When cameras and reporters buzz around Caleb Sanders, Glenwood’s heavyweight looks as if he’d rather be anywhere else.
The problem with that is Sanders can’t stop putting himself in the spotlight. He’s too competitive to settle for anything other than his best.
His coaches will tell you it doesn’t matter if it’s wrestling, football or track practice, or an inconsequential game at P.E. class, Sanders goes all-out.
“You get him in that setting where he gets to be competitive,” Glenwood football coach Cory Faust said, “and he’s a completely different person.”
Bring it up to Sanders, and you’ll get a quick confirmation in the form of a sheepish smile.
“I’ll be in P.E., and we’ll be playing soccer or ultimate football, I’ll go really hard and I’ll be sweating my butt off by the time class is over,” Sanders said. “I just like to compete. I don’t like to lose very much.
“I think it’s just been from the people I’ve been around. Like Anthony Sherry — he’s just like me — he just likes to compete. Isaac Bales, same way. We’re always competing against each other to see who can do better at tournaments.”
It’s not the full story, but that competitive spirit is a big part of what’s made Sanders — a South Dakota State football recruit — such a force in multiple sports.
Sanders knocked off two nationally ranked heavyweights — John McConkey of Atlantic and Lee Herrington of Kearney — en route to a Council Bluffs Wrestling Classic title at the Mid-America Center on Saturday.
Both victories came by 3-2, ultimate-tiebreaker decisions. There was once a time when a long, tight match rattled Sanders a little bit, but now he embraces it. He knows he’s strong, conditioned and mentally tough enough to grind it out.
“I think he had his mind set on where he wanted to be at the end of the day,” Glenwood wrestling coach Brad Asche said. “Nothing was going to stop him.”
Now, for the first time in his career, Sanders is officially among the top 15 wrestlers in the nation, landing 14th in the latest InterMat high school rankings and first among Iowa grapplers.
Not bad for a kid who only wrestles during the winter.
“It says a lot,” Sanders said. “When I was a freshman, I wasn’t very good at all. Now I’m ranked first and winning tournaments. That’s something I never thought I’d be able to do when I was a freshman.”
Sanders’ first love has always been football. He didn’t start wrestling until he was in seventh grade, and it took him a few years to understand the nuances of the sport and how to compete in it.
His first real breakthrough came near the end of his freshman year. When he moved up from 220 pounds to heavyweight for districts because of a teammate’s injury, Sanders took the field by surprise, winning the tournament and qualifying for state.
As a sophomore, he returned to state and placed fourth. The following year, he entered the tourney ranked second in Class 3-A, but he suffered a surprising first-round loss that forced him to battle through the back side of the bracket instead of vie for a state title.
He didn’t lose again, placing third.
“He could have folded after losing first round,” Asche said. “He didn’t. I think that kind of humbled him a little bit more and put him in his place, and he went on and wrestled on the back side. That’s a true competitor.”
On the football field, the 6-foot-1, 260-pound Sanders didn’t just anchor the Rams’ defensive line this year, he led the team in tackles with 52.5 total and 16 for loss. In his prep career, he was a three-time first-team all-district pick and two-time first-team all-state honoree. He also qualified for the state track meet last year in the discus.
Sanders’ unwavering devotion to the weight room has been a constant since his sophomore year. Faust said between lifting in the morning, P.E. class and practice after school, Sanders would often work out three times a day.
The result? Now Sanders can squat 560 pounds, bench 365 pounds and run a 4.89 40.
“Some of the stuff he does in the weigh room is pretty crazy,” Faust said.
With Sanders coming off such a dominant performance at the Classic, his confidence has never been higher, and neither have his expectations.
“Win every match,” Sanders said. “I think if I don’t win, I didn’t put it all out there.”