Anthony Cassar oozes confidence. It’s readily apparent when you watch him wrestle or listen to how he conducts himself during interviews. He has the utmost confidence in his abilities, and possesses the will necessary to execute when the chips are down. Such bravado has drawn criticism, but it’s a font of strength for the newly minted national champion, an element of his character that has been integral in his search for this crowning moment.
Penn State fans are probably familiar with Cassar’s journey at this point, but it’s worth a refresher. He came to Penn State as part of a recruiting class that included the much ballyhooed trio of Nevills, Nickal and Nolf. Cassar, a mere one time New Jersey state champion, was reduced to a footnote. He had, however, accomplished that feat on his very first trip to the tournament, an auspicious result that spoke of great potential.
Earning a spot on the Junior World team went a long way to confirming his latent ability. And, while Penn State fans were surely salivating at their unassuming recruits progression, a shoulder injury suffered in the quarterfinals of that event delayed Cassar’s Penn State debut for quite some time.
One setback after another compounded to the point that Anthony never saw the mat in a Penn State singlet until his junior year. To call that stretch a difficult time is an enormous understatement, especially considering the meteoric rise he’d been enjoying over the previous few years. Rehabbing is awful process, one where progress is slow to come by, and rewards are interlaced with failure. Returning to the mat was the carrot at the end of the stick, but even that seemed a long way away with wrestlers of Bo and Mark Hall’s caliber crowding the upper half of the lineup.
This is where the confidence thing starts to come into play. We’ll never know exactly what went through Cassar’s mind during that period, but even the biggest romantic has to figure he doubted himself, if only for a moment. People have moments of frailty when its darkest, and one can be forgiven for submitting to despair. Looking at it from where we are now, it’s patently clear that Anthony Cassar doesn’t experience doubt like a normal person.
Having finally returned to health for his fourth year of eligibility, Anthony wound up in a three way dog fight for the spot at 197. He, Shakur Rasheed, and Matt McCutcheon battled for the spot over the course of the year, with meetings occuring at the Southern Scuffle and behind closed doors. Shakur seemed to hold the edge going into the later portions of the season, but when he got dinged up in practice ahead of the dual against Ohio State, it meant Cassar got the nod in the most hyped showdown of Cael Sanderson’s Penn State tenure.
Across the mat was Kollin Moore. A junior world team member himself, Moore entered the match as the number one seed in the country. Being thrown into the lion’s den has rarely been a more accurate expression, but Cassar showed no signs of hesitancy or doubt. And, while we all left that match pleasantly surprised, looking back knowing what we know now, Cassar’s shocking victory was… hardly shocking.
Yet even with Cassar’s enormous upset propelling Penn State to victory in the dual, Shakur held down 197 heading into the postseason. After years of never even seeing the mat, Cassar was forced to watch once more as his teammates dueled for the ultimate honor. As the season came to a close, and Penn State were once more crowned NCAA champions, it was abundantly clear that Anthony had yet to achieve his dreams.
I think everyone can agree that Vision Quest is an unbelievably cheesy, albeit endearing movie, but it’s evidence that an individual focused entirely on a single goal can be one of the most unstoppable forces known to man. As Cassar has put so eloquently on more than one occasion, he liked to eat and he liked to lift. He set his eye on the starting spot at 285 and began to do both those things in abundance.
Try to recall our disbelief when Cassar supplanted two time All-American Nick Nevills in the starting lineup on opening day. Now remember our excitement when he teched Billy Bolia of Kent State 17-2 in his heavyweight debut.
Kyle Snyder wasn’t the first great “smaller” heavyweight, but he was a good reminder of how an athlete who was strong, quick on his feet, and technically sound can excel against heavier competition. Anthony may have been giving up some size to his opponents, but between a surgical single leg, a blast double that hit like a freight train, and an array of other attacks, all of which could be finished before the opponent’s size could be brought into play, you had the perfect recipe for national title contender.
Anthony looked unstoppable through the first half of the season, plowing through the competition on his way to the Southern Scuffle finals. There he met Derek White, another top ranked wrestler, who sported only a single loss on the season. Anthony entered as the favorite, but an unusually tentative display, in which he didn’t log a single shot, saw him walk away second best.
It wasn’t the first time in his college career that Anthony had faced adversity, which was probably why he responded so well. He got back to his relentlessly aggressive style of wrestling, posting an undefeated mark as Penn State ran roughshod over Big Ten competition. Having still suffered only one loss he entered the conference tournament as the second seed, seemingly destined for a finals matchup against the newest “potentially greatest wrestler of all time” Gable Steveson.
The hype around Gable was as deserved as you could get. Winning multiple age level world championships will do that for you, but Cassar didn’t seem the slightest bit intimidated. With the pair tied 1-1 heading into the third period of the championship bout, Gable struck first. Once more Cassar didn’t falter. He fought back to his feet, applied pressure and connected on a takedown with 20 seconds left on the clock, the first Gable had conceded all year. After a brief ride Cassar came to his feet, imploring the crowd to calm down. This might have been a shock to us, but to him it was expected. To him failure was never a possibility.
Cassar’s victory at Big Tens gave the rankers a transitive property nightmare when it came to ranking 285 at Nationals. Ultimately they decided that White should get the one seed, which set up a potential Friday night rematch between the Big Ten final foes.
As expected, Cassar and Gable swept through the bracket, setting up a battle between the 2 and 3 seed to decide who would reach the final. The Golden Gopher came out guns blazing, earning a pair of early stall warnings that gave him a first period lead. An escape in the second doubled that advantage as they headed to the third. For most it would have been an insurmountable deficit. Gable had been beyond stingy defensively all year, and had steamrolled through opposition to reach the semifinals. Cassar had been looking just as impressive, but with two minutes left he needed to make something happen.
An escape was a good start, and a takedown actually put him ahead. Cassar rode hard, garnering himself a minute of riding time for his trouble before Gable was able to scuttle free in the latter stages of the period. From there it was smooth sailing. Cassar held his ground and earned the right to wrestle for an NCAA title.
He’d spent the entire year wrestling last, so it must have been a nice treat to finally be the one to kick off the festivities on Saturday night. The first of five Nittany Lions in the finals, Cassar was looking to get revenge for his lone loss of the season against Derek White.
The Cowboy had stymied Cassar’s offense in their first meeting and, for a time it appeared he was doing the same on the grandest stage. The first period passed without any excitement, and the second seemed bound for the same fate as well. That was until Anthony scooped up White’s leg with ten seconds left and dumped him to his back. The end of the period spared White from being pinned, but Cassar entered the third with a commanding lead. A quick escape and a go behind on a half-hearted shot put him ahead 9-1. From there it was clear White was defeated. Cassar rode out the last minute and half before rising to his feet as champion.
Just as he had in High School, Anthony had earned the ultimate honor in his very first attempt. And, as he was mobbed by his friends, it was impossible not to reflect on how improbable his journey was. In a matter of seven years he’d gone from not even qualifying for his state tournament to being anointed the best at his weight in the country. He’d made a junior world team, only to be beset by injury. He’d been unable to win his spot at 197 despite being good enough to take out the top ranked wrestler. He then took a massive risk and challenged one of Penn State’s best wrestlers for the right to represent the school at heavyweight. We all had our doubts. We all had our concerns. We wondered if he would transfer, and we wondered if his was a talent we’d never see bloom in a Penn State singlet. All the while Anthony didn’t doubt. He didn’t worry and he didn’t fear. Because Cassar knows none of those things. He has absolute faith in himself.
It’s been a long road, but here we are. Calm down everybody. The champ is here.