One of the big stories in New York college wrestling thus far is the impressive performance of Cornell's freshman class. Four rookies earned spots in the starting lineup and all are nationally ranked -- (Mark Grey 11th at 133, Brian Realbuto 11th at 157, Dylan Palacio 18th at 165 and Gabe Dean 6th at 184). Each member of the quartet made the podium at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, with Dean winning it all. The following shares more about Dean's journey from high school football star to top 10 wrestler.
The floor of the airport isn’t the most comfortable bed, but Cornell freshman Gabe Dean didn’t care. After capturing the 184-pound championship at one of the nation’s most prestigious in-season tournaments, the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, he made the most of the team’s layover at the Detroit Airport, taking a nap.
“I didn’t get much sleep the night before and was trying to catch up,” he said. “I took a bookbag, used it as a pillow, and passed out on the ground at the terminal for a few hours.”
Despite two days of intense wrestling, it was the first time that weekend that Dean looked really tired.
His opponents, however, showed frequent signs of exhaustion, as Dean’s punishing style allowed him to control the latter portions of all his matches in Vegas. That included a victory over the #5 wrestler in the country at the time (Jake Swartz of Boise State) in multiple overtimes in the semis and a 13-3 major in the championship bout over Nebraska’s TJ Dudley, in which Dean piled up eight points in the third period.
“What Gabe does to most people is overwhelm them,” said Big Red assistant coach Damion Hahn. “Guys don’t know how to function when they get that overwhelmed. He just keeps coming at them the whole time. We talk to our team about the importance of functioning under duress. Gabe does that very, very well.”
Hahn knows from first hand experience at practice.
“Seeing his progression is fun, but actually wrestling with Gabe - it’s not really fun at all,” Hahn said. “I like to wrestle with the guys, but at my pace. Gabe makes me work a lot harder than I want to. It goes with the territory, but I’ll tell you, wrestling with someone like Cam Simaz or Gabe – it’s frustrating and tiring.”
The mention of Simaz is appropriate because he and Dean have quite a bit in common. For starters, both are upperweight standouts for the Big Red from the state of Michigan. And according to Dean, a meeting between the two a few years back brought about a change in his approach to the sport.
“Cam came back to Michigan for Christmas, and was near where I live,” Dean said. “He tortured me for an hour and a half on the mat. It really inspired me. I decided I wanted to wrestle like that. In high school, I won matches 3-2 or 2-1 – really close, tight matches. I liked his way a lot better because I didn’t do much.”
He did do quite a bit on the gridiron, however.
A starter at quarterback beginning in his sophomore year, Dean led Lowell High School to three state championship games and was named the Michigan Player of the Year as a junior. He racked up over 12,000 yards on the ground and through the air and battled with some of the biggest recruits in the country, many of whom currently star for Michigan or Michigan State.
In fact, when the Red Arrows won the state crown, the leader of the opposing team was this year’s Michigan signal caller Devin Gardner. In addition, Dean also faced some well-known athletes in seven-on-seven games, including a victory over a team quarterbacked by current Ohio State star Braxton Miller in the finals of a tournament in Cincinnati.
“Gabe probably started learning how to be a quarterback in third grade,” said David Dean, Gabe’s father. “He learned how to read everything and ran a very sophisticated offense. He spent all year working on the offense, so he stopped wrestling by June at the latest and started again after Thanksgiving. A lot of people think Gabe must have wrestled a ton, but that’s not the case.”
Still, Dean won a Michigan state championship on the mat as an 11th grader and was the runner up as a senior to current Wolverine Jordan Thomas. College football coaches liked his skills and smarts, according to his father, but focused on his height (5”10) as an impediment. When it came time to decide on his future direction, he chose wrestling and the Big Red.
“Gabe’s football accolades far outweighed his wrestling accolades,” Hahn said. “He was a seasonal wrestler. There’s no question that he has great wrestling background in his family [his father David was an NCAA finalist and a two-time All-American at Minnesota], but the truth is, he’s still catching up wrestling-wise, technique-wise.”
He has proven to be a quick study, although his future in the sport was briefly in doubt in November of 2012, as he lived in Ithaca and trained at the Finger Lakes Wrestling Club [after deferring enrollment at Cornell for a year].
