PARIS — Dawson Stevens walked onto the Maine high school championship wrestling mat with a sense of urgency fueled by his elusive quest for a state title.
“I’d been to state finals probably more than half of my career, going back to pee-wees, and had never won,” he said. “I knew this year had to be the year. There are no more shots.”
The person standing between the Oxford Hills senior and his first gold medal was a long-time nemesis he had wrestled countless times, Nokomis’ David Wilson.
Wilson had pinned Stevens the week before in the 160 final at A North regionals, which were held at Oxford Hills, avenging a loss Stevens had handed Wilson in his home gym a month earlier.
This time, the rivals squared off on neutral ground, Sanford High School, and engaged in one of their toughest matches yet.
Stevens was the one who had his hand raised at the end, following a 5-3 win.
“It was great. When I heard the buzzer go off and the whistle go off, it was an unforgettable feeling,” he said.
“It was one of the best matches I ever wrestled,” he added. “He wrestled extremely well, too. It comes down to who’s better that day. It was my day to win.”
For reaching his life-long goal, leading the Vikings to their first conference championship in 11 years and breaking the school record for victories, Dawson Stevens is the 2018 Sun Journal All-Region Wrestler of the Year.
A KVAC champion, two-time regional champion and state runner-up, Stevens had more than just individual achievements on his mind in 2018. With a talented group of wrestlers, the Vikings had their sights set on earning some team titles, and Stevens, as a senior captain and the son of coach Tony Stevens, would have to be one of the driving forces.
“He matured as a leader, worrying more about the team first than his own matches and records,” Tony Stevens said.
“We knew the team was going to be good and we’d have to take our sacrifices,” Dawson Stevens said. “It kind of hit us at the (Franklin Savings Bank) tournament up to Rumford placing second (in mid-December). I don’t think we wrestled as well as we could have, but taking second, pretty close behind Skowhegan, was big.”
Oxford Hills continued to build its momentum towards the post-season and Stevens continued to pile up victories. He broke former teammate Malik Geiger’s school record of 164 wins in the final regular-season at Morse.
Stevens, who as a grade-schooler would wake up at 4 a.m. so he could tag along with his father to meets and practices and watch or meet wrestling idols such as Jack Pike, Tom Moulton and Seth McAlister, knows better than anyone the record’s significance, but has no delusions about its durability.
“It will get broken again,” he said. “Probably (sophomore) JJ Worster. He can get to 200.”
Stevens didn’t have much time to celebrate the milestone anyway. The KVAC championships were the following week, and Nokomis had thrown a change-up for the meet. It moved Wilson and Quinton Richards, who would later become the state champion at 152, one weight class.
Stevens welcomed the challenge of facing a highly-regarded wrestler he’d never faced before. He met Richards in the semifinals and pinned him in the second period.
A quick first-period pin against up-and-coming Mt. Blue freshman Tucker Nicholas in the final not only secured Stevens’ third regional title, but helped the Vikings win their first conference team championship since 2007. Stevens was named the meet’s outstanding wrestler and his father the KVAC’s coach of the year.
“Winning that, that was a fun day of wrestling,” Dawson Stevens said.
The Vikings didn’t have as much fun at regionals, despite wrestling in their own gym. Oxford Hills tied Skowhegan for third, while Nokomis, aided by Wilson’s late first-period pin of Stevens in the 160 final, won its first regional title.
“He kind of just caught me. I wasn’t wrestling as good as I should have,” Stevens said. “He was ready and prepared and wrestling his match.”
Stevens’ first loss of the season served for motivation going into the state meet, which may have contributed to the letdown he suffered after reaching his state title goal (the Vikings finished fourth). He lost to Wilson, 8-2, in the finals at the New Englands qualifier, but secured his second trip to the regional championships.
New Englands, where he won one of his three matches, were an emotional, if not somewhat anti-climatic, end to his senior season. He finished the season 48-4, and his career 176-25.
The reality that his wrestling career was now history (although he expects to wrestle in this summer’s Maine-Nebraska Friendship series) hit him immediately after his final match.
“I shed a couple of tears in the corner when it was over,” said Stevens, who will attend Husson University next fall to study business administration and play football.
It was also the end of an era for his father.
“I’m so lucky. Most parents can just sit in the bleachers at meets and watch their kids,” Tony Stevens said. “Six days a week, I’m right there watching my kid do a sport.”
“I think he’s left a really positive mark on Oxford wrestling,” he added. “When people look back, they’ll think of him as a successful hard worker and a good leader. Coaching him from first grade all the way through high school has been a fun ride.”