July 9, 2014

Hunter Stieber—He’s Baaaack

By P. Garth Gartrell, contributor

“Greatness lies, not in being strong, but in the right of using strength; and strength is not used rightly when it serves only to carry a man above his fellows for his own solitary glory. He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.” – Henry Ward Beecher

For insiders the anticipation has been building for some time looking forward to the 2014-15 Ohio State wrestling season. Much has been made of the potential for those returning from a surprisingly successful 2013-14 season and there has been incredible and well-deserved interest in the incoming freshmen. Somehow lost in all the anticipation is the return of an old friend, Hunter Stieber, who decided to redshirt after his sophomore year.

The last we saw of Hunter in a Buckeye singlet, he was cruising through much of the 2012-13 grind as the No. 1 ranked wrestler at 141 pounds. He went on to win a Big Ten championship and seemingly steamed into the NCAA championships in Des Moines, Iowa, as the favorite.

By Hunter’s own admission, he did not wrestle well that weekend, squeezing out a late moment 9-8 quarterfinal win against Franklin and Marshall’s Richard Durso and then coughing up a 6-2 lead against Edinboro’s Mitchell Port to lose by eight seconds of riding time in a dream-killing semifinal match.

What gets overlooked in that description is that as a sophomore, this young Buckeye stood at the top of the wrestling world and lost a chance to wrestle for an NCAA championship largely because of a strategic decision in the heat of battle to “cut” his opponent by letting him escape—a decision that backfired—as often happens with such decisions. The good news is that Hunter, as a great wrestler must, does not dwell on the negative. He made a strategic decision: it cost him, there is nothing he can do about it, nothing he can regret and nothing that casts doubt on what he can achieve going forward.

Redshirt Goals
Hunter had some very specific goals in redshirting. Knowing he would move up in weight to the 149 pound class, the first goal was to grow and get stronger. While Hunter is painfully reluctant to acknowledge his achievements, one can look up at a competition chart of the entire wrestling team to see how each does in a variety of training skills such as weightlifting, pull ups, sprints, jogs and even things such as standing jumps. On the chart which measures bench press repetitions of one’s body weight, Hunter’s name is toward the top. So there is certainly some indication he is making good on achieving that goal.

Competition-wise, Hunter also did extremely well in the quasi-collegiate tournaments throughout last year which permit individuals to compete even though they are not wrestling on behalf of an NCAA team at the time. A training concussion limited his achievement at the prestigious Midlands, but otherwise he was dominant.

Hunter has also pressed himself in freestyle wrestling, competing at the even higher 70 kilo class (154 pounds) and doing well enough he was offered a spot on the U.S. Pan Am team. He leaves July 11 for Mexico City for the prestigious event.

Coach Observations
Hunter’s coaches watched his development during the last 14 months and offered a blend of awe for his talents and a recipe for improvement—because after all, as talented as even a Hunter Stieber is—there is always room for improvement. At 149 pounds, Hunter will be one of the taller wrestlers which means he will often go against a stockier opponent, as he did in facing Mitchell Port. All things being equal, the stronger wrestler will prevail, and there is no question that despite Hunter’s improvement and success against heavier freestyle wrestlers, he has room to tighten up his body frame.

Of course, things are not equal—Hunter may just be the most naturally gifted wrestler to come along since the great Jordan Burroughs. But to the extent he does not maximize his strength, he is leaving “money on the table” so to speak—leaving himself open to losing the close matches he could otherwise win—as the loss to Port and the near loss to Durso so ominously portend. He expresses he has no desire “to be the strongest wrestler in the [OSU wrestling] room,” which is well and good, but to exploit all his gifts to maximum advantage and to put otherwise close matches beyond doubt, he should do all he can to assure he is the strongest wrestler on the mat.

Another item on the improvement checklist is the need to turn opponents to earn “back” points. Not only is this a key to earning more tournament points, as the Buckeyes vie for their first national championship in program history, but back points open up so many other avenues of attack, put opponents forever on the defensive, and go a long way to breaking down opponents. Hunter recalls what a dominant pinner he was in high school, so one suspects this is a tool Hunter already possesses and that once he solidifies his body compacting, the pinning quality will come back and essentially be the single most important ingredient he re-adds as he grows from a sophomore youngster to a junior veteran.

The third and final area for growth involves Hunter’s focus. Of course, one has to submit up front, that a young man who places third nationally and wins a Big Ten championship as a sophomore has in fact figured out what it takes mentally to succeed in very rarefied air, so what we are talking about is that final, conclusive step that the clear cut best make to separate themselves from the capriciousness of sport. Hunter’s pure talent is as obvious as it is natural—his style is one of speed and grace. Observing such talent one cannot help but think if this young man could close all loopholes and concentrate on greatness, there is no cap on his potential. The fact that Hunter will not likely be a favorite to win an NCAA title going into 2014-15 may be motivation enough as he assumes the role of an underdog. Hunter admits he likes not being in the limelight—he just might be the kind of guy who is motivated more when he is in the shadows than when he is “the guy.”

Or, as the Stieber parents combine to add, “Hunter just may not know how good he actually is. Unlike his brother Logan, it’s not in his DNA to think like that.” Regardless of where the truth lies, sooner or later Hunter will have to face being “the guy.”

