As he prepared to wrestle at the Big Ten championships for the first time, Gable Steveson didn’t see any need to alter his approach. “I’ll just go out there and do what I do,” the Gophers freshman heavyweight said. “I think that works best for me.”
What he has done all season is win. That didn’t change, either, as Steveson rolled through three matches Saturday and into the finals at Williams Arena. The nation’s top-ranked heavyweight wrestled the same way he always does, with freedom and creativity, to reach Sunday’s title match and lead the Gophers to fifth place in the team standings after the first day of competition.
Though Steveson was the only Gopher to reach the finals, four others made it to the semifinals: Sean Russell (125 pounds), Tommy Thorn (149), Steve Bleise (157) and Devin Skatzka (174). Ethan Lizak (133) and Mitch McKee (141) were defeated in the quarterfinals but advanced through the consolation bracket. Those six will compete Sunday for third through sixth place.
Penn State, which put eight of its 10 wrestlers in the semifinals, leads the team race with 131 points and six wrestlers in the finals — including Anthony Cassar, who will face Steveson, and 174-pounder Mark Hall of Apple Valley. Ohio State, with five in the finals, is second with 111½, followed by Nebraska (84), Iowa (83½) and the Gophers (76½).
“We got some upsets early, which was really nice,” Gophers coach Brandon Eggum said. “We knew we had a tough round [Saturday evening]. It would have been nice to win a few more of them. But overall, it was good, and [Sunday] is going to be a big day for us.”
It will be a particularly big day for Steveson, which suits a big man with very big goals. In his tournament debut, the Apple Valley native gloried in the overstuffed atmosphere of Williams Arena, where Saturday’s action drew crowds announced at 11,778 for the morning and 11,829 for the evening.
Steveson started with a technical fall over Rutgers’ Christian Colucci, then outlasted Iowa senior Sam Stoll — a two-time Minnesota prep champion at Kasson-Mantorville — 5-3 in the quarterfinals. He defeated No. 4 seed Trent Hilger of Wisconsin 10-4 in the semifinals. Sunday, Steveson will pursue the Gophers’ first Big Ten individual title since Chris Dardanes won the 133-pound crown in 2015.
“It felt electric,” said Steveson, now 30-0 this season. “Williams Arena is a big place. It was just crazy to be here. It feels like everyone’s on top of you, and all eyes are on you.
“I feed off the crowd. I feed off the big lights. I like all that spotlight on me. It felt nice to get out there.”
Eggum was generally pleased with the way his team handled the pressure and emotion that comes with hosting the conference tournament. The Gophers, he said, were both relaxed and excited, which helped propel them to a productive first session.
Half of their 10 wrestlers made the semifinals, with several scoring bonus points with pins, technical falls and major decisions. Most were unable to keep the momentum going in the semifinals against higher-ranked opponents. Skatzka lost a 4-2 decision to Hall, the nation’s top-ranked 174-pounder and defending Big Ten champion. Russell fell 8-0 to Iowa’s Spencer Lee, Thorn was defeated 5-1 by No. 1-ranked Anthony Ashnault of Rutgers and Bleise dropped a 6-3 decision to Nebraska’s Tyler Berger.
Steveson, Russell, Lizak, McKee, Thorn, Bleise and Skatzka secured berths in the NCAA tournament with their performances Saturday.
Eggum said he loved the way Steveson handled the first day of his first Big Ten tournament. Steveson hopes he loves Sunday even more; he predicted there will be “fireworks” against Cassar, who is 14-0 against Big Ten opponents and ranked No. 3 in the nation.
“I just want to have fun,” Steveson said. “I’m going to go out there and let it fly.”