Taylor wins Hodge Trophy as national wrestler of the year

Release courtesy of WIN-Magazine.com, Bryan Van Kley

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- For only the third time in the 18-year history of college wrestling's top award, a sophomore has won the Dan Hodge Trophy. Penn State's NCAA champ David Taylor was named the 2012 Hodge winner. Only his college coach, Cael Sanderson, and Iowa's Brent Metcalf, ever received the honor as a sophomore. Sanderson won the award in 2000 after winning his second NCAA title for Iowa State. The former Cyclone went on to win the Hodge two more times and is the only three-time Hodge winner.

Taylor's trail of domination through the 165-pound weight class ended on March 17 in St. Louis, Mo., with his first NCAA title. He put on a offensive show in the finals with a 22-7 technical fall over Brandon Hatchett of Lehigh.

Leading up to the finals, Taylor reeled off four straight pins to cap off one of the most dominating collegiate seasons of all time. In building his 32-0 record on the year, the Ohio native pinned 15 opponents, had nine tech falls and had six majors. And he also helped lead Penn State to their second straight NCAA team title in convincing fashion.

"I really appreciate the award. It's definitely something I've looked forward to for along time," Taylor said of winning wrestling's version of the Heisman Trophy. "When I was kid, every time WIN Magazine would come, I would go through it. It always listed the previous winners and I just wanted to be on that list. The best wrestlers ever were on that list. To be a part of that list is just very special. I just feel very honored. I want to win two more."

When Sanderson was asked about his star pupil, he said he could talk about Taylor "forever in regards to what he means to the program". He said what makes Taylor so unique in comparison to other great athletes is his almost child-like approach towards competing and pursuing the lofty goals he has set.

"He's a great kid who has a passion for the sport. His actions speak pretty loudly with the way he competes, the look on his face and what he says in interviews," Sanderson said. "It's just like a little kid. They dream about what they want to be, but then once they get into it they try not to lose it. You have to keep the same (child-like) mentality so you don't get into that afraid-to-lose mode. That should be a motivator vs. something that causes you to tighten up. A lot of that comes from loving the thrill of battle."

Taylor won the award presented annually by WIN Magazine and Culture House Books because of his dominance this season. In his 32 wins, there were only two bouts where he didn't score bonus points.

In a Dec. 9 dual, Taylor downed eventual NCAA runner-up Brandon Hatchett, 8-5. And in a mid-January dual with Iowa, Taylor downed Iowa's Michael Evans, 9-4. Amazingly, 12 of his 15 pins came in the first period. Taylor said domination every match is a goal of his.

"This year my goal was to have zero decisions. The first decision against Hatchett I was upset with myself. My goal was to go out and dominate everyone I wrestle. That's just how I think about it," the former four-time Ohio state champ from St. Paris Graham High School said.

"David Taylor has brought something very special to the entire sport," said Culture House Books' Mike Chapman, founder of the award. "His enthusiasm, coupled with his vast array of skills, make him one of the finest examples of college wrestling that I have seen over the past four decades. This season was nearly perfect in all respects. It is a pleasure to watch him compete." Taylor got involved in the sport when he was five because his parents, Dave and Kathy, knew they needed an outlet for their 'high energy' son. The now-college-sophomore retold the story about his mom calling his dad to tell him she was signing their son up for the sport when Dave, Sr. was away on a road trip.

David has been relentless about improving and seeking out the best coaching and competition ever since. Taylor and his dad would frequently drive an hour and a half one direction a couple times a week after school and on weekends for club practices or for extra weight-training sessions. The Taylor family, including sister Alex, 19, made all kinds of trips around the country for David's tournaments. David said his family and their sacrifices is a big reason for his success.

DT, as many refer to him, is already getting compared to his coach who became the sport's first undefeated four-time Division I NCAA champ.

"There's only ever going to be one Cael Sanderson. I'm just trying to do things like him, but also develop my own style. I want people to talk about me in the same way they talk about Cael in regards to dominating. If you're going to be compared to someone, that's a pretty good person to be compared to," he said.

Sanderson, now having coached the Nittany Lions to two straight team titles, said he's honored people are comparing him to his 21-year old sophomore.

"I didn't dominate anywhere near like what David Taylor is dominating...a technical fall in the finals and four pins. He's certainly technically superior (to me at that age)," Sanderson said. "If someone compares him to me, that's an honor. I'd say 'Really, that means a lot to me.'"

Sanderson said that mindset of domination and truly aspiring to greatness is what drives Taylor to win. Sanderson said Taylor picks PSU assistant Casey Cunningham two to three times a week as a workout partner in practice. Cunninghman was an NCAA champ in 1999, and is known for being very mentally and physically tough.

"You're either partly crazy or you really want to win," Sanderson said of Taylor wanting to work out with Cunningham. "His confidence comes not from what he says, but in what he does. If he gives up a takedown, it doesn't phase him at all. If you're going to beat David Taylor, you're going to have to score 20 points because he's going to score at least 20 points."

Sanderson said Taylor has that elite-level mindset of thriving off of being in the big matches and rising to those occasions. And that mindset is tied back to the goals he's set for himself and the work he's put in to see them accomplished.

"When I was younger, I dreamed of being a four-time state champ, a four-time national champ and winning the Olympics. I've always had goals like that and dreamed big. I've looked at it as if you're going to set goals, you need to set them high. That's the way that I kept motivated and hungry for the sport," Taylor said.

So where could Taylor's career go from here? He obviously has two years left in State College. In addition to gunning for two more NCAA titles and two more Hodge Trophies. He also wants to follow in the footsteps of his coach and be an Olympic champ.

Taylor hopes to get a wild-card spot to wrestle in next month's Olympic Trials in Iowa City, Iowa, on April 20-21. However, he'll have the reigning 163-pound World champ in Jordan Burroughs in his weight class. Burroughs was the 2011 winner of the Hodge Trophy.

For the first time in the history of the award, both the Hodge Trophy winner and runner-up were from the same team as Ed Ruth finished second in the balleting. Ruth was dominant at 174 all year. At the NCAAs, he reeled off two pins, a technical fall in the semis and put up an impressive 13-2 major decision over Stanford's Nick Amuchastegui in the finals. Ruth only failed to score bonus points in four of his 31 wins on the year, and had ten pins and six technical falls.

PSU's third NCAA champ, Frank Molinaro, finished fourth in the voting behind Cornell's three-time NCAA champ in junior Kyle Dake. Dake had a respectable 12 pins and three techs at 157 pounds. Only 13 of Dake's 35 opponents on the year kept him from scoring bonus points.

Molinaro's 2011-2012 resume at 149 pounds included four pins, seven techs, 11 majors and 11 decisions. He is Penn State's lone senior.

Another Cornell champion and Hodge finalist, senior Cam Simaz, came in fifth in the voting for the Hodge with his title at 197. Iowa junior Matt McDonough was sixth after his second title in three consecutive trips to the NCAA finals at 125.

Taylor is the second Nittany Lion to win the award as Kerry McCoy won the honor in 1997.

Criteria for the award include: a wrestler's record, number of pins, dominance on the mat, past credentials, quality of competition and sportsmanship/citizenship and heart.

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Last Updated March 23, 2012