Head over to the west side of Penn State’s campus and you’ll encounter Rec Hall, a large, albeit relatively unassuming brick building from the outside.
Aesthetically, it certainly doesn’t stand out as much as some of Penn State’s newer venues like Pegula Ice Arena or the Bryce Jordan Center, nor is it as large and cavernous as Beaver Stadium.
But inside, there’s something about the roughly 7,000-seat venue and simply its essence — which houses the most prolific team in college wrestling over the past decade — that’s hard to describe.
“It’s hard to capture the intensity level — you can just feel it in the air,” former Penn State national champion and former Lehigh associate head coach John Hughes told The Daily Collegian. “When you walk into some of the top venues in the country, those places emulate Rec Hall and its competitive feel, and ultimately you just want to compete harder for your fans, so you try harder.”
Hughes wrestled at Penn State from 1992-1996 under then-coach John Fritz, and while the program wasn’t as prolific then as it is now, Fritz said the fanbase has always been loyal and appreciative.
In his six years leading Penn State, Fritz went 87-33-2 and coached two Olympians, four NCAA champions, 12 Big Ten champions and 21 All-Americans. While Fritz’s teams and some of his wrestlers took their lumps along the way, he said the support never waned.
“That’s one of the great things about our fans — they support, and they feel that if a guy is wearing a blue-and-white singlet, they’re out there representing Penn State and that they’re the best we have,” Fritz said. “They’re going to go out there and do the best they can, and I think our fans believe that, and I think that’s what makes Penn State wrestling special.”
In addition to Hughes, one of Fritz’s most accomplished wrestlers is two-time Olympian and former Stanford and Maryland head coach Kerry McCoy, someone who struggled his freshman year but still had support from the fans.
“The one thing that I talk about all the time with my experiences is it didn’t matter what I did on the mat and whether I won or lost,” McCoy told the Collegian. “I’ve always had somebody that had an encouraging word, that had some support.”
After going 19-17 his freshman year and falling short of earning an All-American nod, McCoy said it was the fans who helped lift his spirits.
Things turned around for McCoy, who went on to become Penn State’s second- winningest wrestler ever and a two-time NCAA champion.
McCoy, along with 2019 NCAA champion Anthony Cassar, are two of the only three heavyweights in program history to capture NCAA titles.
While they’re inextricably linked by that and will forever have those places firmly entrenched in the record books, there’s something deeper that binds the two — getting people to stay for heavyweight bouts.
It might seem trivial, but with duals often clinched by the time the heavyweight bout rolled around, a lot of fans may be inclined to leave early.
But with heavyweights like McCoy and Cassar, the fans who stayed got their money’s worth.
“It was pretty awesome, because what really stood out was that no one left,” McCoy said. “Before, I would say typically when the heavyweight comes a lot of people leave, but the majority of fans always stayed to watch me.”
Almost 25 years after McCoy won his first NCAA title, that trend continued with Cassar, who moved up to heavyweight as a senior after having previously been locked in a roster battle with Shakur Rasheed at 197 pounds the year before.
“My goal going up to heavyweight was to have the fans stay during the match — that was the first goal because some have a habit of walking out,” Cassar said. “I was like, I’ve got to get it to the point where the fans want to stay no matter what’s happening in this final match.”
By the time he got to heavyweight though, Cassar was well known to Penn State fans despite not being a full-time starter, thanks to pulling off perhaps one of the biggest upsets of the Cael Sanderson era.
It was Feb. 23, 2018, and the then-unranked Anthony Cassar upset then-No. 1 and eventual three-time All-American Kollin Moore of Ohio State by a 6-3 decision to give Penn State its first lead of the night at 19-15.
At that moment, Cassar had arrived.
“The feeling I remember was like I finally have something to give back to the people that have been supporting me through these years of me just being down the dirt grinding,” Cassar said. “So that was like the first time that I was able to like break out and kind of show something for what I’ve been doing for the past three [or] four years.
But Cassar’s deference for the fans and reverence and respect for the history of the program was important to honor long before he ever pulled off that upset.
After battling injuries his first two years and fighting for a starting spot as a sophomore, as well as coming from a small high school in New Jersey where wrestling wasn’t what it is at Penn State, the support meant something a little extra to Cassar.
“I, for myself, didn’t want to step up until I knew I was ready to compete at my best,” Cassar said. “Then to add on the respect I have for the fans — I wasn’t going to put on that Penn State singlet and walk into Rec Hall unless I was prepared to show out for them and put on a performance they’d be proud of.”
It’s clear Penn Staters support their own when they’re donning blue and white singlets and in the friendly confines of Rec Hall.
But what Hughes and McCoy both learned when they went to longtime Penn State rival Lehigh is that being a Penn Stater and being supported for being a Penn Stater isn’t conditional.
“When I went other places, [fan support] was just magnified,” McCoy said. “When I would come back to Rec Hall when I was at Lehigh or at Maryland and still feel that love, and then when Penn State would come to our campuses, or I’d see people at the NCAA tournament, and see the same amount of love and passion where it was always, ‘Hey, we we want to see Penn State do well, but we also want you to do well,’ that meant a lot.”
Hughes had a similar experience in his over a decade helping to lead the Mountain Hawks.
“When I’d see people at the NCAA Tournament, a lot of them would go ‘Hey Hughes, I’m rooting for Lehigh, I’m just not rooting for Lehigh when they wrestle Penn State,'” Hughes said. “That was the sentiment around the country, and my relationships run deep with folks, and I’m a very relationship-driven guy. So, that means a lot to me, when fans from other universities would say ‘hey, we’re pulling for you.'”
Penn State wrestling has become more of a national player since Fritz stepped down from coaching in 1998, but one thing about the team has always remained the same.
“We have a loyal fan base,” Fritz said. “They were always there and they were always behind us and they’ll always be behind you, because that’s just the way they are.”
But this year, there won’t be fans supporting Penn State wrestling — at least not in person.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Penn State was forced to miss its first two matches of the season and has led to restrictions prohibiting fans.
But for Cael Sanderson, he’s trying to instill as much normalcy as he can despite not having fans around for his team’s matches.
“It’s definitely gonna be a different feel, but wrestling is wrestling, and wherever it is, whenever it is, it’s competition, so the same things are on the line,” Sanderson said.
He also stressed that even if fans won’t physically be in Rec Hall, they’ll still be following the Nittany Lions.
That’s something he said his team is fully cognizant of.
“We’re trying to reach some goals and be the best team that we can possibly be here, fans or no fans,” Sanderson said. “We know that we have people that are watching online or on TV, so they’re aware people are watching whether they’re in the arena or not.”
One of Sanderson’s stars, reigning Big Ten champion at 184 pounds Aaron Brooks, agrees.
“Our fans here are awesome, so going out there and being able to wrestle in front of them definitely amps you up more,” Brooks said. “Having the fans is a huge advantage to prepare you for future big matches, but I think us as wrestlers, we’re kind of blessed and kind of used to that coming from Penn State where wrestling is the pinnacle.”
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