By JOSH RIZZO
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
Gage Stephens wasn't going to let the past repeat itself.
A year ago, after advancing to the semifinals of the Quincy Invitational, the Quincy Notre Dame wrestler didn't make weight the second day of the tournament and was eliminated from the championship draw.
In the same position two weeks ago, Stephens truly wasn't worried he'd miss weight again.
"I made sure it wasn't happening twice," he said.
It turns out he was in the clear. Stephens checked in 1.5 pounds below the cutoff for the 138-pound class, much to the delight of those gathered at the weigh-in.
"When I made weight, the whole auditorium started clapping," Stephens said.
It was the affirmation he needed to know his efforts have been worthwhile.
Stephens, a senior, is a workout warrior. The Raiders practice every day after school in the QND wrestling room, yet once that's over, Stephens will call on his cousin or brother for more sparring. If that doesn't happen, he'll go for a run, doing anything to maintain a consistent weight.
That includes watching his diet.
"During the wrestling season, it's a lot of bagels, light yogurt and bananas," Stephens said. "I try to eat a lot of fruit. When I have a little bit of time to cut weight, I usually go for meaty things like turkey sandwiches to get some protein."
The consistency in his diet and weight shows on the mat, where he is 29-1 with the lone loss coming in the championship of the Quincy Invitational.
Stephens is ranked No. 7 in the 138-pound class in Class 1A, according to IllinoisMatmen.com.
"Weight-wise, the self-discipline is there," Raiders coach Ken Mansell said. "Last year, it was an elevator. Up, down, up, down. If he had the same mentality as he did last year, he'd be at 138, 145, 138, 145. If you're going to do that, that's a mind game with yourself. You aren't eating right. You need to be the same all the way throughout.
"You need to have the same diet, the same lifting and conditioning program and you'll wrestle a lot stronger. You can't go up and down six or seven pounds, that's not healthy for your body."
A second consecutive first-round exit from the state tournament last season sparked a fire inside Stephens.
"Realizing I had been to state twice and haven't been out of the first round," Stephens said when asked what motivates him. "It put a downer on my mood and made me realize that I'm a lot better than what I look like on paper. I need to prove that to people and to myself."
Stephens hopes to win his first QND Invitational title this weekend at The Pit. Last season, he was pinned by Kirksville's Austin Roper, who was a three-time state champion in Missouri and now wrestles at the University of Missouri, in the 132-pound final.
In the offseason, Stephens formed a personal workout plan and put in more work than he has in past seasons.
"A few weeks after the state tournament, he called me up and wanted to know about taking a couple kids under his wing and taking them to a couple camps," Mansell said. "He met with me and a couple of the other guys and they started working out together and going places. His whole demeanor, his whole mindset is far different than it has been.
"Even with something as simple as weight management, he's there. I was worried at the beginning of the year he was going to play with 132 and 138. After one match, he decided to wrestle where he was strong."
QND junior Blake Schutte, who wrestles at 152 and 160 pounds, trained with Stephens this summer. The duo trained at the YMCA and in Stephens' basement.
"We improved our technique and discipline," Schutte said. "We also improved our cardio. We're really good on cardio. Also, what we eat, nothing too fatty."
Stephens hope his hard work will result in a spot on the podium at the state tournament.
"Nobody is going to lay down for you," Stephens said. "My first match at state, I was nervous and let my emotions get to me and I lost pretty big. The second time, I wrestled really good the first and second period, then I got too high on the horse and he caught me and stuck me. I got too big-headed.
"Now, I realize no one is going to lay down for me, and it comes down to how much I want it and how hard I'm willing to work."