As a three-time prep national champion, Joey McKenna dreamed of wrestling against Ohio State’s Logan Stieber collegiately.
Then McKenna took a gap year before entering Stanford, so that never had a chance to materialize before Stieber won the last of his four NCAA championships in 2015. When McKenna transferred to Ohio State last year, the lure of training against Stieber was one of the factors in his decision.
After practicing against each other almost daily, McKenna and Stieber will face each other with a spot in the world championships at stake. The winner of their 65kg match at Rec Hall in State College, Pennsylvania, on Saturday will represent the United States along with Kyle Snyder in Hungary in October.
“If I couldn’t win, I would want him to win,” Stieber said. “So it works out well.”
At 27, Stieber is five years older than McKenna, who placed third in the NCAAs in 2016 and ’18. Stieber won a world championship in ’16 in addition to his NCAA titles.
“I’d say he’s probably the favorite just because he’s older, has more experience and is a world champion with all his accolades and credentials,” said McKenna, who will be a senior next year. “The way I see it is, I’m the young guy and I’m pretty hungry and motivated right now.”
McKenna advanced to Saturday’s final with a surprising win of the U.S. Open title in April after Stieber lost to another wrestler.
“I knew Joey was really good, but I didn’t know if he’d make the jump that fast with the U.S. Open win,” Ohio State coach Tom Ryan said.
Ryan said the leap from college to the top international competition is akin to going from junior high to college. But McKenna has developed so quickly that Ryan rates Stieber only a “very slight” favorite on Saturday.
Asked if he believed he could beat Stieber, McKenna replied, “Yeah, 100 percent.”
Stieber and McKenna are aggressive wrestlers. Both want to maintain that style on Saturday and not become tentative because of nerves or familiarity.
Stieber is getting closer to the end of his career, but he believes he is still improving.
“That’s why I’m still going,” he said.
Stieber said he doesn’t feel extra urgency because his athletic clock is ticking.
“If that ever comes into my mind, it just makes it more stressful,” he said. “I’ve accomplished a lot of my goals and want to continue to get better. Winning is a motivator, for sure.”
Stieber and McKenna said that training against each other has helped them both. Asked who usually wins their practice matches, Stieber demurred.
“They’re pretty good matches,” he said. “We’re both trying really hard to get each other better. We’ll find out on Saturday.”
No matter who wins, it won’t affect their friendship, both Stieber and McKenna said.
“Honestly, we treat it like a business where we’re friends before, we wrestle extremely hard and one of us has to win and one will lose, and we’ll be friends afterward,” Stieber said. “It’s a good problem to have for our university and the Regional Training Center (in Columbus).”