By SCOTT CHIUSANO
Three years ago at the Southern Scuffle, a freshman from Penn State named Ed Ruth stepped out onto the mat in the 174 lbs. semi-final. A name that was just beginning to be discussed in the wrestling community, Ruth was competing in just his eighth meet as a Nittany Lion.
Enter Cornell senior Mack Lewnes ’11 to the mat, a two-time Ivy League Wrestler of the Year, two-time NCAA qualifier and All-American. To say Ruth was the underdog would be an understatement. It was a matchup of David and Goliath proportions.
Fast forward three years to yet another Southern Scuffle. Ruth is a senior now and has since carried Penn State to the top of the national rankings. After defeating Lewnes three years ago, Ruth’s wrestling career began to blossom. Now riding an 84-match winning streak with two national championships under his belt, Ruth steps into the center circle and locks glares with an unfamiliar face. It is the face of Cornell freshman Gabe Dean, one that is no longer unfamiliar on the national wrestling scene.
The storyline behind Dean’s electrifying 7-4 win over Ruth in the 184-lb final of the Southern Scuffle last month is something that only a select few diehard wrestling fans know about. In fact, Dean himself admitted that he “had no idea” about Ruth’s upset over Lewnes three years prior. But history tends to work in interesting ways, and it is hard not to think about the implications of the fact that these two wrestlers’ careers are now inextricably tied.
More than a month stands between Dean and the NCAA Championships, but it is a month in which the freshman will have ample opportunity to prove that his win over Ruth was not a mere fluke.
Wrestling success is in Dean’s blood. His father wrestled for Minnesota and was an assistant coach at Michigan State.
“I probably started wrestling, I think, around seven years old, and I got into it because my Dad wrestled in college … and [he] just kind of had me around the sport at a young age,” Dean said.
Though Dean was modest about his college recruitment process, saying that he “wasn’t that heavily recruited,” big-name schools such as Minnesota and Michigan did express interest in him.
“It was an uphill battle trying to get him away from those two schools,” Koll said.
Koll added that he got to know Dean’s father over the years, as they both wrestled at the same time in college. Dean was also being recruited to play football, and Koll was unsure which sport he would choose to pursue.
“We didn’t really go after him until the summer before, when I met [his father] in the city for a wrestling event, and we spoke, and it turned out that [Dean] was maybe just a little too short to play big time Division I [football],” Koll said. “Although, based on my experience with him, he’s such an athlete I’m sure he’d [have done] quite well.”
Dean said Cornell found him and his ultimate decision an easy one.
“They came to my house and visited me and the rest is kind of history,” he said.
The rest is certainly history, as Dean’s name is now commonplace in the wrestling community. He was recently profiled in the Jan. 20 issue of Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd.”
Though it was the win over Ruth that catapulted him onto the national scene, Dean said that he went into the match just like any other.
Dean went after Ruth right from the start of the match, pushing Ruth to the edge of the circle and putting him on the defensive. The senior took a quick step backwards as if he was startled by his opponent’s first move. Dean scored his first two points just over two minutes into the match, and although Ruth took a 3-2 lead towards the end of the first period, Dean clawed his way back.
“You know it’s a good feeling, definitely afterwards, just to see that you’re improving … throughout the season,” he said of the match. “What really matters is the National tournament in March, so that’s kind of what I keep my focus on.”
While the upset win has put a target on Dean’s back, the freshman said he tries not to feel the additional pressure that inevitably comes with such a victory.
“You turn from nobody into a somebody and the people always want to take the top guy out,” he said. “But you know, the sun comes up the next morning, win or lose, you just go out there and compete as hard as you can, and that’s all you really control.”
To Koll, Dean is more than just the freshman who upset Ed Ruth. He is the type of wrestler whom, like Kyle Dake ’13, it is possible to build a program around.
“Obviously as a coach, these kinds of kids are one in a million,” Koll said. “And he also attracts other talented wrestlers who are in high school still because they say … that guy is going to an Ivy League school, he’s hopefully going to win a national championship — if he can do it, I can do it. So it’s like a domino effect.”
With the remainder of his freshman year and three full years still ahead of him, there is still much left to be written in Dean’s story. And you never know; Ruth and Dean might meet again, on an even bigger stage in March.
“I see multiple national titles and I see amazing leadership,” Koll said of the young wrestler’s future. “And certainly if he decides that he wants to go on and pursue the Olympic dream, he certainly has the ability to do that at that level as well.”