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By Tim Owen
Blue White Illustrated
According to the university's count, the wrestlers packed the Bryce Jordan Center with more fans than the basketball team ever has. So it's only fitting to begin with a hoops metaphor.
Penn State's BJC dual wasn't an overnight success story. It took nearly four years of meticulous preparation and back-and-forth discussion until it finally became a reality with the announcement in August.
Throughout the entire process, Cody Sanderson played the point.
The associate head coach led the charge on nearly every single detail of the historic event - from the scheduling, to the marketing, all the way down to the pre-planned warm-ups at the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex, weigh-ins at Rec Hall, and the vans to escort his starting lineup a mile across campus just in time for the 2 o'clock meet.
He and his brother/head coach Cael Sanderson wanted the prematch routine to seem like any other home match. But once they packed into those vans, the experience that followed was supposed to be anything but normal.
"They'll never forget this," Cody said a few days before the Nittany Lions trounced Pittsburgh, 28-9, in front of 15,996 fans, a college wrestling record. "It's something they're going to remember. They're going to remember running out and coming out into the spotlight and on top of that mat. That's going to stay with them the rest of their life."
And it wouldn't have happened without him.
The big brother
Cody Sanderson is the oldest of Steve Sanderson's four boys. The brothers - Cody, Cole, Cael and Cyler, in order from oldest to youngest - differ in size and appearance. However, they all had similar wrestling paths in high school and college. All competed for Steve at Utah powerhouse Wasatch High and later enrolled at Iowa State. Cody led the point then, too.
Cody finished his college career in 2000 as a two-time national finalist at 133 pounds for the Cyclones. Five years later he established a wrestling program at what is now Utah Valley University. His former team continues to make strides on the Division I scene. Cody might not boast an undefeated record like his younger brother, but he's made his own impact on the sport.
And although Cael, the head coach, gets most of the public recognition for leading Penn State to the past three NCAA championships, people inside the program give just as much credit to Cody. Said senior David Taylor, "He's absolutely, 100 percent a head coach."
Like their father, who has since retired from coaching to focus on his job as an assistant principal at Wasatch, Cody handles many of the administrative duties for the wrestling program.
The Pitt match in the BJC is just one example. Behind the scenes, Cody is the one who fuels Penn State's wrestling program. He's the logistics guy. He's in charge of scheduling. He helps monitor classes, grades, disciplinary issues and all of the really fun stuff that head coaches usually bear on their own.
That's how the Sandersons have found the most success. Maybe because it's what comes naturally.
"When you're raised as an older brother, your responsibility is to watch out for your younger siblings," Cody said. "It's something that sticks with you and something that I took as my responsibility, and rightfully so. I think that's how families work - you look out for one another."
Cael, more than two years younger, is especially grateful for his assistance, as it allows him more time to work on the mats, drilling with his wrestlers and helping improve their technique. Cody does that, too, especially with the lighter weights, but his job description requires a few more office hours.
Certainly he spent extra time in 237 Rec as he planned the BJC dual. Penn State had originally hoped to schedule either Ohio State (Dec. 15) or Oklahoma State (Feb. 16) for the BJC match, but there were conflicts once the Lady Lions' schedule was announced. At the last minute, Cody was able to secure a commitment with an in-state team and reserve the arena.
"Scheduling is always a challenge," Cael said. "Getting as many home matches as we do, Cody does a great job with that. We put it on him and he finds a way. Even getting a match in the BJC looked as though it wasn't going to happen because of all of the conflicts. Ultimately, the only match we could get over there was the one that we got."
It wouldn't have happened without Pitt.
'You could hear a pin drop'
For Taylor, Dec. 8 will be a lasting memory, even though his bout - a second-period fall - lasted barely three minutes. The entire dual meet vs. Pitt will also be a memory for fans, casual and diehard alike. Some of the old-school guys were quick to get back to Rec Hall the following weekend, but many want the event to sprout into an annual occurrence.
Jeff Kennedy, a Pleasant Gap resident since 1975 and an accountant for College Township, had only been to a few previous wrestling matches, one of which was in the BJC when the Lions hosted Iowa in front of 11,275 fans in 1996.
Kennedy received great seats for this year's new-and-improved version. Row DD, in the corner, on Pitt's side of the mat. "I know it's really tough to get tickets anymore just because they're so popular," Kennedy said, "but I'd definitely go again."
