By Matt Allibone, GoPSUsports.com, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - As the Penn State wrestling team celebrated its fourth-straight national championship Saturday night in Oklahoma City, the majority of the attention was focused on the two men who brought home individual titles for the team, David Taylor and Ed Ruth.
With Taylor having just earned his second undefeated season and individual national title, and Ruth having become the program's first three-time national championship, this certainly was no surprise. For the team however, there may have been no wrestler more valuable than the third senior in the Nittany Lion lineup, James English.
English has been at Penn State for six years, yet this past weekend was his first appearance at the NCAA Championships. He missed two entire season due to injury, had to pay his own tuition after being granted a sixth season of eligibility, and wasn't inserted as a starter until two weeks before the Big Ten tournament.
None of that matters now. With an incredible performance in the NCAA Championships, English earned himself a seventh-place finish and All-American status, an outcome that seemed improbable a few months ago.
"I'm just glad I never stopped fighting and after six years I was finally able to make it here," English said. "This is what my goal was and it's great to be able to accomplish that."
Few athletes in any sport can claim to have gone through as much adversity as English has in his career. He sat out his entire freshman campaign, fought for two years to make the starting lineup, missed the 2011-'12 season following shoulder surgery, and then was relegated to backup duty for Andrew Alton last year.
Though the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility, few expected him to come back. Even head coach Cael Sanderson, long his biggest supporter, was surprised when English decided to return to the team.
"This is a kid who shouldn't wrestle. He's going to have neck and back problems his whole life," Sanderson said. "He came back for a sixth year and I wasn't sure why because he's always hurt."
Despite the doubts, English never considered not coming back to Penn State. Even having already earned his degree, he knew he had unfinished business.
Determined as he was, the setbacks just continued to come for the York, Pa., native, as nagging injuries once again limited him to just two early season dual meets, which he lost. With Alton set to return from his own shoulder injury and freshman Zack Beitz exceeding expectations, English seemed to be the odd man out.
"He probably didn't wrestle somebody live (in practice) all year outside of a coach," Sanderson said. "As the season went along, I had kind of written him off."
Nobody would have blamed him for throwing in the towel on his career, but English, the only wrestler on the team whose time at Penn State precedes Sanderson's tenure as coach, kept coming back for more.
After getting healthy enough to compete in open tournaments late in the regular season, English beat both Alton and Beitz in wrestle-offs to earn himself the postseason stating spot at 149.
A sixth-place finish at the Big Ten tournament earned English a bid in the NCAA tournament, where despite being unseeded, he managed to defeat 12th-ranked Dylan Cottrell of Appalachian State in the opening round.
When a hard fought 4-3 loss to eventual national champion Jason Tsirtsis (Northwestern) ended his dream of winning the tournament, English refused to hang his head, knowing his team needed him to produce points in the consolation rounds.
"You can't dwell on (losing) because it's not going to do you any good," English said. "I just had to make the best of any situation I had and keep fighting the whole time."
English continued to fight on, winning two straight against Christian Barber (North Carolina) and Ryan Lubeck (Wisconsin) before clinching All-American status with a huge 6-4 overtime victory over 10th-ranked Zach Niebert of Virginia Tech.
After falling to Edinboro's David Habat in the consolation quarterfinals, English saved his best performance for last, taking down 2013 national champion Kendric Maple of Oklahoma, 2-1, to finish in seventh, and more importantly, keep the Nittany Lions ahead in the team race over Minnesota.
"If there's one way to describe how I wrestled out there, it's just fight the whole way through," English said. "Cael told me after the match that I made him so proud and that means the world to me."
On a team filled with some of the biggest names in college wrestling, English entered his lone NCAA Championships appearance as Penn State's least notable wrestler and left it as one of the surprise stars of the weekend.
Taylor, who made sure to hug English as he exited the floor following his victory over Maple, couldn't have been happier for his teammate.
"When you talk about a guy who lives his life the right way and has had some very unfortunate things happen to him, James English is the first guy that comes to mind," Taylor said. "He works unbelievably hard, and now he's an All-American. That's pretty special."
English's accomplishments may not match those of Taylor and Ruth in terms of wins and accolades, but there is no doubt that his run to reach All-American status has secured him a place in Penn State history.
"It really is unbelievable," Sanderson said. "He gutted out some wins and that's bigger than wrestling and bigger than winning championships."
English's Will Defines Penn State's Fourth Straight Title
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