Unusual recruit challenging for national championship
It was the unlikeliest place to stumble upon the next big star for Penn State wrestling.
Little did Troy Sunderland know seven years ago when he entered the restroom at an Applebee's in Hershey, Pa., that he'd find a future prized recruit while he stood at the urinal.
Hanging on the wall in front of the Penn State coach was a sports page featuring a local high school sophomore getting ready to compete at the state wrestling tournament. Sunderland stood there, reading every word about how the kid once boarded a bus to travel a couple hours on his own to and from an offseason tournament.
"That kind of sparked my interest that the kid was a go-getter and somebody we should take a look at," Sunderland said.
This is how the Nittany Lions discovered Phil Davis, whose clandestine entrance to college without a state championship is now a footnote to his history-making career. The senior could become the fourth wrestler in Penn State history to achieve All-America status four times, but his primary mission is to become the school's first NCAA champion since 2000.
"I wasn't able to win a state title, but looking back now, that's small potatoes," said Davis, who placed fourth at the Pennsylvania state tournament as a sophomore and junior and fifth as a senior for Harrisburg High School. "It's a trivial thing to be a state champ once you're in a college room. Now it's all about winning a Division I national title. That's what I want to do. There are a lot of guys who win state titles who can't win national titles. It would define my career as a folkstyle wrestler."
Davis is 11-0 at 197 pounds this season and ranked second to defending NCAA champion Josh Glenn of American. But perhaps no upper-weight in the country ranks higher than Davis in terms of dominance this season. His 11 victories have come in the form of five pins, two technical falls, three major decisions and one regular decision.
Not bad for a guy who nearly quit wrestling after his first day in the sport.
"I have a very dogmatic personality," said Davis, who also ran on the cross country team and was the No. 1 player on his tennis squad in high school. "If I think something is too daunting of a task or undoable, it's easier for me to not try than to do it and fail. That's the way I felt about wrestling."
Davis took up the sport in seventh grade as a favor to a friend who wanted accompaniment on the first day of junior high practice.
"I hated it," Davis said. "I came home the first day, wanted to quit and my mom told me to stick with it for a week. That was not what I wanted to hear. I ended up going back, still didn't like it and meant to quit. I honestly forgot to quit."
The team camaraderie pulled Davis closer to wrestling. He developed a new group of friends. He started gaining an appreciation for the sport and realized he had some skills, too. He compiled a 16-1 record in eighth grade and caught the attention of college coaches -- Sunderland included -- when he nearly knocked off Penn State recruit Joel Edwards in the state semifinals as a sophomore.
"He really wasn't that polished on his feet, but on the mat you could definitely tell he knew what he was doing and had the skills to be a great mat wrestler," Sunderland said. "We felt if he had a good work ethic that the sky could be the limit for him."
So did a few other schools. Though Davis wasn't a nationally-targeted recruit, Penn State offered a 50 percent scholarship. Davis said Pittsburgh doubled that.
"There's only 9.9 scholarships [per team] in wrestling, and if somebody's willing to give me a full, they really want to build a team around me," Davis said. "But coming from Harrisburg -- not traditionally a force in high school wrestling -- I didn't want to go to a school where I'd feel like a big fish in a small pond again. I wanted to go somewhere that I wouldn't be able to start [immediately] and I'd have to fight just to gain status on the team. I wanted to go somewhere I'd have competition and be the small fish in a big pond."
Davis redshirted during his first year at Penn State. He won 16 of 19 matches in open competition that winter and impressed Sunderland with the dedication his coach once read about on the restroom wall.
"He was always doing the extra things after a practice was over -- rope climbs, chin-ups, extra crawls," Sunderland said. "He had the attitude of getting better and learning. It was a long process getting him better on his feet. He worked a lot of hours, but he has that leverage, reach and length and he can really frustrate and tire out his opponents."
Davis placed seventh at the NCAA meet as a freshman, lost in the national finals as a sophomore and finished fifth last season. He employs a style enhanced by unorthodox techniques that aren't taught at youth clinics, locking up some opponents by baiting them into positions where they normally feel secure. Davis thinks his skills could transition well to a possible career in mixed martial arts after college.
"We're still trying to figure out whether he's a great athlete that does a lot of unique things or whether he's not a great athlete and has his own things he does well," Sunderland said.
Either way, Davis has developed into the big fish in a big pond.
Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.