coliseum. The annual meeting with Iowa is in Ames on Dec. 9, though the Cyclones' toughest matches are on the road.
They go to Minnesota on Dec. 2, and Oklahoma State on Jan. 27. In between is the Midlands (Dec. 29-30) and National Duals (Jan. 12-13). The NCAA tournament is set for March 20-22 in St. Louis.
``We have a team that's capable of winning a national title,'' said Cyler Sanderson. ``We are going to improve all year long. It'll be real fun to see how it ends up. It's going to be a great year.''