DI Male Athlete of the Year: Derek St. John

BY CODY GOODWIN | MAY 13, 2013 5:00 AM

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It was the same for most of the season. No matter the outcome for his matches — win or lose, pin or decision — Derek St. John displayed the same expressionless face. It became a trademark, of sorts, as he was the guy who never really celebrated or panicked.

And then he won the 2013 national championship.

The normally quiet St. John was caught pumping his fists after his 3-2 victory over Northwestern’s Jason Welch. He even displayed a grin, an unusual showing for the ordinarily inscrutable Iowa wrestler.

“Its unbelievable,” St. John said after winning the 157-pound NCAA Championship on March 23. “It’s awesome. It’s what I’ve worked the last four years for, and I finally, finally got it.”

His national championship capped a 31-2 junior season and was his third trip to the All-American podium in as many years. St. John had previously taken fourth and second in the same weight class.

But a glossy 94 winning percentage did not come without a few tests. St. John had a stranglehold on the 157-pound’s No. 1 ranking for most of the season but relinquished it after losing to Missouri’s Kyle Bradley at the Cliff Keen National Duals in late February.

St. John’s record was marred once again at the Big Ten wrestling championships in March when Nebraska’s James Green got the better of St. John in the semifinals. The result pushed the Hawkeye to the backside, where he came up with a third-place finish.

The losses were a result of St. John’s wrestling style — a very workmanlike manner that posted more decisions than bonus-point victories. He often kept matches closer than the fans would have liked, and it came back to haunt him as the season progressed.

But that didn’t faze St. John. If anything, it helped him learn from those minor miscues. This was evident in his season’s final two matches — the Parnell, Iowa, native squeaked out a 3-2-overtime victory over Oklahoma State’s Alex Dieringer in the semifinals before winning the gold over Welch.

“I’m in the corner there, and the only thing that’s going through my head is ‘tough,’ ” Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands said after watching St. John muscle through another tough victory on Dec. 6. “That guy is tough.”

Tough might be an understatement. Before St. John reached the podium’s highest platform, he had back-to-back disappointing finishes — by his standards, at least — and both came at the hands of two of the country’s toughest wrestlers.

St. John’s title run during his freshman campaign was cut short after Penn State’s David Taylor topped him, 6-3, in the 157-pound quarterfinals. St. John came back to grab fourth.

In 2012, St. John’s title hopes were dashed on the stage to Cornell’s Kyle Dake in the same weight class by a 4-1 score. Both Dake and Taylor moved up to 165 pounds after defeating St. John in consecutive years.

But it all came together for St. John this past season. His calm demeanor, much like his grappling style, ultimately won out.

This kind of mindset has been picked up by some of his teammates, too.

“You can’t get frustrated,” 133-pounder Tony Ramos said on March 22 after reaching the NCAA finals. “If you do that, you’re letting other things into your wrestling.”

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