Tyler Bloom, a 2009 PSU grad who lives near Philadelphia, is a longtime follower of the program and said his interest has intensified since the hiring of the Sandersons. He was present for their first two championships in Philly and St. Louis. He also attended the BJC dual, sitting in section 202, row Q.
"Nosebleed," he said and added that he would attend similar events in the future. Although he'd rather see Penn State "lock down a match with Oklahoma State, Iowa or Minnesota."
A seasoned wrestling fan, Bloom said he appreciated how the set-up of the BJC dual - and more important, the atmosphere - was similar to the national finals that air live on ESPN in March.
The four-foot-tall raised mat in the middle of the arena, nestled in between rows of floor seating. Photographers lining the edges of the mat. A spotlight trailing the wrestlers from the locker room tunnel, up the steps and onto the mat. The deafening cheers juxtaposed against immediate silence.
"There were times that you could hear a pin drop," Kennedy, a casual fan, recalled with a tone of surprise. The eerie quiet happens during the national finals, too, usually after an opening whistle, when tensions are at their highest. Then a takedown brings the crowd to a roar. That was part of the ambience at the BJC.
"They did a really nice job of trying to duplicate and imitate what it's like on the national level for not just the crowd, but for the wrestlers, too," said Bloom, a diehard. "A lot of people aren't lucky enough to see the NCAA tournament."
Taylor, a 165-pound NCAA champion, is plenty familiar with that tourney. In fact, he's been in the national final in each of his three seasons at Penn State. He's what you'd call an expert on the subject, and he said the event "was almost the exact same format. Everything was very similar."
It couldn't have happened without him.
'Hook them, and hook them for life'
The Sandersons were initially reluctant to move a dual meet out of Rec Hall. They had considered it every year since they arrived in 2009 but had always been hesitant. Rec Hall had been too kind. Why fix what's not broken?
But as Taylor entered his final season, the supply of tickets was no longer meeting the demand. Not even close. So they thought, why not?
If the Sandersons were to do it, though, they wanted to do it big. In case you didn't know, Cael is a competitor. Not just a competitor, but a winner. He wants to beat everyone at everything - not just on the mat, but in dodgeball, racquetball and, of course, with attendance records. The previous high mark was set by Iowa in 2008 (15,955 for a match against Iowa State, a team that the Sandersons coached), so when Cael committed to the BJC dual, he was dead-set on topping that figure.
Big brother had his back.
Cody took it upon himself to transform a nonconference dual meet into a massive spectator event. Although they needed some "behind the scenes" work to break the record, as Cael revealed afterward (Let's just say the BJC had a few extra employees on hand that Sunday), they reached their goal. It wasn't easy, especially considering the ice storm that hit the greater Mid-Atlantic that afternoon.
"This one was a little unknown for us because we didn't know," Cody said beforehand. "Are we going to get 10,000 or are we going to get 12,000? Are we going to actually sell this place out? We didn't know."
Cody chose Taylor as the selling point. He said Taylor is a once-in-a-generation athlete who draws large crowds, and large crowds could mean new wrestling fans. Cael, of course, is always trying to create new wrestling fans, so he finally bought in, seeing the event as a perfect opportunity to promote his sport.
"When you get a fan who shows up for the first match," he said, "you've got to hook them, and hook them for life."
Bloom brought his father, Richard, a longtime high school wrestling supporter who had never seen Taylor compete live. And although the team score was a 19-point rout, and Taylor pinned Geno Morelli in 3:09, fans at least got the chance to see him compete. The Blooms were impressed.
"My idea from the beginning was that we have to market our individuals and make them larger than life," Cody said. "That can be tricky with a team because we sit [in the practice room with] 37 guys. On the mat, everybody is the same, so there were challenges as a coach when you're marketing an individual. At the other end, those individuals who are being marketed, in a way, they've earned that."
Taylor appreciated being the focal point of the event. In fact, he relished it. But he might be even more appreciative of the memory that remains from that Sunday afternoon. That he owes to Cody.
"We obviously had to compete to the highest of our ability, but we could also sit back and realize how special it was," Taylor recalled the Tuesday after the BJC dual. "What Cody did to get that many people out there was impressive. Really, it was a show. It was a pretty cool show."