NCAA Championships-Preview Wrestling

Penn State’s Cael Sanderson coaches at the 2016 Big Ten Tourney.

Penn State wrestling has been one of the biggest dynasties in the history of the sports, winning 8 of the last 9 NCAA championships.

A big part of the success of course is Coach Cael Sanderson. And a recent InterMat story on Joe Heskett, reminded me of the first time I ever saw Sanderson.

Heskett, who was a 10-year-old state champ in the Kennedy Catholic junior wrestling program where I coached with Tom Hinkson and my brother Paul many years ago, recently suffered a stroke. Hence the story about a GoFundMe page to help Joey with his rehabilitation which isn’t covered by insurance.

Heskett was from Howland – just over the line in Ohio – at the time he was with us along with other Howland youngsters who were part of our program.

In those days, kids from Ohio, New York and West Virginia competed in the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling All-Area (State) Championships. That was a heckuva tournament.

Joey went on to become a three-time state champion at Walsh Jesuit High School in Ohio. After graduation Heskett went on to become a four-time All-American and a national champion at Iowa State where he was a teammate of Sanderson, a four-time national champ who never lost a match in college.

But that’s not where their relationship began!

One summer I took my son Joel Giroski and Mike Garofalo – then both competing in college – to wrestle at Purdue University in the summer in the national espoir tournament (ages 20 and younger). 

Heskett was also there, just out of high school, but wasn’t 18 and needed a parental form signed in order to compete (Joey was raised by his grandmother Evelyn, a wonderful lady.). He didn’t have it. So I talked to the tournament director on Joey’s behalf and he granted the permission since I had been a former coach of his. 

Joey was wrestling at 143 pounds and guess who he was paired with in his first match. That’s right, Cael Sanderson. It was a heckuva match and Joey won a 4-3 decision.

I don’t know, but that very well might have been the last time Sanderson ever lost.

Still, Heskett and Sanderson went on to fabulous careers at Iowa State together. Naturally both put on more weight in college and wrestled at heavier classes.

Both went on to spectacular careers. Sanderson won an Olympic gold medal and has become one of the greatest college coaches ever.

Heskett’s career was slowed by health problems. Joey had hoped to make the 2008 Olympic team and in 2007 won a silver medal at the Pan Am Games. 

But after placing 5th at the World Championships later that year, he suffered cardiac arrest. Apparently he had a congenital heart disease.

His mat career over, Joey bounced back to be an assistant coach at Cal Poly and Ohio State, then head coach at Army. Most recently he was an associate athletic director at West Virginia U. 

The finish of Sanderson’s career of course isn’t written yet and I’m sure it will be a long time before he leaves his coaching shoes at the edge of the mat. 

But I will never forget that first time I ever saw Sanderson and that meeting with Heskett that forged a dynamic duo of college mat greatness.

LYNN SATERNOW is sports editor of The Herald and The Allied News. He can be reached at