It was an audacious fashion choice, to be sure. Gophers freshman Gable Steveson stalked onto the Williams Arena floor wearing a shiny golden singlet, a color that signified the heavyweight title he was favored to win at Sunday’s Big Ten wrestling championships.
Instead, it was the navy-clad Anthony Cassar who put on a blue-ribbon performance. The Penn State senior dealt Steveson the first defeat of his college career, scoring two points on a takedown with 20 seconds remaining for a 4-3 win and the Big Ten crown. The loss ended Steveson’s unbeaten run at 30 matches, stunning a crowd announced at 11,947 that expected to see the Gophers win their first individual Big Ten title since 2015.
Though it was an unsatisfying day for the freshman from Apple Valley, it didn’t take the shine off a fine overall showing for the Gophers. Third-place finishes by Sean Russell (125 pounds), Ethan Lizak (133) and Devin Skatzka (174) pushed them into fourth place in the team standings with 101.5 points. Penn State won the team title with 157.5 points, followed by Ohio State (122.5) and Iowa (107.5).
Gophers coach Brandon Eggum said the upset was a tough but valuable lesson for his rookie star before the NCAA championships March 21-23. After Steveson seized a 3-1 lead with a takedown early in the third period, he stopped attacking, a tactical error against an older, more seasoned opponent.
“I think when he went out there, he wrestled a little bit like he just thought he was going to win the match,’’ Eggum said. “He attacked one time. He had the points. He kind of felt comfortable there. I think he felt a little bit safe.
“He’s got to score more. He’s got to give himself more opportunities.’’
Steveson, the nation’s top-ranked heavyweight, didn’t argue with that assessment. He held a 1-0 lead going into the final period before Cassar, ranked No. 3, evened it with an escape.
Down 3-1 after Steveson upended him, Cassar scored on another escape to make it 3-2, then took Steveson down near the edge of the mat for a 4-3 lead. A fast, nimble wrestler who moved from 197 pounds to heavyweight just this season, Cassar kept Steveson in check for the final seconds to earn his first Big Ten title.
“I got my takedown, but you can’t just sit on one takedown,’’ said Steveson, who was named the league’s freshman of the year after the finals. “Honestly, I think I should have picked up the pace a little more. I was testing out too many things instead of just pulling the trigger, and unfortunately, he got the last bite on it.’’
The Gophers got off to a fast start Sunday with back-to-back victories by Russell and Lizak in third-place matches. Russell dominated Indiana’s Elijah Oliver 6-0, and Lizak defeated No. 2 seed Austin DeSanto of Iowa 6-2.
Mitch McKee finished fourth at 141 pounds, Tommy Thorn was fifth at 149 and Steve Bleise placed sixth at 157. Carson Brolsma won the ninth-place match at 165, joining Steveson, Russell, Lizak, McKee, Thorn, Bleise and Skatzka as automatic qualifiers for the NCAA tournament in Pittsburgh.
Another Apple Valley native, Mark Hall of Penn State, defended his Big Ten title at 174 pounds, defeating Michigan’s Myles Amine 3-2. Hall was among five individual champs for the Nittany Lions.
Eggum said he was proud of his team’s fight and believes the Big Ten tournament has set it up well for the NCAA meet. Even with the loss, he believes the experience was good for Steveson, too.
“The takeaway is, now you’ve got to go out and earn it,’’ Eggum said. “Before, you’re kind of maybe expecting things to happen.’’
With a week and a half to absorb the lessons, Steveson expects to be better at the NCAA meet, when he could get a rematch.
“It’s unfortunate,’’ he said. “It just makes you more hungry.’’