Stieber DNA
Before coming back to this theme of mental focus, let’s enlarge the discussion to consider family undertones. In discussing wrestling with Hunter, an interviewer at least has to be concerned not to steer the conversation too much in the direction of his highly successful brother Logan. Ever since Logan won the 2011-12 title as a freshman, all eyes have been focused on this Buckeye who this coming year will strive for iconic status as only the fourth person to win four NCAA titles. Hunter has been somewhat lost in the glare even though he is highly successful in his own right and is fully capable, even if not favored, to win multiple NCAA titles (Hunter will compete in a competitive class which includes Jason Tsirtsis of Northwestern who will defend the national title he won as a freshman). In truth, despite the drastic disparity in public attention, the line between Hunter and Logan, if there is one, is tiny, and believe it or not, the upside for Hunter may even be greater (in his last season of competition, at 141 pounds, Hunter was 36-1. In Logan’s last season, also at 141, he was 30-1).

On the one hand, if one asserts, an honest of assessment of Hunter cannot take place without a discussion of Logan, the same is true in reverse—one cannot have an honest assessment of Logan without a discussion of Hunter. Nonetheless, the mania surrounding Logan is conducted routinely without much mention of Hunter. There is a well-known video within wrestling circles of an interview with Logan as he peddles on a stationary bike next to Hunter. The interview was conducted during the 2012-13 season without even acknowledging Hunter who admits, using a voice from his early boyhood, “I was saying to myself—‘hey, what about me? I’m undefeated and ranked No. 1 too.’”

It is for that reason that one wants to give Hunter his own rightful due by steering clear of interviewing Hunter about Logan, but it really cannot happen, if for no other reason than Hunter will keep bringing the interview back to Logan. After a while one simply concedes how interlinked the stories are and probably not just in Hunter’s mind. They grew up in a triangle running from Norwalk, over to Monroeville and up to Milan, Ohio, wrestling each other, supporting each other and helping each other grow. And, not unusually, it was a family effort as parents Jeff and Tina have embraced the sport and provided the boys the tools to succeed.

“It wasn’t like our parents had any background in wrestling or pushed us into wrestling, they didn’t,” Hunter said. “My dad never wrestled—in fact, our high school, Monroeville, has only had two state championship teams—the basketball team my dad played on and the wrestling team my brother and I wrestled on. But we got involved as young kids in that area and we loved it. When we were eight or nine our dad got together with (former Buckeye) Cam Tessari’s dad and a few other dads, and took this space that a friend had in a commercial building in Milan (Ohio—birthplace of Thomas Edison). All the parents chipped in and all of a sudden we had this nice facility. We called ourselves the Ohio Dogs and it is a successful club now.”

Superficially one could say that Hunter has always followed in the wake of his older brother and Hunter intimates and embraces as much, but one gets the impression from the story as told by Hunter that the success of each has very much been the product of leadership efforts from the other. For the time being Logan is the public face and that will likely continue with Hunter his biggest fan (assuming Logan has a fourth successful conclusion to his season), but thanks to the redshirt year, the limelight will firmly shift to Hunter for his senior campaign.

These are two brothers who always want to be there for each other. Hunter will say things like “I would rather see Logan win four titles than me win one” or “I’m not disappointed that Logan gets all the attention—I like it—I do not want to be the center of attention.” Also when Hunter contemplates his wrestling career after his Ohio State career ends, he allows he will continue with a freestyle career, but only so Logan can continue to wrestle his life-long training partner. It was Logan who learned the power of an arm bar as a pinning device from the more accomplished Hunter in high school.

The family theme expands. Asked how satisfying it must be for “Stieber Fever” (a term coined by Hunter himself) to be responsible for finally turning Ohio State into a wrestling power, Hunter demurs. “It is not me, it is not us. Look around you, you see (former Buckeye greats) Reece Humphrey and J Jaggers. They stay here at home and compete here because of what Coach Ryan and Lou Rosselli have created—this is a home and a family. This is what recruits see, this is what they want to be part of and it is what Logan and I want to be a part of.”

In large part it is in the Stieber DNA to look out for an interest which is broader than self-achievement. Dad Jeff reflects “when we think about next year, if Logan and Hunter don’t win a national championship it wouldn’t really hurt so long as the team wins a national championship.” Tina adds “it is nice to hear this “Stieber Fever” thing, of course, but Jeff and I are all wrapped up in this team, what Coach Ryan stands for, what he has been through and what he gives every day to these kids.” And what they give back.

Reaching for Greatness
Thus, in coming back to the question of Hunter’s mental embrace of his sport, one cannot help but observe a theme that runs deep about what athletics means from a personal perspective. As you digest Hunter’s comments about his priorities, and notice a continuation of that theme from his parents, it is a virtual guarantee then, that if asked, Logan would say in reverse what Hunter volunteers (“absolutely true” Tina volunteers). That is, if given a choice between his own success and Hunter’s, Logan would choose Hunter’s every time.

Let’s say again, Hunter clearly has elite level drive which he has proven. He has been an equal partner, indeed a significant leader, in one of the most talented brother duos in all of sport. But he is not likely the kind of person who will for self-interest cause his drive to match and maximize his enormous talent. It is also unlikely a young person can appreciate how later in life he won’t forgive himself if he does not enjoy his special gifts in his youth while he can. Taking him at his word, the achievement of his brother is his major source of satisfaction. Some individuals, perhaps most actually, need a higher purpose than their own achievement for motivation.

It is likely that, in Hunter’s case, the key to taking that final step to turn a sport at which he is one of the very best into a quest of domination lies not in Hunter’s goals for himself, but in his realization that Logan’s hopes start first and foremost with Hunter’s success. In the Ohio State wrestling room hang the large triumphant images of past Buckeye NCAA Champions. The last in the line is currently Logan Stieber, pointing up to this family as if to emphasize this very point: Logan’s journey will not feel whole unless his brother’s image one day stands next to his.