Kenai Central senior Hope Steffensen says she was trademarked at the Junior Nationals freestyle competition as “that one girl from Alaska with the long blond hair.”
By the end of the tournament, held July 17 in Fargo, N.D., Steffensen might as well have been “that one girl from Alaska with the long blond hair who wins national titles, just like her brothers.”
Steffensen, of Team Alaska and the Kenai Kavemen Wrestling Club, won all six of her matches to take first in 117 pounds at the tournament, the premier event for Junior freestyle wrestlers in the country.
The wins puts Steffensen in good company — in her family.
Hope won her second national title, the first coming in folkstyle — the style used in high school wrestling — in eighth grade. Ellery Steffensen, a sophomore at KCHS, has two national titles — one in freestyle, one in Greco-Roman. Paul Steffensen, an eighth-grader, has six national titles — three in freestyle, three in Greco-Roman.
“We used to have a heated rivalry,” Hope said. “Now it’s more of a joke.”
Hope said her brothers and her father, KCHS coach Stan Steffensen, are a major reason for her success.
“My dad is very, very experienced,” she said. “He wrestled down in the Lower 48. I have a lot of support from my family in everything that I do.
“My brothers throw with me and help me out. I’m sure it isn’t the funnest thing for my brothers to duel with their sister, but they do it.”
Steffensen’s bracket had 20 wrestlers. They were split into two pools. Steffensen went 5-0 to advance out of her pool and into the championship.
In freestyle wrestling, there are three periods but, unlike folkstyle, one wrestler wins each period, then the score is reset to 0-0. The first one to two period victories wins.
In her pool, Steffensen had two first-period pins, and won the other three matches without losing a period. In her fourth match, against Francesca Giorgio of Pennsylvania, Steffensen was down 2-0 in the first period but completed a throw in the final 10 seconds for a 3-2 win.
Steffensen faced Iowa’s Cassy Herkelman in the finals. The Kenai wrestler lost the first period 1-0 before evening the match with a 3-1 victory in the second.
Steffensen entered the final minute of the third period with a 4-0 lead, but Herkelman completed a head throw with 22 seconds left to knot the score at 4. Steffensen was able to roll through and score a reversal with 15 seconds left for a dramatic, 6-4 victory.
If the third period had ended tied at 4, Herkelman would have been the national champ because she had scored the last points in the match.
The last-second reversal marked a reversal in fortune for Steffensen — she had finished second at 105 last year.
“There was unfinished business in North Dakota, to say the least,” Steffensen said.
Steffensen normally doesn’t wrestle at 117. In high school, she wrestled at 103 as a freshman and sophomore, finishing fourth at state as a freshman and winning a state title as a sophomore.
Last year, the weight class changed to 106 and Steffensen did not place at state.
“Definitely, the 3 pounds is a big difference,” Steffensen said. “You’ve got guys that are cutting from 120, and it’s hard for people like me that are close to weighing that naturally.”
Steffensen was planning on wrestling at 112 in North Dakota, but a sickness forced her to gain water weight and pushed her to 117.
“I was tiny compared to everybody in my weight class,” she said.
Steffensen said a Team Alaska training camp that happened for a week in early July made the difference this year. Last year, she was off the mat for five or six weeks before competing in North Dakota.
She also worked more on the intricacies of freestyle wrestling from March to May with the Kavemen this year.
“People say it’s all wrestling, but they definitely have slightly different techniques,” Steffensen said of the difference between folkstyle and freestyle. “I really focused on the details this year.”
In addition to wrestling at a higher weight class, Steffensen also wrestled hurt. She injured her right elbow at the Team Alaska camp, and had her right arm wrapped for the duration of the tournament.
“They were all going after that arm,” she said. “It was kind of messed up.”
The national title puts Steffensen front and center for college recruiters, especially since the women wrestle freestyle in college.
“There’s some recruiting interest going on, and I’m going to see how that turns out,” Steffensen said. “I’ve definitely got some options.”
In the meantime, Steffensen will run cross-country for the Kards this fall in preparation for prep wrestling.
Steffensen was the only member of Team Alaska to place at the tournament. Seth Hutchison, who will be a freshman at Skyview, was the only other Kenai Peninsula wrestler on Team Alaska.
All of Steffensen’s matches at Junior Nationals can be viewed on YouTube by searching “Hope Steffensen 2012.”