Anthony Cassar’s path in wrestling couldn’t be any more different than that of the heavyweight opponent he upset for his first Big Ten title on Sunday in Williams Arena.
Minnesota’s Gable Steveson is a true freshman phenom, who at this time last year, just won his fourth Minnesota state title with Apple Valley High School — capping off his storied 210-3 high school career with a backflip on the mat.
At this time last year, Cassar was “severely depressed,” he told reporters last week, ahead of the tournament. At 197 pounds, Cassar had wrestled nearly a full season for the first time since arriving on Penn State’s campus in 2014, only to lose out on a trip to the postseason to close friend and teammate Shakur Rasheed.
Yet it was Cassar who was able to shock the freshman 4-3 in front of his home crowd on Sunday.
“I haven’t been able to put this Penn State singlet on and wrestle at Big Tens or nationals, and that’s been hard,” Cassar said after his win. “I’ve been close numerous times, but I was able to do it today. So I was just grateful to God, and it’s disrespectful to him and everyone who supports me if I don’t give my best out there, so that’s what I did.”
Although Steveson was the true freshman and Cassar the fifth-year senior, it was the former who has the more accomplished wrestling resume.
Some would say Steveson was born to wrestle, his mother naming him after legendary Iowa State wrestler and Iowa coach Dan Gable, as reported by TwinCities.com. He won two Cadet World Championships and a Junior World Championship all by the age of 18, and knocked off several senior-level wrestlers on the freestyle circuit last summer.
Cassar got his start in wrestling late and, as a high school senior, became the fourth person in New Jersey history to win a state championship having never previously qualified for the tournament. Cassar went on to win a spot on the 2015 Junior U.S. Freestyle Team, but then suffered a shoulder injury that would derail his next two years of competition at Penn State.
Despite the injury, Cassar said his goals to compete for Penn State and become a national champ never changed. During that period when Cassar was unable to wrestle, his coach, Cael Sanderson, said his commitment and dedication to the sport really showed.
“He works very, very hard all the time,” Sanderson said. “I watched him for two years, coming back from injury, and he didn’t skip a day where he came in with a bad attitude; he just kept plugging away.”
Without the long resume to rely on, Cassar said he just had to trust in his training and “in the process” — no matter the opponent, no matter the stage.
“It was five long years of having the same exact goals since I stepped onto Penn State,” Cassar said. “And I was just training hard in the shadows, and when it didn’t work out again last year, I just had to go back to what I was doing. And I was just consistently training hard and 100 percent committed.”
Cassar decided near the end of last season that with his frame, he was tired of cutting weight and that heavyweight would be a better option for him. Over the summer, he packed on about 35 pounds.
Weighing about 235 pounds throughout the season, Cassar has typically weighed in about 20-50 pounds lighter than most of his opponents. But the Rocky Hill, N.J., native who counts eating and lifting as two of his favorite pastimes, gets offended when people refer to him as a “smaller” heavyweight.
He spent a lot of time in the weight room and said he maintained as disciplined a diet as the one he had when he was cutting to 197 — a characteristic Cassar said he believes separates him from other heavyweights. Sanderson couldn’t disagree.
“He’s just a kid who does everything right,” Sanderson said. “He eats as clean as anyone on our team, as a heavyweight, which is rare.”
All the discipline — in his diet, in the weight room and in the wrestling room — finally paid off when Cassar got his hand raised as a Big Ten champion.
And it wasn’t just Cassar who was happy to see his hard work and dedication over the past five years come to fruition.
Teammate and fellow senior Bo Nickal could hardly sit still during the heavyweight bout. He stood over by the winners’ podium, pacing back and forth, at one point even crouched behind the podium, eyes glued to the mat. When Cassar hit that final takedown to go ahead with 22 seconds left in the bout, Nickal jumped to his feet, clenching his fists in celebration.
“That was pretty exciting, just a great match, two great competitors,” Nickal said. “I was excited to see Anthony win. I knew he was ready for the match and ready to go this whole weekend. He was looking good, and I was excited to see him finish strong.”
Despite the win, Sanderson reminded reporters after the match that this is just one victory, with the overall goal — to get Cassar’s hand raised in Pittsburgh as an NCAA champion — on the horizon.
Having beaten Steveson, but with an earlier loss to Oklahoma State’s Derek White, Cassar could find himself and Steveson on the same side of the bracket and hit in the semifinals.
“He’s got some great competition, but this is a conference meet,” Sanderson said. “We’re happy being the Big Ten champions. It’s important to us and something to be pound of, but the goal is to be a national champion in two weeks.”