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Cael Sanderson pursuing perfection in new role as Iowa State head coach

There is no doubt Cael Sanderson could still be a force in international wrestling right now.

He's 27 years old, he's just two years removed from winning an Olympic gold medal in Athens, Greece, and he's still in excellent shape.

But that phase of his life is over. As passionate about wrestling as he was as a competitor, that same fire burns in the first-year head coach of the Iowa State Cyclones.

And just like when he first stepped on the mat as a Cyclone freshman eight years ago, Sanderson expects to win. And win immediately.

The only wrestler to complete a four-year collegiate career unbeaten, Sanderson has the type of the team that could make a run at the NCAA Championship in his first season leading Iowa State's storied program. The Cyclones are ranked sixth in the preseason by Wrestling International Newsmagazine.

"I'm not real patient - I want to win right now," said Sanderson, who went 159-0 and won four NCAA titles as a Cyclone wrestler from 1998-2002. "I expect to win, and I know these kids in the program expect to win."

Iowa State has captured 10 NCAA team titles, but none since 1987. ISU struggled to a 13th-place NCAA finish in the final season for Bobby Douglas last March.

"There is pressure, but that's what I love about Iowa State," Sanderson said. "Everyone expects us to do well. We're not just trying to build a good team. We're trying to build a program that's going to be successful for years and years."

For the Cyclones to win, their talented crop of freshmen will need to deliver. Iowa State is led by senior All-Americans Trent (157) and Travis Paulson (165), and Kurt Backes (197), but ISU could start as many as six freshmen this season.

"My goal that I'm working for and what we are working for as a staff is perfection," Sanderson said. "Even though I don't think perfection is attainable, that's still what we're looking for. Regardless of how well we're doing, we can always do better and we can always look to improve, but at the same time we're having fun and loving the process of what we're doing.

"If we can get a total effort out of each guy on the team - and we have so far - this is going to be a special team. This team's looking real good. We're way ahead of schedule."

The superb crop of freshmen includes Cael's younger brother, Cyler, a Junior Nationals champion. Cyler Sanderson didn't compete in any open tournaments as a true freshman after suffering a knee injury. But Cyler is back now and in the mix to start at 149.

"Cyler's getting better every day," Cael said. "He is anxious to get back on the mat - he hasn't competed in so long."

Iowa State also has promising newcomers in Nick Gallick (133), younger brother of past NCAA champion Nate Gallick, along with Mitch Mueller (141) and Jake Varner (184). Sanderson was instrumental in bringing in that top-ranked recruiting class when he served as an assistant to Douglas.

"These freshmen have been tested," Sanderson said. "They've been in a lot of national competitions and they're used to having pressure on them. It is a great class. They are extremely talented and extremely competitive. They're going to be fun to watch. We could have six freshmen in our lineup, but I have all the confidence in the world in those guys. By the end of the season we'll be ready to compete."

Minnesota and four-time defending NCAA champion Oklahoma State are the top two teams in the preseason polls.

"Minnesota has an incredible team and Oklahoma State obviously has it rolling down there," Sanderson said. "I think there are a lot of programs that have a shot to be right up there. It should be real competitive and that's great for the sport."

The Cyclone veterans have bought into what Sanderson is preaching.

"They know he has what it takes and he's done what no one else could do," said Trent Paulson, a two-time All-American. "He's very positive, he is very organized, every single day is different. I think he's already improved us from the preseason to now."

Sanderson appreciates the leadership provided by the Paulson twins and Backes.

"Those seniors have done a great job in the preseason," Sanderson said. "Things have changed and we have a new coaching staff. They are captains and leaders who already have had success, and they support what we're doing. They've stepped it up, and I'm real proud of the efforts they've put in."

Sanderson also has brought in a top-notch coaching staff. His older brother, Cody, a past Cyclone All-American and former head coach at Utah Valley State, is Iowa State's associate head coach. Past NCAA champion and 2002 World Team member Tim Hartung, a former Iowa assistant, is the other assistant coach.

"As far as his desire to be successful, his desire to be the best, that hasn't changed," Cody Sanderson said of his brother. "He knows that being an athlete is far different than being a coach, and he's adjusted excellent. He's done the things he's needed to do to be a coach."

Cael Sanderson said Cody's experience as a head coach already has proved beneficial.

"Cody helps me with a little bit of everything," Cael said. "He helps with some of the administrative stuff and with the budget, and he has certain guys he works with in the room and keeps an eye on. I'm pretty fortunate to have two incredible assistants with Cody and Tim Hartung. The transition has been phenomenal with those guys. We all have a great relationship with each other. Things couldn't be better."

Building more interest in the Cyclone program is among Sanderson's goals.

"We want to increase our fan base - that's a big priority for us right now," Sanderson said. "There is a lot of excitement in the community and we want to see it for every home match."

Iowa State opens the season Nov. 10 with a dual meet against Buena Vista at Ames High School. ISU wrestles at Iowa on Dec. 3 before hosting Minnesota on Dec. 8. The Cyclones meet Oklahoma State on Jan. 28 at Hilton Coliseum.

There hasn't been much time for Sanderson to catch his breath since he took over for long-time coach Bobby Douglas last spring. But he's enjoying his new role.

"This is fun - I'm having a blast," Sanderson said. "This is what I want to be doing. I wouldn't have it any other way."
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