Cassar or Rasheed at 197? Penn State's family decision expected soon

By Andy Elder, Special to TheMat.com | Feb. 14, 2018, 1:02 p.m. (ET)
Photo of Anthony Cassar by Richard Immel. Photo of Shakur Rasheed by Sam Janicki.

UNIVERSITY PARK — Custody battles can be ugly and contentious. Two people want the same thing and neither side is willing to give an inch.

Somehow, though, the battle for custody of Penn State’s starting 197-pound position hasn’t come at the expense of the friendship between Anthony Cassar and Shakur Rasheed.

Teammates will attest to that.

“We were all hanging out the other night at Bo’s (Nickal) and they’re sitting right next to each other in the chairs playing games,” said Nittany Lion 285-pounder Nick Nevills.

Penn State 149-pounder Zain Retherford said it all comes down to perspective.

“I think we realize we’re competitors and we want to win everything that we go into but at the same time we’re just having fun with it, realizing that this is just a game, really, that we’re doing,” he said.

“This is a privilege. That’s kind of how we approach it. It’s not really life or death. It’s just a sport and the bigger picture is always in our mind.”

That attitude radiates down from the team culture cultivated by the man in charge — Cael Sanderson. He has preached about family and gratitude since the day he was introduced in Happy Valley.

“This is a game. You want to win, obviously, but we’re not a program where we get in here and try to show each other how tough we are and fight. We don’t do any of that kind of stuff. We compete hard, but at the end of the day, we’re on the same team and we care about each other,” he said.

“That’s the way these guys are. They’re good friends and have been for years. Just because they both want the same thing doesn’t change anything. They’re both great, optimistic and both want an opportunity. We think both of them have the potential to do great. We’re in good hands there.”

The last match each wrestled confirms his potential.

“Anthony goes out there and beats the No. 1 guy and then Shakur goes out there and majors the No. 7 guy. They’re beating and majoring guys who are supposed to be in the national finals and All-Americans. Shakur’s going out there and getting bonus points and Tony’s getting huge wins to put us in good position to win duals,” Nevills said.

“I just think it’s incredible when you have two guys at the depth like that, and (Matt) McCutcheon was obviously tremendous there for a few years. He’s been hurt a lot this year.”

Nevills was referring to Cassar’s 6-3 upset of No. 1 Kollin Moore of Ohio State on Feb. 3 and Rasheed’s 11-2 major decision over No. 7 Cash Wilcke of Iowa on Feb. 10.

If not for an injury to McCutcheon, who twice has advanced to the Round of 12 at the NCAA championships and was ranked as high as No. 4 in the preseason, this could be a three-way battle royale.

Coming into the season, McCutcheon was the presumptive starter. Cassar, however, claimed the spot during wrestle-offs in the preseason and then cemented his early claim to the weight by adding a third win over McCutcheon at the Keystone Classic in mid-November.

Rasheed, during that time, was out of the picture, trying to get fully healthy so he could challenge for the position. He wrestled in open tournaments on the first two weekends of November and then not again until the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 1-2.

Cassar was the clear starter and ranked No. 9 headed to Chattanooga. Then things got really interesting. Cassar was upset in the semifinals when a late takedown was reversed. He came back for a third-place finish. Rasheed, meanwhile, pinned his final three opponents in his march to the title.

Since then, Sanderson & Co. have alternated the two, hoping a clear starter would emerge. Instead, both have excelled, rising to each challenge laid in front of them.

Cassar has wins over the Nos. 1, 4, 12 and 15 ranked men at his weight, winning seven in a row, including three by major decision, since his Scuffle upset loss. Rasheed has vanquished the Nos. 7, 11, 14, 15 and 18 ranked guys at the weight. And in his nine wins during 2018, he has five falls, three majors and a decision.

Each has admitted to wanting to be the starter and each has talked about it in his own way.

“It’s very annoying. You want to be able to talk to each other and be like, ‘Hey, do this. Do that.’ But, at the same time, it’s like, ‘I want that spot.’ We push each other, regardless, but it’s definitely hard,” Rasheed said on Jan. 23.

“We don’t talk about it, because ‘friendly’ is kind of a little far-fetched. Like, yeah, of course, we’re brothers and all that — but we both want the spot.”

Five days later, Cassar offered his assessment following Penn State’s win over Rutgers.

“It’s definitely not ideal, but I knew situations like this were going to arise when I signed at Penn State. We have such a deep room that’s sometimes going to happen,” he said.

“I didn’t really expect it this year, but I’m just rolling with the punches and whoever is ready mentally and physically and wants it the most is going to be the man at nationals.”

Sanderson has steadfastly refused to give any indication who the eventual starter may be, other than to praise each wrestler equally.

“The competition is good. I wish we had that at every weight. It’s just not the reality. Both Anthony and Shak are both wrestling great. We’re proud of both of them and love both of them. I think the team feels the same way about both of them. It’s going well,” Sanderson said after the Nittany Lions’ win over Iowa on Saturday.

Even on Tuesday, just five days before the season finale, Sanderson wouldn’t budge.

“I’m going to give you the same answer. Nothing is set in concrete. We have two great choices there. We’re proud of them, happy with both of them,” he said.

Nevills said he knows it will be a harrowing decision, but one that he trusts will be best for the team.

“I know both of those guys. It will be disappointing to whoever doesn’t get it, but I think they’re going to trust in the coaches, that the coaches will put out who’s best for the team. I don’t know that the answer is. I’m certainly glad I don’t have to make that choice. That would be intense to have to make that decision,” he said.

“I know and I trust the coaches. Whoever they choose to put out there is going to do the best they can for Penn State and bring home a national championship individually and just try to score as many team points for the team. From that aspect, I love both Shakur and Anthony, so I think whoever gets the job is going to do a tremendous job. I’m excited for whoever is going to get to wrestle.”

The fact remains that the Nittany Lions have just one dual meet left, at 2 p.m. Sunday when Buffalo visits Rec Hall, then two weeks until the Big Ten Championships on March 2-3 in East Lansing, Michigan.

Still, a starter has to be named at some point and Sanderson conceded that whoever walks on the mat against the Bulls on Sunday will likely own the spot for the postseason.

“Whoever starts Sunday, is that the (starter)?” a reporter asked at the team’s media availability Tuesday.

“Yeah, probably, yeah,” Sanderson said. “That would be a good assumption.”

And the end to a seven-week mystery, but probably not the end of a several-year friendship.