BROOKINGS, S.D. (AP) - Seth Gross came one agonizing point away from winning a Division I wrestling national championship last March, when the 133-pound South Dakota State star was defeated 4-3 by Cory Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Gross returned this year intent to finish the job, and has spent the entire year ranked No. 1 in the nation at his weight class. He’s 20-1 on the year, unbeaten at 133 pounds. Anything less than the title March 15-17 in Cleveland will be disappointing.
Gross is the centerpiece of a surging and growing SDSU wrestling program, and the individual expectations, coupled with what he means to the team, could make for a suffocating level of pressure for the fourth-year junior from Apple Valley, Minnesota.
But Gross doesn’t approach it that way. He knows he’s lucky to be wrestling at all.
After winning three state championships at three different weight classes at Apple Valley, Gross joined the Iowa Hawkeyes, arguably the premier college wrestling program in the country. After a redshirt season, he was in line to be the team’s starter at 141 pounds in 2015-16.
Then one night and one bad decision changed everything. Gross was arrested, kicked off the team, shunned by other programs, and possibly staring down the end of his wrestling career before it ever got started.
But South Dakota State coach Chris Bono, desperate to build momentum for a program that had been flailing along at the Division I level, saw an opportunity for Gross and his team, and gave the youngster a second chance.
Now Gross is one of the very best wrestlers in America, a junior world team qualifier whose career will continue after college whether he brings a national title to Brookings or not.
Gross has almost 27,000 followers on Twitter, where his handle is @Godswrestler133. It might seem a pretentious choice, but he believes that his journey was part of a plan, one to test his faith, and, along the way, teach Gross and his teammates and followers lessons in perseverance, forgiveness, second chances and redemption.
“The farther away I am from what happened at Iowa the more I realize God was saying, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to be there, you’re supposed to be here,’” Gross said recently from the Jackrabbit wrestling room. “He kind of picked me up and dropped me where I needed to be. Maybe if I was still at Iowa I wouldn’t have dropped down to 133 pounds and I wouldn’t be having success. It turned out to be the best thing that happened to me.”
It happened in March of 2015. The Hawkeyes were competing in the NCAA tournament. Gross wasn’t there, since he had redshirted that season. He and several teammates decided to blow off steam and have a few drinks. Gross was not a drinker, but decided to indulge.
Soon enough they were intoxicated, and ended up stealing items from parked cars. Someone saw them and gave chase. Eventually the police apprehended them.
Gross and two teammates were charged with two counts of felony third degree burglary, seven counts of misdemeanor third degree burglary, two counts of conspiracy to commit a felony and one count of conspiracy to commit an aggravated misdemeanor. Gross was also charged with open container, possession of alcohol under the legal age and interference with official acts, the Argus Leader reported .
Iowa coach Tom Brands immediately dismissed all three wrestlers from the team. The charges were eventually lowered, and Gross completed probation, clearing the incident from his record. But his expulsion from the Hawkeyes was permanent.
Gross almost left school entirely, but decided to finish the year before returning home to Apple Valley. He got a job and more or less forgot about wrestling. His weight ballooned to almost 170 pounds.
Eventually, though, with prodding from family, Gross decided he wanted to continue wrestling, but was unsure if there would be any takers. He reached out to his home state squad of Minnesota but they said no thanks. Ditto Northern Iowa.
“I was pretty down at that point,” Gross said.
South Dakota State coach Chris Bono took over a Jackrabbit team in 2012-13 that had lost 29 of 30 duals and couldn’t get more than a few hundred people to come out to duals at Frost Arena. Bono was confident his infusion of enthusiasm and social media marketing would eventually get some momentum going for the program, but he needed good wrestlers, too.
And one day an email showed up in Bono’s inbox. It was from Gross.
“I got back to him within two minutes,” said Bono, who’d been a national champion himself and assistant coach at Iowa State. “I knew the name and knew what had happened at Iowa. We talked, I said get to campus when you can, and he came down the very next day.”
