The best college programs, at any level, must have good competition in the wrestling room. Many Division I programs have over 30 participants on their team, but they are limited to only 9.9 scholarships for 10 starting wrestlers. This means there are a lot of walk on wrestlers paying their own way on most teams. These selfless contributors are what makes or breaks programs. These are the guys who have to step up in the event of an injury (and let’s face it, wrestling has the highest rate of injury of any sport) and these are the guys that provide stiff competition to make sure the starters improve. Without good competition in the practice room a starting wrestlers learning curve is limited and therefore can stagnant the success of programs.
Every year there are dozens of these types of kids in the wrestling rooms at Iowa, Oklahoma State, Ohio State, Penn State, Cornell, and Minnesota to name a few perennial programs. Being a Penn State graduate and avid follower of the program each year I remember many of those selfless contributors: Brian Pearsall, Nick Fischer, Adam Lynch, and James Vollrath come to mind over the past several seasons. This year’s winner, hands down, is James English.
James is a sixth year senior because he was granted a medical hardship year due to his career being shadowed by injury. James is an honor roll graduate student and will graduate with his master’s degree in mechanical engineering in the spring. But things on the mat have not gone as smoothly as in the classroom. James missed all of his redshirt freshman season due to back and neck injuries that will plague him throughout his wrestling career. All that said, when healthy, James proved he could hang with the best. On several occasions James filled in for an injured Andrew Alton (a three time Pennsylvania High School Champ – James finished third as a High School Senior and seventh as a junior) and defeated ranked wrestlers in dual meets. James could have transferred and started on probably 85% of other Division I schools – he was that good.
When James was granted a sixth year of eligibility he and Coach Cael Sanderson debated what he should do. Coach Sanderson was worried about James’s health and thought maybe he should give up wrestling and he was also open to the idea of James transferring to get an opportunity to start for another program. But James was loyal and wanted to come back to help the team. Besides, starter Andrew Alton underwent serious shoulder surgery in the off season and his availability for the season was a question mark. James headed into the season as the starter, but almost immediately he got hurt. He tried to come back two other times in the beginning of the season but got hurt. In the meantime, Penn State settled on Zach Beitz, a talented red shirt freshman as their starter with English and Alton hurt.
As February rolled around, James said he was healthy enough to wrestle again. He had not wrestled in over a month so Coach Sanderson was skeptical because to represent Penn State at the Big 10’s and NCAA’s James would have to wrestle five to seven matches over several days at each event. James entered the Edinboro Open to show he wrestle five matches in a day. James finished second in the tournament to Hunter Stieber (Stieber is redshirting this year but was a two time All American from Ohio State – James lost 3-2). Coach Cael then gave James a wrestle off and he beat both Beitz and Alton who was also trying to return to action.
At the Big 10 Championships English received the seventh seed and finished fifth and qualified for nationals (The top six received automatic bids at this weight class – 149 pounds). At the NCAA championships English was unseeded (the top sixteen wrestlers are seeded). In the opening round English defeated the twelfth seeded Dylan Cottrell (he only had one loss on the season – 26-1) from Appalachian State – 5-4 in a tie breaker. He then lost to the fifth seed - Jason Tsirtsis from Northwestern and he went on to win the Championship. The final was 4-3 when James gave up a take down with just 20 seconds left. In the wrestle backs English won a series of close matches 3-1 (Christian Barber – North Carolina) and 4-3 (Rylan Lubeck – Wisconsin) to get to the round of 12. He then defeated 10th seeded Zach Neibert from Virginia Tech 6-4 in sudden victory to guarantee he will earn All American honors (finishing in the top 8 nationally). English was in control of his next match against eighth seeded David Habat from Edinboro 3-0 but he got caught and pinned. English then wrestled for seventh place and defeated fourth seeded and defending national champion Kendric Maple from Oklahoma 2-1 in a tiebreaker. This was English’s championship match and jumped into Coach Sanderson’s arms after completing the upset as if he had just won the NCAA championship. English had finally gotten a chance to prove himself on the national stage and he came through big time and no one was happier for him than Coach Sanderson.
In an interview after the match the selfless English said he wanted to be an NCAA champion but when he lost he kept fighting to win each match for the team. English earned 6.5 team points and Penn State narrowly defeated Minnesota by 5 points to earn its fourth consecutive national title. There was talk of English injury defaulting in his seventh place match, but he insisted on wrestling and fighting through his pain because the team needs every point it can get.
English went from a talented walk on prospect to an injured after thought to becoming the most unlikely All American in 2014 in one of the toughest sports on the planet. This is an amazing story of perseverance and conviction to succeed by an incredible young man. Most would have given up, but not James English.
Coach Sanderson obviously talks highly about English. Coach Sanderson says English will be plagued by back and neck problems his whole life and already “he looks like a 2 by 4 because he is so stiff”. That is remarkable because being stiff is not conducive to wrestling or any other sport. James English inspires me because I too have been compared to a 2 by 4 because my neurological disorder makes me very stiff. If English can fight on, I will do the same and continue to try to wrestle.