By James Hemker
This article is part of a running series The Daily sports staff will be publishing on graduating seniors.
Fifth-year senior Mason Pengilly was a captain on last season’s wrestling team, which won the program’s first ever Pac-12 team title. A two-time Pac-12 All-Academic pick, Pengilly graduated with a degree in political science and will attend law school in the fall. He was also one of five Cardinal wrestlers to be named an NWCA Scholar All-American. The team captain was 15-7 and 8-1 in duals in his final season on The Farm. The runner-up at the Pac-12 Championships, Pengilly advanced to the Round of 12 at the NCAA Championships. The Daily’s James Hemker sat down with Pengilly to reflect on his time, both on and off the mat, at Stanford.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you get into wrestling and what made you pursue it at Stanford?
Mason Pengilly (MP): I started wrestling when I was four years old against my parents’ wishes. I had a neighbor that would go to youth wrestling practices. He was five or six years older than me, so he was someone that I looked up to at that age. One day his dad decided to take me to a practice with him. I went and started wrestling, and I fell in love with it right then. Wrestling was a part of my life for the past 19 years, and it’s sad to see it end to be honest. At Stanford you can’t get a better education in the United States, and I got to compete at a Division I level. Stanford has an elite athletics program — the best in the country — so why not go to the best institution to pursue my goals, athletically and academically.
TSD: When did you realize you could wrestle in college?
MP: It started becoming a reality early on in high school. I had some success and started receiving some letters. When it was permitted, coaches were reaching out and talking to me so it was definitely a very exciting time. It made me realize that I would have to work extremely hard. What I had been doing then was not necessarily enough to go to those great places, so I needed to increase how hard I worked, and I had to hit the books harder.
TSD: Do you remember your first day of practice at Stanford?
MP: When I came to Stanford I was so nervous. There was all the pressure of being at Stanford and being a Division I athlete. I felt like I didn’t belong to be honest. I kept thinking, “How did I get into this institution? Why did they let me in? I’m not good enough academically and athletically.” But after a couple of months of getting my butt kicked, I started figuring things out. After my first quarter, I realized I had to work a lot harder academically and be extremely diligent with my time management. There was no room for missing out on this opportunity.
TSD: What are some of your favorite moments over the years?
MP: Wrestling-wise, it has got to be winning the Pac-12 this year for the first time in program history. My coaches have preached it the whole time I’ve been at Stanford, like, “Hey we want to do something great. We believe in you guys.” Then to actually do it and accomplish it was a dream come true. Everything that I had done, all my individual successes, took a back seat.
TSD: Speaking of individual success, what was it like reaching the Round of 12 at NCAA’s this year?
MP: That was pretty awesome honestly. I always believed that I was capable of wrestling extremely well. Despite being considered one of the best in my weight class, I didn’t necessarily go and prove it early on in my career. Being able to wrestle at the NCAA tournament for a second time, and being able to show what kind of wrestler I am was awesome.
But at the same time, losing in the Round of 12 is the worst place you can possibly lose because you are one match away from placing. I think that match is going to haunt me for the rest of my life. Of course I will have regrets and maybe wish I wrestled a little bit differently to change the outcome, but I’m extremely proud of myself. I’m glad I came back for a fifth year and wrestled because otherwise I wouldn’t have won a Pac-12 team title and I wouldn’t have gone that far in the NCAA tournament. It’s truly a blessing.
TSD: What were some of the challenges you had to overcome?
MP: Time management is incredibly crucial. You have to figure out how to get things done, and it’s a skill. You have to learn how to do that at Stanford for sure. Wrestling-wise, I would say that staying healthy was a challenge. All five years of my career I had one injury or another that made me miss time, and I didnt realize the value of time and health until I wrestled here. I think I took it for granted beforehand…Having to comeback and wrestle after injuries was incredibly tough. At the same time, I wouldn’t have it any other way because it shaped me into the person I am today, who I am as a wrestler, and who I will be going forward for the rest of my life.
TSD: Were injuries a part of your decision to redshirt?
MP: Yeah, so my junior year I was planning on wrestling, however, an unexpected knee injury the week before competition began forced me to redshirt. But I would say it worked out for the best.
TSD: What was it like being a team captain?
MP: Honestly, it was very humbling, and I was incredibly thankful. At the same time, I knew I had some big shoes to fill because the guys before me had set a precedent. They were excellent leaders who led by example, and I admired them. So to be considered one of those guys on the team, I can’t explain it. I’m extremely grateful. I hope I passed on some wisdom. I hope I led by example, and I hope that I was somebody that people could talk to on the team.
TSD: Were there any aspects of it that you didn’t anticipate?
MP: I didn’t anticipate all the team meetings and all the meetings with the coaching staff. Especially the length and the amount of time those meetings would take. We also had some difficult situations during the season that I didn’t know would arise. Having to talk through those and find clarity and common ground was challenging at times. But it also made us a collective unit and a team. It was overall a great experience.
TSD: Are you a superstitious person when it comes to game day?
MP: Yeah, I would say I’m pretty superstitious. Actually, let me rephrase that. I’m superstitious in a way. I do the same warm up every time before I wrestle. This year I wore the same pair of compression shorts and socks for every dual meet and for every first day of competition at tournaments. In the warm up area at the NCAA tournament, I would do the same routine with our assistant coach Nate Engel. I would get a drink out of my water bottle, then he would take a drink out of my water bottle. He then would massaged my shoulders and talk to me about the match. Then I would start bouncing around and getting ready. Then we would go wait in the same spot for when I would get called to the mat. So yeah I have superstitious tendencies, but I don’t think I have to do a certain thing exactly. I am a creature of habit.
TSD: You’ve been married since the end of your freshman year, which is certainly unusually for Stanford. How has that shaped your time here?
MP: Yeah, it’s definitely unusual. Looking back on it, it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, and my wife Kaina has been there for me at times when I didn’t even believe in myself. She’s helped me see the light in every situation, and without her I don’t know if I would have finished wrestling or where I would be at. Stanford is an awesome place, but Kaina helped me through the tough times and I can’t thank her enough. Her unwavering support was truly incredible. Being married first seemed very weird. I first felt like I was an outcast, but then as I matured in age and was at Stanford for a little longer, it didn’t hinder anything at all. I felt like I had a pretty normal experience other than that I lived in married housing and I didn’t live in the dorms.
TSD: Is married housing nice?
MP: [laughing] Yeah, I would definitely say married housing is better than the dorms. I lived in Oak Creek for three years, and then for my fifth year in winter quarter I somehow got assigned to Munger. I didn’t choose it, but I somehow got assigned there. Munger is pretty sweet, and Oak Creek is pretty nice also. I can’t complain.
TSD: Have you graduated? What are your future plans?
MP: I graduated after fall quarter of this year. For future plans, Kaina and I will be attending law school in August. At this time, it looks like we will be going to the University of Oregon School of Law. We are both going, so I’ll have a built-in study partner. I’m extremely excited about that, we both are, but it was tough having to leave the Bay Area. I’ve loved being in Palo Alto for five years.
I’m gonna truly miss my time, but I’m excited for the next chapter of my life. I’m excited to move to Eugene, but I’m not crazy about wearing Kelly green. Even though they don’t have a wrestling program, I don’t think I could ever root for the Ducks.
TSD: What made you want to pursue law school?
MP: It’s always been a dream of mine. Growing up, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I was older, I always said I wanted to be an attorney. When I came to Stanford, I majored in political science, and I love it. And here I am now, applying to go to law school. Or, not applying, I already got through the applications and the LSAT, and I don’t ever want to have to do that again.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.