IOWA CITY – It was short, to the point and defines Derek St. John well.
“How ‘bout it?” was the response he offered during a television interview, following his 157-pound NCAA Championship win. The phrase graces the front of University of Iowa’s media guide above St. John’s picture, serving as a description of his stoical exterior that is the shell to his determination and toughness.
“When you get pulled aside after a match like that and you’re huffing and puffing, trying to catch your breath, a lot of times you’re not really thinking about what you’ll say,” St. John said. “It just kind of came out. I guess people liked it, so people have been running with it ever since.”
Top-ranked St. John allows his actions do most of the talking and he can make another statement when the third-ranked Hawkeyes (8-1) face No. 5-ranked rival Oklahoma State (3-2) tonight in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, beginning in 7.
St. John will need to bring that calm, focused and workman-like attitude to the mat against the Cowboys’ second-ranked Alex Dieringer, in a rematch of last year’s national semifinals won by St. John in an overtime tiebreaker.
“When you’re out there on the mat you really don’t let the emotion affect you,” St. John said. “You wrestle with emotion, you feel that stuff, but you don’t let other people see it. It’s just the way I always approached it. It’s worked for me, so I keep doing it.”
St. John (19-0) stays with what works, so his preparation will be similar to any other match. He used a strong ride for the difference over Dieringer (16-0) at nationals, which was his second decision against him.
“He’s good at staying in position,” St. John said. “He’s real explosive. He’s unpredictable and he explodes, so it’s a different kind of feel.”
It highlights a dual stocked with top matchups that include 20 ranked wrestlers. At 133, Oklahoma State’s top-ranked Jon Morrison takes on NCAA runner-up and No. 4 Tony Ramos. Iowa’s sixth-ranked Mike Evans at 174 has No. 2 and defending NCAA champion Chris Perry at 174.
Brands said throw rankings out the window for the dual between the two programs.
“You have to be very aware,” Brands said. “You have to be very tough (and) you have to be very stingy in your positions. You have to wrestle with a lot of energy to put points on the board. That’s what we have to be about at 10 weight classes.”
St. John has fought through injury and the competition, having a chance to become a four-time All-American after placing fourth as a freshman and second in 2012. He also has 95 career wins, including all 29 at CHA. University of Iowa Coach Tom Brands simply described him as tough.
“He doesn’t say much and the things he has gone through in his career define that over and over again,” Brands said. “He’s certainly embodied that as a leader and someone we can look to in this room because tough guys are hard to find. When you find them, they’re valuable.”
Hawkeye 165-pouner Nick Moore wrestled with St. John in high school, helping Iowa City West to state titles. He has grown up with St. John and witnessed the cool outside doesn’t reflect the fire on the inside.
“It’s just his personality,” Moore said. “It’s just the way he is, how he gets ready to go and how he puts himself out there.
“I think it’s cool. It’s not flexing or that other stuff. It’s another type of wrestler.”
Situations make it difficult to maintain composure during a match. St. John said he has had moments when he has felt releasing his emotions, but that hinders success in tough spots.
“Sometimes there are points where you want to let loose and start cussing and what not,” said St. John, noting that his mom is more emotional and his father is calmer. “You can’t let that stuff control you.”
St. John fights for every single point and battles harder to prevent them. He has been in dangerous positions, but finds a way to come out on top, maintaining control or returning to neutral. Brands witnessed that from his first day in the room, jumping right in as Brent Metcalf’s training partner.
“He does contest things,” Brands said. “He doesn’t concede and that’s why he has success.
“When you’re on the fence and you’re ready to teeter, you always wind up on the right side of the fence. If you don’t, you’re still moving, battling and scrapping to where you’re going to get to the side of the fence you want to be on eventually anyway, so that’s what we like about him.”
The Hawkeyes get to see a bit of a different person away from the mat and thousands of fans that fill CHA. St. John said he relaxes more when the season ends and spends added time with friends. He can be light-hearted in the locker room.
“He’s more quiet, but he’ll loosen up,” Brands said. “He’s got a personality that comes through. I don’t know if he’s quiet, guarded or what (but) he’s a lot of fun.”
Wrestling without fans, attention and interviews would be just as gratifying to the seldom-vocal St. John. He attempts to block out the face on the media guide or the giant wall sticker that bears his likeness as you walk into the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex. It won’t interfere with his goal of a second straight national title.
“You can’t let that creep into what you’re about and what you’re trying to accomplish,” St. John said. “If you dwell on that stuff I think it keeps you from what is in front of you. I really try to stay away from it and focus on what is in front of me.”
How ‘bout that?