Bono checked with administration, who told the coach he was free to decide if Gross was worth the risk.
“He sat me down and said tell me what happened,” Gross said. “I told him, and said nothing like it would ever happen again. And he said, OK, but there will be no leeway. One strike and you’re out. I said you won’t be disappointed.”
Said Bono: “I was looking for him to take ownership of what had happened, and he did that. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I did it. I messed up. I just need a second chance.’ I knew then I was dealing with a pretty good kid.”
Still, the margin for error was razor thin for Gross.
“It wasn’t just one strike and you’re out,” Bono said. “It was, be late to one practice and you’re done. I was trying to change a culture here, and I couldn’t compromise my principles.”
Gross wanted to keep a low profile, so he put his head down, kept it down and went to work. He wrestled at 141 pounds, the same class he’d wrestled at Iowa, and had his ups and downs.
“Halfway through the year I had about a .500 record, and I remember one tournament my dad came down and watched and I got pinned by an NAIA kid,” Gross remembers. “I went and sat down with my dad after that and I was like, ‘I don’t know about this. I’m doing terrible.’”
But the winter break gave Gross a chance to recalibrate, and he got into better shape and started to come into his own. He had a much better second half of the season, and finished the year with a solid 26-14 record. He won 11 of 12 matches before falling in the Big 12 championships, and went 3-2 at nationals, leaving him one win shy of All-America honors.
“I was like, ‘I can do this, let’s see where it takes me,’” Gross said. “I just had to get my mindset turned around.”
Gross really began turning heads that summer. He dropped a weight class and competed in the 60-kilogram division at the Junior Freestyle World Team Trials. He won, earning a spot on the USA junior world team. While Gross would enter the 2016-17 college season as a contender for a national championship at 133 pounds, his success on the world stage was a personal revelation. Gross has long dreamed of being an Olympic champion, and landing a spot on the junior world team was a sure sign that goal is attainable.
“That motivated me more than ever,” Gross said.
He would put together the best season by an SDSU wrestler in the Division I era, going 34-2 and 17-0 in duals. He earned bonus points in an astounding 30 matches, including a team-high 13 pins.
He took a 22-match winning streak into the national championship bout, where he was nipped 4-3 by Cory Clark, his old Iowa teammate.
Coming so close to the ultimate goal would be all-consuming to many an athlete, but Gross shrugged it off.
“It was a cool experience,” he said of the finals. “But once you get there it’s just another match. I lost. So what? You lose, you learn from it and try to get better. I was immediately fired up and got right back to practice that week.”
“That’s Seth,” said Bono. “We were sitting there (before the finals) last year and he was laughing and talking and I was like, ‘Dude are you ready?’ and he said ‘I’m always ready.’ He’s a laid back guy, but one reason he’s so successful is he doesn’t stress out a lot.”
Bringing SDSU its first Division I national championship is a driving force for Gross, but he admits the big picture is at least as important. A week after the NCAA championships, win or lose, he’s heading to New York for a freestyle tournament. His Olympic dream burns bright, and Bono, who himself was an Olympic team alternate, said it’s well within reach.
This season Gross is 20-1 with 10 pins, the only loss coming when he moved up to his old weight class in a dual against Wyoming to wrestle top-ranked 141-pounder Bryce Meredith, an extremely rare No. 1 vs. No. 1 bout in which Gross held his own.
“Winning a national championship is a stepping stone on the way to being an Olympic champ,” Gross said. “If I do everything right I know I can do it. I’ve just got to wrestle aggressively and get after it. I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t happen.”
National champ. Olympian. Those are lofty goals, but Gross’s path to get where he is has given him a healthy perspective on chasing them.
“I like pressure - you can use it to help you,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s wrestling, and there’s more to life. I’ve got a family that loves me and a God that loves me. A lot to be happy about. Wrestling is just a way I can glorify God and use the second chance I was given. I’m trying to have fun, because I love this sport more than almost anything.”
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com
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