Sophomore heavyweight Gable Steveson made it look easy Friday night against a highly ranked opponent in his first home match since he was suspended in June on suspicion of sexual assault.
Steveson, ranked No. 2 in the country, easily handled Wisconsin’s Trent Hillger, who is ranked No. 5, winning 10-5 in a dual against Wisconsin at Maturi Pavilion.
The Gophers opened their Big Ten wrestling season with a 20-14 victory.
Steveson, from Apple Valley High School, led the entire match on the strength of speedy takedowns. His victory put the Gophers ahead 13-0 in the dual.
When Hillger attempted attacks, Steveson easily thwarted him. The powerful Steveson also picked Hillger off the mat multiple times.
The Gophers heavyweight broke a sweat but didn’t seem particularly challenged. Steveson is uncommonly mobile for a heavyweight, and that was definitely noticeable Friday.
“It felt great. The atmosphere was great,” he said.
Adding to the atmosphere was former Gopher Brock Lesnar, now a global star with WWE. Wearing a three-piece light gray suit, Lesnar received a plaque from coach Brandon Eggum commemorating the 20th anniversary of his NCAA championship. He posed with dozens of kids during a break in the action.
Fans welcomed Lesnar and also Steveson in his first match at Maturi Pavilion since he was suspended in June. Six months later, prosecutors declined to press charges against him and teammate Dylan Martinez, and the wrestlers rejoined the team.
Although he wasn’t with the team during the suspension, Steveson continued to train, and qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials. He said he intensified his focus with the aim of winning an NCAA title and making the Olympic team.
Steveson, who weighs well below the heavyweight limit, also began focusing on nutrition and gave up junk food.
“I felt good,” he said about the match. “I’ve been after it.”
The heavyweight matchup was significant in part because word came last week that the nation’s top-ranked heavyweight, Anthony Cassar of Penn State, was out for the rest of the season because of an injury. Cassar was the only wrestler to defeat Steveson last year, accomplishing it twice.
The arena was crowded Friday but not quite at its 5,500 capacity. As is custom, kids crowded around the wrestlers for autographs and photos after the event. Steveson, with his robust head of dark hair and megawatt smile, is a favorite with the youngsters who surrounded him and called him by his first name.
Even during the early matches, as Steveson sat on the floor getting taped by a trainer, two young fans in maroon and gold waved and called out, “Gable. Gable.” He turned around, smiled and waved back.