For Zach Sanders, it was never a question of whether he’d wrestle in college. The only questions he really considered were where, for whom, and how well?
“I never thought of not wrestling [in college],” he said, kicking back after practice in the wrestling office at the Bierman Field Athletic Building. “It wouldn’t have made sense to me…I always just expected to.”
Sanders, a redshirt freshman who wrestles at 125 pounds, initially comes across as unassuming in both size and demeanor. But shake his hand or talk with someone who’s encountered him on the mat in the last six years, and that perception will change quickly.
Sanders was bred to wrestle. His father Ron wrestled at the University of Minnesota-Morris and parlayed his love of the sport into coaching almost immediately after college, Sanders said. As the long-time head coach at Wabasha-Kellogg High School, Ron coached both Zach and his older brother Eric throughout their prep careers.
Eric won five individual state championships during his time at Wabasha-Kellogg, lost only nine times during that five-year stretch and went on to wrestle four years at North Dakota State.
Dad a coach who instilled a love for wrestling in Zach essentially from birth; brother one of the most accomplished high school wrestlers in Minnesota history. That’s plenty to live up to, but instead, Zach topped it.
After all, he was on the losing side of things while growing up.
“We’d never live wrestle…unless it was around the house in a fight,” Sanders said, laughing. “Then we’d battle it out…he’d always win.”
But in terms of accomplishments, Zach won. He racked up five individual titles of his own at Wabasha-Kellogg, compiled a career record of 223-5 that included three undefeated seasons, and won the Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award as the top high school wrestler in country as a senior.
After such a prep career, his first two questions about wrestling in college were answered, though not fully. Where? Wherever he wanted. For whom? For whomever he wanted.
He settled on Minneapolis for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Since then, his answer to how well has been remarkable – and he still has a long way to go.
In his first season of official competition after redshirting for the 2007-08 season, Sanders is 27-1, ranked No. 5 at 125 in the most recent InterMat/NWCA/NWMA individual rankings and riding a 12-match win streak.
Surprising? Hardly, according to head coach J Robinson .
“Somewhere along the line he picked it” Robinson said. “He wants to be the best that he can at wrestling.”
Once he did that, success took care of itself, Robinson said.
And Sanders isn’t getting complacent. A couple ways he spent last summer: bear crawling a mile (it took him 55 minutes) and treading water for an hour.
“I thought it’d be cool to say I did it, for one,” Sanders said. “And to help get my body conditioned – like an endurance type thing for the season. The season isn’t one match, it’s a long grind.”
Clearly the unconventional training program is working. And if what Robinson says is true, Sanders may have other Minnesota wrestlers joining him in the bear crawl next summer.
“People naturally follow him,” Robinson said. “They think, ‘Jeeze, if he’s doing this and he’s getting these rewards, if I follow that I’ll get the same thing.’”
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