by Joe Mellenbruch ’13
Saint John’s University is unique in a number of ways. Just ask the school’s student-athletes.
While it is known both for its strong academics and successful athletics, Saint John’s gives its students the opportunity to be proficient in both.
For example: Think it’s impossible to be the fourth-ranked wrestler in the country and still be pre-med? Think it’s impossible to be a two-time NCAA wrestling qualifier and also be a chemistry major with a pre-engineering emphasis?
Meet seniors Mitch Hagen and Chris Stevermer.
Hagen (Sunburg, Minn./Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg) and Stevermer (Savage, Minn./Prior Lake) will make their second and final appearances at the NCAA Division III Championships this weekend, March 15-16, at the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Ice Arena. Both qualified for nationals in 2012, but successive losses against ranked opponents saw them exit the tournament without reward.
Now these two Johnnies are back for another shot at national glory. Hagen (16-4) enters the 2013 tournament as a No. 4 seed after winning the NCAA West Regional championship at 184 pounds. Stevermer (17-6), who took third at regionals, enters unranked at 149.
For both wrestlers, the objective is to fight for an NCAA title.
“My goal is to win the tournament,” Hagen said. “I’ll be up against some tough competition, but I’ve put in a lot of hard work and preparation leading up to it, and I want to go out there and become a national champion.”
“We’ve been working hard all year for this,” Stevermer added. “I’m hoping to become an All-American and make a strong run for the national championship.”
As tournament time approaches, SJU head coach Brandon Novak is doing his best to keep all of his national qualifiers loose and relaxed while also making sure they stay sharp, especially his seniors.
The stakes are high, and for Hagen and Stevermer, it will be their last opportunity to capture national glory. Fortunately for both of them, Novak knows a thing or two about the NCAA tournament and the mental rigor that comes along with it. As an SJU student-athlete, Novak was a three-time All-American and a national champion his senior season (2001) at 197 pounds.
“You’ve gotta be relaxed,” Novak said. “That’s the biggest thing that I took away from when I won a national title. That’s really the key. It’s just about going out there, having fun and executing to the best of your abilities.”
If Hagen and Stevermer are able to achieve their goals at nationals this season, it will certainly be a testament to the preparation they’ve displayed, which according to Novak, extends year-round.
“You’ll find Mitch in the weight room every day of the year, getting stronger and staying on top of it,” Novak said. “I always see them both working out. And Chris even ran a marathon this past fall, so you know work ethic is never something he shies away from.”
A national qualifier at 157 in 2012, Stevermer exhibited his leadership and commitment by dropping a weight class mid-season for the betterment of the team.
Junior Ryan Arne (Orono, Minn.), who punched his ticket to this weekend’s national tournament with regional title at 157 pounds, was initially stuck behind Stevermer in the SJU lineup to start the season, much to Novak’s chagrin. In an effort to get Arne (9-4) in the starting 10, Novak approached Stevermer with a difficult request.
“We had a great match between him and Arne for the spot at 157,” Novak said. “After the match, I asked Chris if he’d be willing to make that cut down to 149 for us to get Ryan in the lineup, and he said he’d absolutely do it. Now looking back, he’s a big reason why we have two wrestlers going to nationals in both of those weight classes.”
According to Novak, both Stevermer and Hagen demonstrate their commitment to the team through their passion to make the guys around them better.
“Every day, they grab a new partner,” Novak said. “They grab a freshman and work with him. They grab a sophomore and work with him. They’re two of my top guys, and I really lean on them as leaders of the team.”
Off the mat, both Hagen and Stevermer are leaders in the classroom.
A National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) All-America Scholar in 2011-12, Hagen is an Integrative Health Science major with a pre-medicine emphasis, and will be working as an emergency department scribe after graduation while he applies for medical school. Stevermer, a chemistry major (pre-engineering emphasis), will pursue a master’s degree in chemical engineering once he applies for graduate school, but he plans on working as a chemistry lab technician initially after graduation while he takes a year off from school.
While their studies are preparing them for future careers in medicine and engineering, both Hagen and Stevermer acknowledge how their studies have also helped them as wrestlers, especially when it comes to managing weight in a healthy way. Science classes at CSB/SJU have armed these two-time national qualifiers with the knowledge of what a body needs to function effectively.
“My major and the classes I’ve taken here have provided me with a solid knowledge-base in nutrition,” Hagen said. “I try to use as much of that knowledge as I can to cut weight in the healthiest way possible.”
“I usually go into the week with a plan of what I want to weigh and lose each day leading up to competition,” Stevermer said. “Throughout the week I try and stick to it as well as possible and adjust my plan if I need to so that I don’t leave all the weight for the day or two before competition.”
Novak hails both Hagen and Stevermer as examples for all SJU wrestlers. Their success on the mat and commitment in the classroom is a duality that Novak believes makes Saint John’s unique.
“That is something that this school offers,” Novak said. “We bring guys in and give them every opportunity to be great student-athletes and to be heavily involved here in the Saint John’s community, and Chris and Mitch are great examples of that.
“We always talk about what great wrestlers they are, but the other side of it is that they’re great in the classroom. They’re an example to other guys in that they show that you can be pre-med or pre-engineering and still be a very competitive wrestler. Guys look to them all the time and say: ‘Well, if they can do it, so can I.’”
In addition to Arne (9-4 overall), Hagen and Stevermer, juniors John Scepaniak (Avon, Minn./Holdingford) and Nick Schuler (Roseville, Minn./Totino-Grace), and sophomore Ryan Michaelis (Monticello, Minn.) will represent SJU at nationals for the first time in 2013. Schuler (16-2 overall) finished second at the NCAA West Regional for the Johnnies at 165 pounds, while Scepaniak (12-14 overall) finished third to become the first SJU heavyweight to reach nationals since 1997. Michaelis is currently 10-4 in his at 197 pounds. SJU has qualified at least two wrestlers to the NCAA Division III Championships 23 of the past 24 seasons.