Riddle assistant wrestling coach inducted into NCAA D-2 Hall
PRESCOTT, Arizona - In 1984 Embry Riddle assistant wrestling coach Donnie Stevens achieved a rare trifecta that will never be duplicated today.
As a senior at the University of Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, he successfully defended his NCAA Division II 126-pound championship, his team won its first NCAA wrestling title in school history, and he earned NCAA Division II and Division I All-America honors for the second consecutive year.
Three decades later, Stevens, 55, figured that other than his alma mater - which honored him as a member of the school's second athletic hall of fame class in 2006 - the collegiate wrestling world had long forgotten his success in the 1980s. He was wrong.
Last month Stevens was inducted into the NCAA Division II Wrestling Hall of Fame at the Division II championships in St. Louis.
"When several of my teammates were selected a while back [Stevens' roommate Booker Benford in 2004 and two others in 2006], I figured I might have a chance to get in then," says Stevens. "When I wasn't chosen, I forgot about it. So it was a surprise. It means a lot because it recognizes all that hard work I put in during those years. I was really blessed with good coaching [Larry Kristoff] and good teams. We had a dominant stretch." (SIU-Edwardsville won the next two NCAA Division II titles after Stevens graduated.)
So just how did he manage to make Division I All-America when he wrestled for a Division II team?
"Back then, if you finished in the top two in the Division II championships, you qualified as a wild card to wrestle in the Division I nationals as well," Stevens recalls. "They don't do that anymore."
Stevens wrestled in the Division I championships for three consecutive seasons after finishing Division II runner-up as a sophomore and national champion the next two years. He was a three-time Division II All-America and two-time Division I All-America based on his eighth place finish at 126 pounds in the 1983 and 1984 Division I Championships (the last spot that qualified for All-America recognition). His overall record in his final two seasons was 70-19-2.
Just as impressive were Stevens' third- and fifth-place efforts in the Midlands Championships at Northwestern University, the most prestigious amateur wrestling meet in the country that includes competitors from all NCAA divisions and former college stars vying for a berth in the Olympics.
Wrestling in the Midlands was a thrill for Stevens because he grew up 45 miles southwest of Northwestern in Orland Park, Illinois, where he won two state wrestling championships at Carl Sandburg High School. As an added bonus to his NCAA honor, Stevens also was selected this year for the Illinois Wrestling Coaches & Officials Association Hall of Fame.
"That was more of a surprise than the NCAA one," Stevens says. "I had never thought about it [IWCOA Hall of Fame]. It really makes you reminisce about all the things you've done."
Stevens has had two tenures as an ERAU assistant coach. His first was from 1998-2003 when he served under Dan Payne, ERAU's first wrestling coach who later guided Prescott High's grapplers. Stevens rejoined the Eagles in 2011. Ironically, Stevens and head coach K.C. Rock (a Pac-10 champion at Boise State at 125 pounds) both wrestled in similar weight classes.
Perhaps that's why ERAU has had highly successful 125-pound wrestlers the past several years, including two-time All-America Sean Silva. This past season, two 125-pound wrestlers qualified for the NAIA Championships - freshman Chandler Strand and junior Sage Ornelas. The Eagles also had their first national champion in eight years - senior Jose Cruz at 184 pounds.
Stevens and Rock still get on the mat to demonstrate techniques to ERAU wrestlers.
"I sometimes forget how old I am," Stevens says. "I still roll around a bit ... but I'm not cutting weight anymore."