Joey McKenna transferred to Ohio State in the summer of 2017 to compete for an NCAA title. He finished third at the tournament in March, and won a Big 10 title in an almost-flawless postseason.
His training partner throughout that run? Logan Stieber, one of only four wrestlers in history to win four NCAA titles.
Saturday night in State College, Penn., the student and the master will square off in a best-of-three series for the right to represent the United States at the World Championship in Budapest, Hungary this October.
"I've been wrestling with Logan since I came here in the fall; he's helped me a lot this past year," McKenna said. "It's an interesting situation where you get to see two teammates and training partners battle it out."
McKenna, a 22-year-old New Jersey native who wrestled the first two years of his NCAA career at Stanford, earned a bid to Final X – the brand name for the new multi-city version of the U.S. freestyle world team trials – by winning the U.S. Open in Las Vegas in April. He won by defeating Jaydin Eierman, the wrestler who upset top-seeded Stieber in the tournament's quarterfinals.
"When I walked off the mat after my quarterfinal match, Coach Jaggers said Eierman beat Logan, and I was like 'What? Really?'" McKenna said. "So he told me to keep wrestling, stay focused and this tournament's all yours. Take advantage of this opportunity."
And take advantage he did.
Stieber, one of the most decorated athletes in Ohio State University history, recovered quickly from the Sin City upset and ripped through the field at the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament two weeks later. Their respective wins ensured that no matter the outcome in State College, a Buckeye will wrestle for Team USA at 65 kg.
Logan Stieber is part of the reason McKenna traded Palo Alto for Columbus last offseason. The 27-year-old Buckeye alumnus and 2016 World Champion at 61 kg was a role model for McKenna from his early days as a collegiate wrestler.
"When I was going to be a freshman in college he was a senior, and I thought it would be cool if we wrestled," McKenna said. "Going in I thought, man, this guy has done everything I want to do, so I want to try to emulate his style of wrestling as much as I can. In those years, I'd be going to world and national team camps and I'd try to take him as a partner as much as I could and learn from him any way I could."
Talking with Stieber, it's clear the respect between teacher and student – between training partners – is mutual.
"I was his biggest fan all year," Stieber said of his protégé. "I was at Big Tens and Nationals, and I was loud, cheering for him. I wanted him to win, just like the rest of the Buckeyes, more than anything."
Stieber, who led the Buckeyes to the team's first National Championship in 2015, is the favorite to make the world team again. His age and experience certainly lend credence to the oddsmakers' notion that the wily veteran will win in two matches.
Final X State College Week is upon us. Which Buckeye earns a World Team spot at 65 kilograms?— Ohio State Wrestling (@wrestlingbucks) June 10, 2018
But there is one subtle difference in the two wrestlers' chances: consistency. As FloWrestling analyst Willie Saylor puts it:
While Logan Stieber, the four time NCAA Champion and multiple time world team member, comes in as the favorite, he's been a little streaky. One weekend he beats World Champion Haji Aliev, the next he loses to Jaydin Eierman.
McKenna is a polar opposite to the high-scoring Stieber. He's been ultra consistent and very tactical, as seen in his comfortable win over Eierman at the Open. Which style will win out, and how does the familiarity factor affect things?
Stieber acknowledges that the mental aspect of the sport has been a focus for him as he's matured.
"I used to have to have everything perfect, my warmup had to be perfect, my after weigh-in meal, everything had to be perfect, even my clothes had to be perfect," he said. "Now I've been in places where there's no good water, there's no food, you have to eat chips and power bars and the toilets are bad...That would have been tough maybe 5-6 years ago and now I'm used to things getting thrown at me."
That maturity comes in part as a function of age. Stieber is 27, nearing the upper age of competitiveness in freestyle wrestling. He's not slowing down, though; he's wrestling as well as he's ever wrestled.
"I feel like I think more on the mat. I'm making better decisions," he said. "I've seen a lot of things, I've been all over the world."
Traveling – and winning – tournaments such as the Pan-American Championships and the World Cup earlier this year, allow Stieber to continually hone his craft. He uses the odd loss as a tool to sharpen his skills as a technician.
"If I lose a match and I see that position, I work on that," he said. "I'm usually always in great shape and feel strong out there, so [I work on] little positions, or very small things that can make a big difference."
When the two Buckeyes finally lock horns Saturday night, the battle should be epic.
"We both like to score a lot of points in freestyle. It can be a matchup where we see who has the better defense, and if one or the other gets a lead and we can hold him off, or will it be an offensive shootout," Stieber said.
No surprise, McKenna predicted much the same type of match.
"I'd like to say there's going to be a lot of shots fired on both sides. He takes a lot of shots, I take a lot of shots," McKenna said. "What I hope doesn't happen is that both of us clam up and make it a real slow-pace match. I'd rather it be a high-scoring 10-10 match than be a 1-1 match."
For its part, Ohio State has stayed neutral in the impending clash. The coaches will be in neither competitors' corner.
Stieber will be coached by his brother and former Buckeye wrestler Hunter, and former Ohio State assistant Lou Rosselli, now head coach at Oklahoma. McKenna will have his high school coach Jeff Buxton in his corner.
Evaluating the matchup, Stieber said the two wrestlers are more alike than they are different.
"He's better at outside shots than I am, and I'm more of an inside single guy, so maybe I'm better in that position," Stieber said. "I might have a little better leg defense in me."
McKenna, meanwhile, is well aware of Stieber's reputation as a gunslinger.
"He's real good at finishing his shots. He's really good at getting his hands locked, getting to a leg and he's pretty unorthodox in there," McKenna said. "He wrestles, I'd say, 9 out of 10 shots that he's out of position on, he'll finish and other guys won't."
Whatever happens Saturday night, one thing that won't change is the relationship between mentor and student.
"Win or lose, after the match, we're still friends and we've still got to get whoever wins ready for the world championships," McKenna said. "I've learned a lot from him and a lot of the thanks for my success this past season goes to him. We're friends going in, we'll be friends coming out."
Final X State College will also feature best-two-out-of-three finals in the 79 kg and 86 kg classes in men's freestyle, and the 50, 53, 57 and 65 kg classes in women's freestyle. The even will stream live via FloWrestling, with pre-match coverage beginning at 3:30 p.m. and matches starting at 6 p.m.
Stieber vs. McKenna is the first match on the card, so Buckeye fans will want to start their streams early in the evening.