“It was after our first open tournament at Buffalo,” Dean said. “I went 0-2 and I remember thinking I wasn’t cut out for this. I thought I wasn’t any good and I wasn’t going to be any good. I called my dad and told him I might start playing football because wrestling might just not be my thing.”
During that conversation, his father convinced him to give it one more week and another tournament.
He did, and things took off from there. Dean nabbed fourth at the Binghamton, Edinboro and Mat Town Opens. And, working with Finger Lakes Wrestling Club coaches like Simaz, Dean continued to improve by leaps and bounds.
“I wasn’t a great high school wrestler by any means,” Dean said. “But thankfully, great people like Cam Simaz helped me develop so much that first year. You have to focus on the things you can control and I can control how hard I wrestle. I will go as hard as I can and exhaust myself and give my opponent no breathing room. Wrestling that way, you see a lot more wins than losses. If you let your opponent dictate the pace, shame on you. That’s my mindset going into every match. I lost matches last year, but I was just focused on getting better.”
He clearly did that.
Dean began his freshman year with the Big Red this fall and got off to a fast start, taking second at the Binghamton Open and earning a fall in his first home dual meet appearance against the Bearcats. The next day, he captured the New York State Intercollegiate title with three pins and a technical fall and followed up with his second championship of the year at the previously mentioned Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.
“After [Vegas] some people might have wondered about me because I was kind of an unknown,” Dean said. “For me, it’s important not to get caught up in the hype. It was a good weekend, not only for me, but for my team. It’s great to be part of Cornell wrestling and a freshman class like ours. There were highlights, but there were so many things I could have done better in every match I wrestled. That night, I enjoyed the feeling of winning a little bit, but then it was back to work.”
At this point, with the first semester of his rookie campaign completed, Dean sports a 15-2 record with nine bonus point victories. (In addition to the previously mentioned ranked wrestlers Swartz and Dudley, he has beaten 2013 EIWA champion Nate Brown of Lehigh and #15 Fred Garcia, while his two losses were to #1 Ed Ruth, a two-time national champion from Penn State and #3 Jimmy Sheptock of Maryland). Dean is ranked sixth in the nation at 184 pounds.
“Gabe’s getting better every day technically and strategically,” Hahn said. “Those things are easy to teach. But college wrestling is about hard work and being tough. Those are the hardest parts and they’re already taken care of with Gabe with his work ethic and his mental toughness.”
That toughness will be tested again at the Southern Scuffle on January 1st and 2nd, which could have Ruth, All-American Kevin Steinhaus of Minnesota and other top 20 grapplers such as Max Thomusseit of Pittsburgh in the 184-pound field.
Dean recalled his first meeting with Ruth and some things he took away from the experience.
“When I wrestled Ed Ruth, I learned it’s pretty important not to get crossface cradled and pinned,” Dean said with a laugh. “It was good to get a feel for him and I think you take the most away from your losses. I hold myself to a really high standard. I’m really excited for [the Southern Scuffle]. Wrestling high-level competition is a great opportunity to test what kind of wrestler you are. I love big matches and wrestling the best guys. It sounds weird, but I’m not worried about winning and losing, just wrestling as hard as I possibly can and being consistent with my style and pressure. That’s what I did [in Vegas].”
In Vegas, Dean was a part of the Big Red’s fourth place finish. Nahshon Garrett earned the title at 125, Chris Villalonga grabbed third at 149 and four freshmen made the podium – Brian Realbuto (second at 157), Mark Grey (fourth at 133), Dylan Palacio (sixth at 157) and Dean with his crown at 184.
And when he came off the mat, the Michigan native knew what Hahn was going to say to him.
“After I win, [Hahn] always jokes with me, ‘Are you sure you’re a wrestler? I heard wrestling’s not your thing and you’re a football player’," Dean said. “He and [head coach Rob Koll] are awesome, always keeping things fun and relaxed.”
And to answer Hahn’s question, Dean no longer has any doubts.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “I’m in the best place to wrestle in the country. I’ll always love football, but I’m a college wrestler.”
And it’s become clear that he’s a very good college wrestler.
“Look at him now compared to last year – it’s kind of funny,” Hahn said. “Gabe has come such a long way and this is just the beginning. I really believe that there are exciting things ahead.”