By Travis Johnson
Centre Daily Times
BOALSBURG The wrestling mats are black and gold. The wrestling room walls inside Ken Chertow's home training center are red, white and blue.
The wrestlers utilizing the facility, elementary-level grapplers now listening intently as Chertow instructs from the corner, number close to 30.
The odds all of them will carry on with hopes of reaching an Olympic level? Pretty rare.
Today, four Penn State wrestlers one who got his start in this room will try to make the U.S. Olympic Wrestling team at the Olympic Team trials in Iowa City, Iowa.
"He's really the one who got me involved with freestyle and Greco, teaching it, all the basics, especially with throwing," Penn State junior Quentin Wright said of Chertow. "He threw me so many times, I guess it was osmosis and I picked it up from him."
Wright, along with teammates David Taylor, Ed Ruth and Matt Brown, will compete in freestyle competition inside the University of Iowa's Carver-Hawkeye Arena. There, they will try to wrestle their way through countless collegiate All-Americans, national champions and former world-title holders and do what no Nittany Lion wrestler has done for over a decade make the Olympic Games.
They'll be joined by fellow Nittany Lion Wrestling Club members, Penn State strength coach Shawn Contos (55 kilograms/121 pounds), Mark McKnight (55 kg); Teyon Ware (66 kg/145.5 pounds), Jake Varner (96 kg/211.5 pounds); and Les Sigman (120 kg/264.5 pounds).
Penn State coach Cael Sanderson understands the odds of advancing at the international level, but also knows what it takes to overcome them, himself a former Olympic gold medalist. He's seen this quartet of collegiate wrestlers improve on a consistent basis, laying the groundwork for back-to-back national title runs.
"Really what's prepared them for this is just the level of competition that they've seen in the room every day," Sanderson said. "Wrestling Casey Cunningham every day, David's ready. Ed Ruth, same thing with the guy he wrestles every day. Matt Brown, those guys are all together, Quentin ..."
Wright is confident his throwing ability often unmatched by his folkstyle opponents throughout the collegiate season will help him immensely wrestling freestyle, where throws are scored higher and a wrestler doesn't have to have control in order to score points.
"For me, I threw a lot and I've been working with Quentin on throws for a long time," Chertow said. "He's got great throws, a variety of great throws and really good counter attacks. So his folkstyle is very good for freestyle. He makes a smooth transition."
Wright pulled off numerous throws during a 30-4 junior season including one against West Virginia in December. Just when Matt Ryan looked like he would finish off a single-leg takedown early in the first period, Wright grabbed one of Ryan's arms, hit him with a hip and rag-dolled him to the mat for a sudden pin.
While Ryan was a nationally- ranked collegiate wrestler, now Wright will likely face an older, more experienced athlete.
"Freestyle is a little bit more complicated than folkstyle where you can lose it a lot quicker," Wright said. "You've just got to be on your toes and can't take anybody lightly, can't take any second of the match lightly, either."
Also in Wright's bracket is Ruth, who along with his national championship at 174 pounds this season, won a handful of other notable awards during his 31-0 sophomore season.
In the days leading up to the trials, Sanderson has seen a fiercely motivated Ruth, who's even asked Sanderson to wrestle in practice a request Sanderson usually has to extend to Ruth.
"He's a winner, he's a competitor and freestyle is take-downs," Sanderson said. "His finishes have improved a thousand percent since the last time he wrestled freestyle, which was as a red-shirt. So he's going to be very difficult to beat. I'm very excited for him. You've seen him wrestle. He's excited, he wants to compete, he's excited about competing. He's been in here doing something every day since the nationals and that's just a hungry Ed. That's exciting stuff."
Wright and Ruth won't wrestle until Sunday's first session. Their opponents will be selected randomly before Sunday.
Taylor and Brown will both enter the 74-kilogram (163- pound) bracket, but will be doing so after different paths to Iowa City.
After reeling off one of the most dominant seasons in recent collegiate wrestling history, the 165-pound national champion and Hodge Trophy- winning Taylor earned a wildcard berth into the trials.
Taylor will face former Northern Iowa two-time All- American Moza Fay, who has been training for this event for two years at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center in Colorado. The weight class only gets tougher as incumbent world champion Jordan Burroughs will await the winner of the preliminary bouts.
"Most weights are tough. But when you have the reigning world champion in the weight it makes it especially, incredibly tough," Sanderson said. "Especially the system now, where if you're a world medalist, you're in the finals and you only have to get beat two out of three times. Then you go to a tournament. So it's definitely a daunting task to take that spot. We'll see. I think David's as good as anybody in the world and you see that out there. He dominates through college kids and he's just a rare talent. We'll see."
Meanwhile, Brown is hoping to catch his opponents by surprise.
Brown said he feels relatively fresh and rested after his collegiate season ended before the national tournament. Soon thereafter, he asked assistant coach Cody Sanderson if he could attempt to qualify via the Last Chance Qualifier in late March. He did so with a second-place finish behind former Illinois wrestler Mike Poeta.
Brown will face former Iowa standout, two-time All- American Ryan Morningstar in the first round.
"The fact that no one really knows who I am, that can definitely be to my advantage," Brown said.
Wright isn't counting on having any type of advantage based on a low profile. He's done enough so far in his collegiate career to earn a second look from any prospective opponent that finds his name next to his on a bracket.
Now Wright will look to continue what he started over a decade ago inside those red, white and blue walls. It hasn't been an easy journey.
"It's his destiny," Chertow said. "I've worked with hundreds of kids but few like Quentin that'll embrace the commitment. I'm proud of him for dedicating a decade of his life to pursuing the dream."
Tags: Cael Sanderson, Casey Cunningham, Cody Sanderson, David Taylor, Ed Ruth, Les Sigman, Mark McKnight, Matt Brown, Quentin Wright