On Feb 16, Steve Santos scored a dramatic takedown and back points in the waning seconds of the third period to defeat Penn’s Andrew Lenzi, 7-4, in a bout he trailed most of the way.
A rematch seemed imminent when the EIWA Tournament brackets were released with Santos as the top seed and Lenzi in the eighth spot. Could Lenzi finish off the upset this time?
Santos never gave him a chance. Late heroics were unnecessary as the Columbia senior got out to an early lead and then made quick work of the Quaker with a second period fall.
“I was really looking forward to improving on my performance,” Santos said. “It was a totally different match. I was able to get a takedown and a couple sets of back points to build up a lead before the pin.”
“Steve had a couple of close matches in February so I’m sure some people in the weight thought they had a shot at him,” said Columbia head coach Carl Fronhofer. “He was pretty dinged up then, but we finally got him healthy at the right time. Steve’s pretty hard to beat anytime. But he’s really hard to beat when he has extra motivation like he did [against Lenzi].”
Extra motivation was also there for his next bout with Cornell’s Chris Villalonga in the semifinals, the wrestler who topped Santos in the EIWA third place bout in 2012.
“I was looking forward to facing him again,” Santos said. “It’s always good to get revenge for a loss. I wasn’t able to wrestle him in the dual meet this year because I was still injured, but he’s had a good season. Getting the win was a big confidence boost for me.”
Villalonga got on the board first with a takedown, but Santos controlled the latter portions of the match, something Fronhofer said has happened many times over the years.
“Without question, his work on top in that match was key,” Fronhofer said. “But Steve’s good in every position. The thing is, if you look at his matches, they’re all pretty competitive for the first three or four minutes. But at the four-minute mark or so, the tide turns in his favor. He just has another gear to go to that I think some guys have a hard time keeping pace with.”
That trait has helped Santos compile a 26-2 record this season and the EIWA championship over Army’s Daniel Young. And, according to Fronhofer, this was one of the reasons Santos made an instant impact for the Lions as a highly-touted rookie out of Brick, New Jersey.
“He was thrown right in there as a freshman and he could compete with the best right away,” Fronhofer said. “He didn’t always win, but you know you have a special kid when he’s in every match. He’s a guy who doesn’t care how good you are. He wrestles his match regardless of who you are. He’s always had the ability to finish matches strong. Sometimes early in his career, he’d be down big after the first period and still come back to win or at least make it really interesting.”
“As a freshman, I made up for inexperience with being able to wrestle hard and wearing guys down,” Santos added. “Just having good conditioning and really being able to win that third period really helped me have some level of success right away.”
But on top of that seven-minute intensity, Santos had another characteristic from the start that the head coach said set the captain apart.
“Steve doesn’t get scared or nervous; even at the beginning of his career that was true,” Fronhofer said. “He’s just excited to compete. That’s an attribute that can’t be overstated in its importance.”
“Generally, I love to compete, especially in big matches,” Santos said. “I’m always excited to have a chance to knock someone off. I feel like I generally keep my cool and don’t take myself out of matches no matter what the score is because I’ve come from behind to win so many times.”
He certainly has embraced some big moments in the past. He has beaten some highly ranked competitors such as Mario Mason when he was in the nation’s Top 10, Donnie Vinson (twice) and David Habat.
His victory over the Edinboro grappler was a part of his run at the NCAA tournament last year, in which he came within one victory of making the podium, dropping a 5-0 decision to Oklahoma’s Nick Lester in the Round of 12.
“I was definitely upset about my performance,” Santos said. “The goal is always to be an All-American and a National Champion. I came close to the first one but didn’t get it. Right after that match, I thought about having only one chance left. I went right to work. I put in a lot of time this summer thinking about reversing some outcomes and getting on the podium this year.”
Much of that training came with frequent workout partner (and fellow two-time NCAA qualifier at 157) Jake O’Hara. In addition, the presence of former All-American Adam Hall in the Columbia room played a key role.
“Having someone on [Hall’s] level definitely helped me a lot,” Santos said. “He’s able to share his experiences and the fact that he’s still training hard for his own personal goals pushes everyone harder. It brings a whole extra level of competitiveness to our team.”
That team improvement was evident this past weekend. The Lions had three conference finalists (Santos, plus Matt Bystol and Josh Houldsworth, who took second at 133 and 165, respectively). That trio plus O’Hara, who grabbed fourth at 157, secured four bids at the NCAAs for Columbia. (174-pounder Stephen West could make it five Lions heading to Des Moines, as he is a strong candidate for an at large bid and will find out his fate on Wednesday).
“I think the program has really turned around since my freshman year,” Santos said. “We had a really small team then and every year it has grown and we’ve made progress. Having four NCAA qualifiers and possibly five is a great thing and shows all the hard work this team has put in.”
There are a lot of reasons for the results, but Fronhofer pointed out that Santos and his classmates are one of them.
“Steve is a true pleasure to coach,” Fronhofer said. “He and the rest of our senior class did a lot to shape the culture of Columbia wrestling. It’s a special group to me because it’s the first class I had a chance to help recruit as an assistant. All eight of them are still on the team and will be graduating. Those guys as a whole will definitely be missed. Steve is a leader among leaders. He’s quiet; he doesn’t say too much because he doesn’t need to. All the guys should strive to have a work ethic like him in the wrestling room and in the classroom. If guys follow what he does, they’ll be successful.”
Santos was successful at the EIWAs, making the finals for the first time and earning the championship. He said that was one of his senior year goals and with that checked off the list, making the medal stand at NCAAs is next.
He ended the campaign as the nation’s fifth ranked wrestler in both the Coaches’ Panel and the RPI. That will likely translate into a seed that should put him in good position to end his career on a high note. Fronhofer believes it could be a very high note.
“Steve’s goal has been a National Championship from the start of the year,” Fronhofer said. “He has the experience and the ability to get it done. It’s clearly a loaded class like the middleweights usually are and there are some uber talented wrestlers. We’ll have to have a good gameplan and he’ll have to wrestle smart to get there.”
Santos believes he’s prepared for his last few days as a college wrestler, before likely staying in New York City to work in the finance field.
“I think that I’m really starting to peak at the right level,” he said. “I had a break in the middle of the season when I was hurt and it took me a little while to get back. But my performance at EIWAs gave me a lot of confidence. I come from a wrestling family and have been competing since elementary school. I know I’ve worked hard toward my goals and I think I’m ready for the big matches.”
He’s ready. Whoever steps on the mat with him better be ready too – for seven full minutes.
Steve Santos wished to thank his parents for all their support. “My mom and dad took me to all those tournaments, pushed me and gave me the opportunities to do something I love.”
He also wished to thank his coaches and Columbia wrestling for “providing me with everything I needed to compete at this level and being a huge part of my success.”