Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson always will remember Zach Sanders' dedication to his sport.
A couple of years ago on the team van, Sanders was watching a video on his cellphone of a Russian in an international match when an older wrestler approached. He wanted to know what Sanders was watching -- and when informed, he said Sanders was crazy and needed to expand his world view.
Robinson saw it differently.
"The guy who made that comment was never an All-American," Robinson said. "Zach is going to be a four-time All-American."
The Gophers have had only six before.
Actually Sanders, a fifth-year senior, wants more than another top-eight finish at the NCAA championships in mid-March. He came to the University of Minnesota to win a national title for himself and his team. He has yet to achieve either goal. But Sanders appears close to his individual goal. He is 23-1 and ranked No. 2 nationally at 125 pounds.
"There is still an empty spot there that I am working to fill," Sanders said with a little laugh. He was revealing his sensitive side.
Squarely in his path is a boulder, No. 1-rated Matt McDonough of Iowa. The two will wrestle Sunday when the Gophers face the Hawkeyes in the semifinals of the National Duals in Stillwater, Okla. Sanders is 0-1 against McDonough this season, 0-5 over three seasons. The two could also cross paths again in the Big Ten and NCAA meets.
"I don't really know him," Sanders said, "but he is probably making me a better wrestler."
McDonough beat Sanders 7-1 in a Jan. 29 dual meet that host Iowa won by two points.
"[McDonough] controlled me, and he scored all the points," Sanders said. "I have to stick to a game plan and just keep working and wrestle a smarter and harder match. There is no science, no secrets."
McDonough is 5-7 -- 3 1/2 inches taller than Sanders. He won an individual NCAA title as a freshman and was the national runner-up last season at college wrestling's lightest weight. He is 25-1 as a junior, riding a 17-match winning streak.
"McDonough is a lot like Zach," Robinson said. "He is driven to be a national champion, driven to train. Their styles are a little different. McDonough has a longer body, which gives him an advantage in leverage. It will be two titans colliding. So far, McDonough gets the edge, but don't count out Zach."
Sanders said he watches every match he has, takes notes, then adjusts. In preparing for McDonough, he also visualizes himself winning. McDonough relishes going against opponents like Sanders.
"You've got to wrestle tough opponents hard because they're going to fight back with everything they got," McDonough said after his last victory over Sanders. "I love that challenge. If I could wrestle a guy like that every single match, then I would."
Usually, beating an opponent is routine for Sanders. He was a five-time state champion -- like his older brother Eric -- at Wabasha-Kellogg High School, located a little less than 100 miles southeast of the Twin Cities. Their father, Ron, coached them.
"A lot of college coaches and fans tell me they like watching Zach because he does a lot of stuff," Ron Sanders said. "I told him when he was young, 'You can't be a one-trick pony. You have to have a variety of techniques.'"
Sanders has six different takedown moves, a skill set that has helped him place sixth once and fifth twice in NCAA meets.
He needed all his wrestling moxie on Jan. 13 in Champaign, Ill. The Illini's Jesse Delgado took a 9-2 lead on him after the first period. Sanders won 14-13. Delgado is rated No. 6 and has the lone upset over McDonough this season.
"Guys might take a run at [Zach], might score some points," Robinson said, "but there are not many people better than him in a seven-minute match."
Or more passionate about wrestling. One year, when a much younger Zach was competing at 45 pounds, his five-month season ended with the state freestyle tournament in Rochester. On the way home, Ron Sanders remembers his young son saying, "I wish wrestling was starting tomorrow."
Robinson can understand.
"Great people devote a great amount of time to what they love to do, and that's Zach Sanders," Robinson said. "He doesn't want to play soccer like the other guys do to break the monotony. He prefers to focus on wrestling."
However this season ends, Sanders intends to keep wrestling the next four years. He hopes to be on the U.S. freestyle team for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
"We'll keep him around here as a graduate assistant," Robinson said. "He has a great work ethic, and that is infectious."