Jake Stevenson, a 2007 NAIA national champion and four-time All-American, has guided Morningside’s wrestling program to a 77-40 dual meet record in his nine seasons as head coach. He has led the Mustangs to three Great Plains Athletic Conference championships and five conference runner-up finishes. Morningside is consistently ranked among the top-20 NAIA wrestling programs in the nation.
MatBoss talked to Stevenson about this past season, academic excellence, Colton McCrystal, NAIA, expectations for the 2021-22 season and more.
You just recently wrapped up your Arena Wrestling Camp at The Expo Center. Multiple-time NCAA Division I All-American Mikey Labriola of Nebraska was a clinician. How did that go?
Stevenson: It went awesome. Mikey did a phenomenal job. Saw a lot of energy and excitement, and he was a great clinician. Had kids from kind of the tri-state area. Had some teams from a few hours away drive in. So that was awesome. It was a good turnout. I had a lot of fun. It was the first wrestling camp that was done in that facility. It’s a phenomenal place to host anything. So looking forward to doing a lot more there.
How much freestyle or Greco-Roman training does your team do between the college wrestling seasons?
Stevenson: It kind of depends. Usually we do quite a bit and we like to go to Vegas and compete there. I have a few guys who wanted to do U23s this year. It’s been a little bit less. We would have loved to do some more tournaments. Honestly, we just weren’t prepared the way we’d like to be prepared and don’t want to go out there and not be prepared. We didn’t do any competitions this year. We did [freestyle] training for a couple months, but we’re back to doing folkstyle stuff now.
You guided your program to its second Great Plains Athletic Conference title in three years and advanced five wrestlers to the national tournament. Were you satisfied with how this past season ended?
Stevenson: Our goals were definitely a little bit higher. I think we had two or three guys lose in the heartbreak round and those were definitely guys we thought would end up on the podium. We’re definitely excited about winning our conference tournament and the way we competed during the regular season. We’re happy that we got as much competition in as we did. We got a lot more matches than a lot of teams did. So we were blessed in that aspect and happy with what we’re able to provide our guys but I think we had a little bit more in the tank.
You had a strong dual meet season, finishing 12-4 … but narrowly lost to Doane University on criteria in a dual meet that decided the dual meet conference champion. What did you take away from that loss?
Stevenson: Experience is really important. I think we had only one junior or senior in that dual. Everybody else was a freshman or sophomore. It just kind of came down to match awareness and understanding what you need to do in a tight team dual … eke out an extra bonus point with a major decision, tech or pin, understanding how important those things are. I’d say that’s the biggest thing. We’re proud of our guys. They went out there and wrestled their matches, but sometimes you just kind of got to be a little more aware when you’re in those team atmospheres.
Morningside’s wrestling program finished among the top 15 in the NWCA’s Scholar All-America Teams with a GPA of 3.167. How much pride do you take in that accomplishment?
Stevenson: We’re very proud of the academic success of our program. That’s something that we talk to every recruit about and talk to every one of our guys about. We do a good job of being consistent with our communication about that throughout the year. It’s easy to get dialed into just wrestling and trying to be successful on the mat. But we have great leadership and a strong tradition of academic excellence. I think this may be the first year in maybe the last five or six years we weren’t in the top five. Just having a team GPA over a 3.0 is important to us. It’s something that we talk to our guys a lot about. So really proud of the guys and the work they did. And again, kind of the tradition that they’ve embraced and continue to work hard for.
You added former Nebraska wrestler Colton McCrystal to your coaching staff before last season. What has he brought to the program?
Stevenson: Definitely an energy and a knowledge that we love. He’s extremely passionate about the sport, and extremely passionate about the guys on the team. He connected really quickly with our wrestlers. I’ve known Colton since he was probably in fifth grade. So I know what kind of person he is and his character. I was confident in what he would bring to the program, but in a really great way he surprised me with how well he connected with the guys very quickly and how much he invested in them. Not only in wrestling but just in them as young men and their development and their character. I’m excited for him to continue in the program. He’s phenomenal.
You competed at the NAIA level as a wrestler at Morningside, winning a national title. Now you’re coaching at the NAIA level. What do you enjoy about the NAIA level?
Stevenson: I like the freedom of it. I think that’s the good and bad thing about the NAIA. We are pretty much free to do what we want as far as who we compete against. I love my institution more than I love the NAIA. My institution lets me plan our schedule and they give me the freedom to hire the coaches that I want and recruit the kind of kids that I want to recruit. My institution is phenomenal and they want to be in the NAIA, so we embrace that and enjoy that.
The NAIA has been a great spot for me. It wasn’t something that I was aware of when I went to college. And I think that’s becoming less and less common. I think more people know about college wrestling in high school because of social media and the internet, which is awesome. When I came to college I didn’t know what the heck division Morningside was in … or anybody else that I talked to honestly. I knew that Nebraska was Division I but I probably couldn’t name 20 other teams in Division I wrestling.
Sometimes we don’t have the best dual record, but generally we face somebody from every division every year. That’s something I loved about my coach in the competitions he put us in. I wrestled Craig Brester, a two-time NCAA Division I runner-up. It was great to be able to put myself in a position where I could wrestle guys of that caliber. I think it’s kind of getting away from that a little bit, where people are staying a little bit more in their division and not kind of branching out. But when I was in it, you didn’t really know who is in what division until the end of the season.
John Diener became the program’s 33rd All-American when he placed eighth at 149 pounds. What does he need to do to move up the podium and contend for a national title?
Stevenson: Become best friends with Colton McCrystal. Realistically, I don’t think anybody in NAIA has a better training partner. Colton put it on the line this year against a couple of Division I guys at one of the Underground events in Wisconsin and beat them both. He still has it and competes at a high level. So John has a great training partner. The rest of it is just off-the-mat stuff … making sure academically he stays focused, making sure lifestyle-wise he does the right things. I’m confident in what he’s getting in the room. John puts in the right amount of work. So he’s on the right track.
You have a pretty young team with four of your five national qualifiers last season being freshmen or sophomores. What are your expectations for the program in the coming seasons?
Stevenson: We always set our goal to win the conference, get a bunch of guys to the national tournament and produce All-Americans. We really are shooting to be a top-10 team. We have done that before. We have never been a top-five team. I think that’s probably the next step we need to take. And that’s kind of what we communicate. We need to be a top-10, top-5 team.