World champion Steveson performs under pressure

Two wrestlers with AVHS ties help lift U.S. team to victory

Gable Steveson (first row, second from left) and Mark Hall (first row, third from left) won individual championships and helped the U.S. win the team title at the Junior World Championships. Steveson, a three-time high school wrestling champion, will be a senior at Apple Valley this fall. Hall won six state titles at Apple Valley before graduating in 2016 and won an NCAA championship at Penn State as a true freshman. USA Wrestling photo

USA Wrestling had not won the team title at the Junior World Championships since 1984, and last week it appeared as if the drought might continue – unless Gable Steveson won his final match at 264 pounds.

Yeah, no pressure at all.

Steveson has wrestled in plenty of big matches, but nothing like what he faced Aug. 2 in Tampere, Finland, when the outcome of the Junior World team competition hinged on his match. He defeated Iran’s Naeiim Hassanzadeh 5-1, which gave the U.S. a one-point margin over Russia in the standings and its first team title in 33 years. It also was the third consecutive world championship for Steveson, the Apple Valley High School senior-to-be who won at the Cadet World tournament the previous two years.

“I hadn’t been following the team standings that closely, but one of my teammates came up to me and said, ‘If you win your match, we’ll win the team championship,’ ” Steveson said. “So that was a lot different than anything I’d faced before. I just had to try to relax and keep doing what had been successful for me.”

Steveson’s match against Hassanzadeh was the closest of his five at the Junior Worlds. He won the other four by at least 11 points. In other words, it was a dominant performance not unlike what he has done in high school wrestling the last three years, where he’s a three-time state champion and holds a 132-match winning streak.

There was a noticeable Apple Valley influence on Team USA. Mark Hall, who won six state individual high school championships before graduating from AVHS in 2016, won the 163-pound division, becoming just the fifth U.S. wrestler to win two Junior World titles. Hall will be a sophomore at Penn State University, where he won a 2017 NCAA championship as a true freshman.

A third Minnesotan, former St. Michael-Albertville wrestler Mitch McKee, won a silver medal at 132 at the Junior Worlds.

The jump from the Cadet to the Junior class meant Steveson was competing against older, stronger wrestlers. Instead of being one of the oldest competitors in the Cadet division, he was among the youngest in the Juniors at age 17.

“At Cadet, you’re wrestling smaller kids and a lot of them haven’t started lifting yet,” Steveson said. “In Juniors, I’m wrestling mostly 18- to 20-year-olds. They’re bigger, stronger, more experienced, and most of them have been lifting for years.

“I didn’t have to change much on the mat, but I did have to change how I trained. You’ve got to be able to go for six minutes. I lifted more and did a lot more cardio.”

Steveson made two trips to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, one on his own, the other to train with other U.S. team members once he secured his Junior Worlds spot.

“I know (Hall) of course, and a lot of the other guys there wrestled at the Cadet Worlds,” Steveson said. “Away from the room, we did a lot of things as a group. They’re humble, hard-working, which is the way I want to try to be.”

Steveson arrived at Apple Valley High School as an eighth-grader who already had success on the mat. He finished second in Class 3A at 195 pounds as an eighth-grader, won state championships at 220 the next two years and was state champion at 285 in 2017. Apple Valley also won Class 3A team championships each year.

“When I came to Apple Valley, I was a 180-pound eighth-grader and there were kids in the room at 152 who were beating me,” Steveson said. “I thought, OK, this is where I need to be. This is where I can get better.”

As a senior this winter, he will have a leadership role on an Apple Valley team that is seeking a 13th consecutive team championship.

“Gable’s goals have been the same every year,” said Josh Barlage, who was named Apple Valley head coach this spring after 10 seasons as an Eagles assistant coach. “It’s to win every match. He’s trying to finish his career as one of the best high school wrestlers ever to come out of Minnesota, if not the best.”

Apple Valley senior-to-be Gable Steveson now has three world championships – two in the Cadet division and one in the Junior division. USA Wrestling photo

Steveson said this week he will take some time off from training before getting back on the mat next month. He verbally committed in March to the University of Minnesota, where his brother Bobby, a former state champion at AVHS, also wrestles. He is regarded as the top high school wrestler in the country, as was Hall when he was an Eagle. He seems to be running out of things to prove in high school wrestling, but that’s not how he views it.

“You can always get better,” he said. “The goal now is to win one more state championship and one more team championship.”