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Iowa State standout Jake Varner following in Sanderson's footsteps

Iowa State standout Jake Varner following in Sanderson's footsteps
Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
12/25/2007

Jake Varner was a freshman in high school when he read about four-time NCAA champion Cael Sanderson in Sports Illustrated.

When Varner traveled to New York City with his high school team a year later to watch the World Championships, he saw Sanderson capture a silver medal.

Varner loved the way Sanderson wrestled and marveled at how humble an elite athlete of his caliber was.

Like Sanderson, Varner was heavily recruited coming out of high school. The Bakersfield, Calif., native was leaning toward joining high-school teammate Nathan Morgan at Oklahoma State. That’s where he thought he was headed after making his recruiting visit to Stillwater, Okla. Varner had visits lined up to Iowa State and Iowa the following two weekends, but planned on canceling them.

“I was ready to commit after my visit to Oklahoma State,? Varner said. “But my dad said, ‘You need to talk to Cael first.’ ?

Talking to Cael, and everyone else involved with the Iowa State program, changed everything for Varner. Sitting next to his parents on the flight home to California, Varner turned to his father and said he was going to become a Cyclone. Sanderson, who had just won an Olympic gold medal, was a big reason why.

“Meeting Cael was really awesome – he made a huge impression on me,? said Varner, a two-time California state champion. “Plus I felt like I really fit in with the guys at Iowa State. Right then, I knew that was where I needed to go to achieve my goals.?

Coming to Iowa State already has paid huge dividends for Varner, who placed second at the 2007 NCAA Championships as a freshman. The ISU sophomore is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 nationally at 184 pounds this season.

Sanderson was an assistant coach to Bobby Douglas at Iowa State when Varner chose ISU. Sanderson then became the Cyclone head coach following Varner’s redshirt season in Ames.

“I work out with Cael as much as I can,? Varner said. “He’s helped me so much with everything – on my feet, down on the mat. He’s a great coach and he’s so knowledgeable. I have improved so much since I came here. Cael’s had a huge impact on me. He’s been the best wrestler in the World – he obviously knows what he is talking about.?

Varner entered the 2007 NCAA Championships in Auburn Hills, Mich., as the No. 6 seed at 184 after placing second at the Big 12 tournament.

But Varner, who entered the tournament with seven losses, knocked off No. 2 seed and returning NCAA runner-up Roger Kish of Minnesota in the semifinals. Varner won 4-2 in overtime. Kish had defeated Varner twice during the season.

“I just had it in my head that there was no way I was going to lose to Kish again,? Varner said. “I didn’t really change my game plan a whole lot. I just had the mindset that, ‘There is no way I am going to lose this match.’ ?

Varner fell to No. 1 seed Jake Herbert of Northwestern in the NCAA finals. Varner helped lead ISU to a second-place finish in the team race and became the first Cyclone freshman since Sanderson in 1999 to reach the NCAA finals.

“Jake did an incredible job at NCAAs and executed what he had been working on,? Sanderson said. “He wasn’t worried about being a freshman. He went out there to compete and went out there to win. Every time he steps on the mat he expects to win.?

Varner already owns a pair of wins over the No. 2 Kish this season. He beat Kish in the all-star dual and in a dual meet at Minnesota.

“That was great for Jake,? Sanderson said. “Anytime you wrestle top competition you get better. I know he was real excited for that opportunity.?

Varner’s second win over Kish this season led ISU to a dual win over then-No. 1 Minnesota. The Gophers are the returning NCAA tournament champions.

The Cyclones followed by dropping a home dual to Iowa, despite a win by Varner. Iowa is now ranked No. 1 in a season where parity has been a recurring theme.

“We’ve put that loss to Iowa behind us already,? Varner said. “We’ve changed some things and improved since then. We’re constantly working to get better. We hate losing to them, but we’re looking at the big picture at NCAAs.?

The 6-foot-1 Varner, a tough, physical, hard-nosed wrestler, is difficult to score on. Putting more points on the board has been an area of emphasis for Varner.

“Jake’s been working real hard on his offense,? Sanderson said. “He has some great shots and you will see more leg attacks from him.?

Similar to Sanderson during his college days, Varner leads largely by example.

“I would say I’m shy and I’m quiet for the most part,? Varner said. “Once you get to know me, I will open up and talk a little bit more. But I’m pretty laid back for the most part.?

Varner said he patterns much of the way he carries himself after Sanderson.

“I love how humble Cael is,? Varner said. “If anyone comes up to him, he will always sign an autograph for them. He never talks about his wins or all that he’s accomplished in his career. You don’t have to be cocky about what you do. I’m pretty much the same way. I don’t like to talk about what I’ve accomplished.?

Varner is part of a star-studded sophomore class at ISU that also includes sophomore national qualifiers Nick Fanthorpe (133), Nick Gallick (141), Mitch Mueller (149), Cyler Sanderson (157) and David Zabriskie (heavyweight).

“We’re all real close to each other,? Varner said. “We all help each other and push each other in the room. I give a lot of credit to those guys for helping me. They all work really hard. It’s a great group of guys.?

The influence of ISU assistant coach Tim Hartung, a two-time NCAA champion for Minnesota and a past U.S. World Team member, also has paid off for Varner.

Hartung recruited Varner when Hartung was as an assistant coach at Iowa. Sanderson hired Hartung at Iowa State prior to the 2006-07 season.

“It has all worked out the best for me with Hartung being here now,? Varner said. “I like wrestling with Hartung – you really have to earn your takedowns with him. He’s taught me a lot. He has a great personality. I love working with him.?

Another aspect of the Iowa State program Varner likes is that Sanderson keeps the team loose off the mat.

It’s a side of Sanderson a lot of people don’t see.

“Cael jokes around with us a lot,? Varner said. “He has that real dry sense of humor where he is sarcastic and keeps you off guard. He loves video games and we’ve played them at his house. It’s a fun release away from wrestling.?

Varner said he plans to jump right into freestyle wrestling once the current college season ends. He made the U.S. Junior World Team the summer after he finished high school.

“I will wrestle in Las Vegas (at April’s U.S. Nationals) and try to make the Olympic Team this year,? he said. “One of my goals is to win the Olympics.?

For now, a more immediate goal is capturing his first NCAA title this March in St. Louis.

“I just have to keep working to get better in all three positions,? Varner said. “I’ve been working on my feet and on my shots. I’m working to get better on top. And I’ve improved in the down position – I had a hard time getting away from people last year. That’s where I got beat.?

The memory of the 2007 NCAA finals loss to Herbert, who is taking an Olympic redshirt this season, is motivation enough.

“My goal last year was to win the NCAA title,? Varner said. “I hate losing and it left a bad taste in my mouth. I learned from that loss. I’m a much better wrestler now.?