The wrestling giant, all 5 feet 5 of him, had been toppled, and now the loser slumped in a hallway deep in the bowels of Rec Hall on Penn State’s campus.
Logan Stieber’s shoulder ached. His hamstrings burned. He was sweat-drenched, exhausted.
The Ohio State wrestler, a two-time defending Big Ten and NCAA champion, tried to process what had occurred as his heart pounded and mind raced.
“What the hell?” Stieber thought to himself.
Noise from a delirious crowd cascaded over Stieber that Dec. 15 afternoon, and nearly three months later, the sound caused by his upset loss to Penn State freshman Zain Retherford hasn’t faded.
“I can hear the whole crowd, everyone cheering,” said Stieber, a redshirt junior. “That’s enough fuel right there.”
Delirium erupted at Penn State because Retherford had ended Stieber’s winning streak of 45 collegiate matches — including a 27-0 record last year — dating to Feb. 12, 2012.
Now, if the seeding holds up, the duo is headed to a much anticipated rematch in the 141-pound division at the Big Ten championships on Saturday and Sunday at Wisconsin.
Retherford (26-0) is top-seeded. Stieber (22-1) is the No. 2 seed and winner of 13 consecutive matches since his upset loss in December.
“It sucked, but it was definitely good for me,” Stieber said.
After winning Big Ten and NCAA titles at 133 pounds last year, Stieber moved up one weight class and started this season 9-0 before Retherford presented a clash of wrestling style. Retherford counterattacked a hard-charging Stieber to post a 4-2 sudden victory, with a winning takedown 42 seconds into overtime.
“There’s only one way to beat Logan: You got to slow him down,” Ohio State coach Tom Ryan said. “You got to neutralize his offense, and this kid just flat-out did it. He’s got a great defense. The kid’s a stud.”
Stieber was sick the week of his upset loss but offers only credit to Retherford, who in the previous two years won two Pennsylvania high-school state titles and a Cadet World freestyle championship.
“I knew he was good going in,” Stieber said.
So unlike last year, Stieber is confronted with a foe already proven capable of ending his goal of becoming the first Ohio State wrestler to win three national titles.
“The risk is definitely high, but with high risk comes high reward,” Stieber said. “I’m never scared to lose.”
No sulking about loss
Wrestling is personal. You are stripped down to a singlet, facing an opponent of similar size, each man trying to impose his will and exhaust the other.The sport’s primal nature appeals to Stieber because outcomes aren’t complicated.
“You lose in wrestling, it’s all on you,” he said.
The weight of personal responsibility ratchets up when championship are on the line. Former Ohio State wrestler J.D. Bergman shudders at the memory of his 4-2, double-overtime loss to Northwestern’s Dustin Fox in the 2008 NCAA championship final.
“At that time, it was incredibly crushing for me,” Bergman said. “Personally, I had to rewire myself where I found my identity outside of wrestling.”
Ohio State senior Nick Heflin, seeded No. 2 in the Big Ten’s 197-pound division, is driven by the sting of his NCAA quarterfinal defeat last year.
“It destroys you,” Heflin said. “It puts hate in your heart.”
Ryan still is haunted by his NCAA final loss as an Iowa junior in 1991. Leading by one point in the closing seconds, the thought of being the national champion flashed in his mind.
“Moron, how could you let your brain think that? How could you go there?” Ryan said.
Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith scored a takedown and won 7-6. Twenty-three years later, Ryan keeps a photo of himself after that loss on his iPad.
Stieber isn’t obsessed about his loss to Retherford, in part because it happened in December, not March. And Stieber’s demeanor has been steeled by defeat. Five previous losses occurred at OSU and several others were on the international freestyle circuit, including the 2012 Olympic trials final.
“I’ve never worried after a loss,” he said.
To Stieber, enduring and responding to defeat is only one form of pain in wrestling. Running. Cutting weight. Daily pounding on the mat. He relishes and immerses himself in all the demands.
“Everyone has to suffer,” Stieber said.
The suffering after losing to Retherford brought instant clarity. All was clear to Stieber as his sweat still poured.
“I was pissed at myself,” he said. “I did dumb things, little things here and there. I did so many things that I normally don’t do.”
The anger didn’t show as the postmatch noise at Penn State reverberated. Stieber remained stoic, same as in victory.
“He’s like a stone-cold assassin,” Ryan said. “He’s always been that way. It’s just the essence of Logan Stieber.”
Emotions ran much hotter back in his hometown of Monroeville, Ohio, where his parents watched the Retherford match on TV. Well, one watched. Stieber’s mother, Tina, retreated to the bedroom as her son’s match unfolded, too nervous to take it in.
“He doesn’t look good!” her husband, Jeff, yelled early in the match.
As soon as the end came, Jeff Stieber sent his son a text.
The immediate reply text spoke volumes: “Don’t worry dad. I know what I need to do. It’s behind me. I’m done talking about it. I love you.”
Stieber, who won his final 179 matches on the way to four high-school state titles, has remained pragmatic about suffering his first Ohio State loss in nearly two years.
“He doesn’t let it eat him up,” Jeff Stieber said. “Does it bother him? Sure. But I don’t think he hangs on to losses. He’s not throwing darts at the kid’s photo.”
His son insists revenge isn’t part of a rematch, although details of the defeat stir inner coals.
“When I’m tired,” Stieber said, “it gets me running a little bit longer.”
Learning from a loss
The upset of a two-time national champion with a 45-match winning streak ignited the wrestling community.
“Twitter was blowing up,” said Hunter Stieber, redshirting this season after winning a Big Ten title last year at 141 pounds.
His brother ignored the buzz and went back into the wrestling room to work, same as he did after suffering his last loss, to defending national champion Jordan Oliver. A month later, Stieber rebounded in a rematch against Oliver and upset the Oklahoma State junior in the NCAA final 4-3.
“Learning from a loss is what Logan does really well,” Hunter Stieber said.
The loss to Retherford taught Stieber that he must get into better shape. He needed to control his diet, improve moves to escape better from the bottom, and be more active on top.
“The kid earned Logan’s respect,” Ryan said. “In doing so, he’s brought Logan to a new level of focus.”
Ryan made Stieber watch a replay of the match, something the wrestler doesn’t usually do after a defeat, and had him write a self-critique.
“There was a lot of frustration in the match,” Stieber said. “Things weren’t going my way. I resorted to bad habits.”
He hasn’t needed to watch the match twice. Nor has he listened to the exuberant Penn State radio call of Retherford’s victory.
Does he care to hear it?
“Play it after I win nationals,” Stieber said.
By Todd Jones - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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