|Photo: Bruce Waterfield, OSU Athletics|
Heil came to Stillwater, Okla., a four-time Ohio state champion for St. Edward High School and was discovered by Cowboy associate head coach Eric Guerrero.
His journey for the Cowboys began in 2013 with a redshirt season. Heil competed primarily at 133 pounds and compiled a 14-3 record. He was in position to take over for graduating All-American Jon Morrison in the lineup at the 133-pound spot the following year. However, Heil encountered some roadblocks and even considered quitting.
“My true freshman year, I wanted the season to be done,” Heil said. “I was so frustrated with how it was going. There were times when I wanted to quit because I was so tired of going to practice and feeling like it meant nothing and had no impact. That was an awful mindset. My redshirt freshman year, I was on my way out. My parents came down for a dual and I had a breakdown. I was all packed up and ready to go back to Ohio, but I had one final talk with Coach Smith and decided to give it another shot.”
As a result, the redshirt freshman bumped up to 141 pounds and went on to produce a solid season, finishing 27-10 overall with a Big 12 title. Despite coming in as the No. 14 seed, he served up a fourth-place finish at NCAAs in a tough weight class that included hammers like four-time NCAA champion Logan Stieber and two-time NCAA finalist Mitchell Port.
His notable wins at the NCAA tournament came over ranked opponents No. 3 Lavion Mayes of Mizzou, No. 8 Geo Martinez of Boise State and No. 7 Anthony Ashnault of Rutgers.
“I think the turning point for him as a wrestler came at the NCAA championships in 2015,” Oklahoma State head coach John Smith said. “He started mowing down guys and ended up fourth. He struggled all through the year. He was very competitive in matches but ended up really excelling at the championships. When he came back the following fall, he really picked up where he left off. He stayed the same aggressive wrestler that he was at NCAAs, and it was good to see that.”
Things were looking up for the Cowboy. He was the highest returning placer at the weight, and his breakout performance at nationals made him the No. 1 guy at 141 pounds, entering the 2015-16 season, a ranking he maintained all year long.
“I could say that I’ve never worked as hard as I did last year. Going into the season, I had a whole new mindset,” Heil said. “I knew I was the top dog because I was the highest returning placer from the year before and I had beaten some of those other top guys who were returning. I knew that if I wrestled my own match that I could beat anyone out there, and I knew that I was in the practice room working harder than any of those guys. Knowing those things kept me very calm and comfortable as a person so I didn’t really stress too much.”
However, the doubters were louder than ever.
“I think a lot of it was that I was No. 1 based on statistics,” Heil said. “I think they doubted me because of my style of wrestling. A lot of my matches were pretty close and I don’t think a lot of people like that. I didn’t put tons of points on the board and expand my lead so I think people thought I was going to lose when it came to NCAAs. They didn’t think that I would be able to get ‘lucky’ multiple matches in a row.”
Heil’s style, although sometimes resulted in tight matches, proved to be something the Cowboys could rely on. He collected 15 dual wins with his lone setback coming to Joey Ward of North Carolina in a dual. At the NCAA tournament, Heil would redeem that loss, defeating Ward in the quarterfinals 8-3.
In addition to an outstanding dual season, Heil picked up a few titles along the way.
In January, he kicked off the New Year, winning a Southern Scuffle title. In the finals, he defeated No. 2 Joey McKenna of Stanford with a 2-1 tiebreaker thriller in a rivalry between the two that dated back to high school.
The Cowboy also wrestled his way to his second conference title, which featured new Big 12 foes as the conference expanded to 10 teams.
He was primed for another excellent run at NCAAs, having compiled a 9-1 record against the NCAA field during the season.
“We all felt that he could be a champion,” Smith said. “The coaching staff, as well as Dean, knew that he could be in some tight matches, but he’s shown that he can take down anyone. He very seldom went through a period without a takedown and you get the feeling that at that point, the needs have been met for him to win a championship. You judge that on the wrestler’s ability to take people down and their ability to get away. He was doing both on a regular basis. There wasn’t anybody that could keep him from taking them down and there wasn’t anybody who could ride him.”
Despite his impressive resume compiled throughout the year, many still doubted his ability to win on the big stage.
Heil entered Madison Square Garden with his mind set on achieving on goal—winning a national championship.
He was well on his way, cruising to the 141-pound finals with four decisive victories. There, he faced off against 14th-seeded Bryce Meredith of Wyoming, whom he edged out earlier in the season in a dual, 5-4.
This time, their meeting was even closer. Heil struck first with a takedown late in the first period but an escape from Meredith put the score at 2-1, heading into the second period. Heil and Meredith went on to score escapes in the second and third periods, respectively, but it was Heil who had the edge, winning his first NCAA title with a 3-2 win.
This year, the competition has their sights set on Heil as he is the guy to beat, but he’s not threatened by it.
“I want them to train for me because that means they are diverting from their own style and trying to adjust to mine. For me, that means I have to continue to get better in my style. I don’t have to worry about how to respond to their style because I’ve already beat many of them my way. I’ll use that to my advantage,” Heil said.
Not only is there pressure from his opponents but also the public, according to Heil.
“There’s a lot of pressure because it’s hard to repeat. Just because you did it once doesn’t mean that you’ll win it again. I’ve heard some people say that I’m not a lock to win it at 141 this year. That right there is just more motivation for me. It makes me want to go out there and prove them wrong,” he said.
Fortunately for him, the OSU wrestling room is full of wrestling wisdom and experience as he shares it with several repeat NCAA champions, including former teammate, three-time NCAA champion and 2016 Hodge Trophy recipient Alex Dieringer, two-time NCAA champion Chris Perry, three-time NCAA champion and 2004 Olympian Eric Guerrero and two-time NCAA champion and six-time World champion John Smith, who is known as arguably the greatest American wrestler ever.
“He just has to understand that he can get better and he will get better,” Smith said. “He hasn’t reached his full potential yet. He’s been fun to watch in these preseason workouts. He’s highly motivated and appears to be really excited about chasing another NCAA championship.”
Heil said he knows the grind of this year will be unlike any other that he has experienced.
“I want to repeat as a champion. How I go about that will be different,” Heil said. “I fully understand that it’s going to have to be everything that I did last year and then some. People know that I’m at the top of the weight class right now and that I can perform under pressure, but I know there will still be people who don’t believe in me. That doesn’t matter because I know that I have to believe in myself. It’s going to be a lot harder from here on out.”
Oklahoma State opens the 2016-17 season in Miami, Okla., in a neutral-site match against Bucknell on Nov. 6.