A year removed from his second place finish at the Big Ten Championships, top-ranked sophomore Gable Steveson returned to take the heavyweight crown, knocking off previously undefeated Mason Parris of Michigan in the finals.
Steveson led the way for the Gopher wrestling team, which placed eighth at the Big Ten Championships. In all, five Gophers earned spots on the podium: Steveson (champion), senior Mitch McKee (sixth), redshirt freshman Brayton Lee (fourth), redshirt senior Devin Skatzka (fifth) and redshirt senior Hunter Ritter (eighth). Also placing for the Gophers were redshirt sophomore Bailee O'Reilly and senior Owen Webster, who came in ninth and 11th in their respective weight classes. Steveson, McKee, Lee and Skatzka have all earned automatic bids to the NCAA Championships March 19-21.
"As a team we wanted to finish a lot higher," said head coach Brandon Eggum. "Some guys did some great things, got a Big Ten championship out of Gable Steveson, so that was exciting, but ultimately we're just hoping we can get a couple more of the wild card spots, bring a few more guys to the nationals and have a good weekend here in a week and a half."
Steveson's championship run began with a quick pin of Rutgers' Alex Esposito in the quarterfinal round. With the win, Steveson advanced to the semifinal round where he won the rematch with Iowa's Tony Cassioppi in a 9-4 decision. Steveson previously beat Cassioppi in a 7-5 decision on Feb. 15. With Steveson and Parris both advancing to the finals Sunday, the much anticipated match between two undefeated heavyweights had finally arrived.
Steveson struck first with a pair of takedowns in the first period with Parris scoring off escapes, making it a 4-2 match. Parris added the only point in the second off an escape to bring himself within one. Starting on bottom in the third, Steveson quickly added an escape point of his own and landed his third takedown of the match to give himself breathing room. Steveson gave up a takedown late, but Parris wasn't able to get the second takedown needed to send the match to sudden victory.
"I think my hand fighting skills and just me getting to my attacks were key. Just making sure my defense was perfect too, and it worked out pretty well for me," Steveson said. "Compared to last year when I took second it feels real good. I'm excited. From here, we just keep pushing forward."
McKee, who also punched his ticket to U.S. Bank Stadium, earned victories in the round of 16 and the quarterfinals before losing an 11-3 major decision to Ohio State's Luke Pletcher in the semifinal round. McKee did not participate Sunday due to injury but will be ready for the NCAA Championships, according to Eggum.
Lee also found himself in the consolation bracket after a tight 4-1 loss to Iowa's Pat Lugo in the semifinal round. Making his way to the third place match, Lee lost in another narrow 3-0 decision, this time to Nebraska's Collin Purinton, to take fourth. Skatzka beat a familiar foe in Nebraska's Mikey Labriola twice over the weekend during his run, the second of which was an 8-3 decision in the fifth place match.
With only the NCAA Championships remaining, Steveson and the Gophers now turn their eyes toward U.S. Bank Stadium.
"I feel real good right now, just take it day by day like I've always said. This tournament is a stepping stone to a bigger thing," Steveson said. "I've never ran from anything and this is just my one step to being [in] a national championship."