- Courtesy of the Michigan Athletic Department
By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 28, 2014
Another loss by Angelo Latora, another cringe-worthy moment for Stephen Dutton.
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As the Michigan freshman wrestler fell, 6-1, to Purdue’s Danny Sabatello on Jan. 10 — his sixth loss in a row and ninth in 13 matches — Dutton could only watch from the sidelines, again. Yet another injury setback had forced him to watch Latora start over him in the 141-pound class.
Fortunately for Dutton, Latora’s loss in the Purdue match will likely be the last time the junior has to watch from the stands. Since then, Dutton has exploded on the scene. After nearly two years off, a transfer and countless injuries, Dutton has won his first three Big Ten matches by a combined score of 44-5.
It had been a while, but it wasn’t that long ago that Dutton was dominating the national wrestling scene, albeit for a different team. As a freshman at Lehigh, Dutton went 23-14 and came one win shy of being named All-American, a rare feat for some one year removed from high school.
“He wrestled really well at Lehigh,” said Michigan assistant coach Donny Pritzlaff. “He was a round-of-12 guy as a true freshman, right on the cusp of being on the next level. He kept wrestling well, but his second year had some injuries and didn’t like the fit at Lehigh. It worked out that he wanted to leave and I had just joined Michigan’s staff, so it was a natural fit to get him to come here.”
The pairing of Pritzlaff and Dutton was years in the making. As an assistant coach at Hofstra from 2004-06, Pritzlaff met Dutton, then a seventh-grade wrestler, at a clinic in New York. As the years went on, Pritzlaff became family friends with the Duttons.
Though the bond didn’t take fruition until after Dutton’s sophomore year, it paid off when he selected Michigan. The same spring that two-time NCAA champion Kellen Russell graduated from the weight class, the Wolverines appeared to have their next replacement lined up.
As spring turned to fall, the anticipation grew. But during a wrestle-off to officially name him the starter, the injury bug bit Dutton again. Deciding to redshirt the season, Dutton was forced to train without tangible results.
“I came here for one reason, and that’s to wrestle,” Dutton said on Monday. “It’s been frustrating not being able to compete, I just tried to lead by going out in the room and working hard, competing hard, and that’s basically all I can do.”
After a year away from competing, Dutton was more than eager to return to the lineup. But, yet again, that anticipation was put on hold, as a summer shoulder surgery from another injury took longer to heal than anticipated.
“It’s been emotionally up and down for him,” Pritzlaff said. “He was doing really well in rehab and was as close as he could get to returning. But then he regressed and thought it was re-torn. He thought it might be the end for him.”
But as the weeks wore on, Dutton kept pushing. After Latora’s sixth straight loss, it was now or never for the seasoned but rusty veteran.
“After a while, he realized the pain will always be there,” Pritzlaff said. “Now he’s fighting through it the best he can. He’s in a good spot, he’s not 100 percent, but he knows that no one’s 100 percent at this level, so he’s just got to go.”
Making his Michigan debut against Illinois’ Dominic Olivieri, Dutton looked as healthy as ever, cruising to a 14-0 victory. The momentum has only increased as he’s taken down opponents from Minnesota and Michigan State by scores of 14-2 and 16-3, respectively.
“It’s felt good,” Dutton said. “It’s nice to go out there after a while off and get some points and win some matches. But for the rest of the season, I’m going to have some good competitors, some top-ranked guys, so that should be a good test.”
The hot start has allowed Dutton to become the No. 9 141-pound wrestler in the country. But the biggest tests will come this weekend, as he takes on Penn State’s Zain Retherford and Ohio State’s Logan Steiber, ranked No. 2 and 3, respectively.
“It just makes me work that much harder,” Dutton said. “I have to try and get in better and better shape every day. I was off the mat for so long, and I know the guys I’m wrestling have had a lot more time on the mat this year. So I’m just trying to get as much mat time that I can and go from there.”
In Big Ten wrestling, Dutton’s long-awaited — yet so far successful — return will be put to the test early and often. But in a career full of pain, patience and waiting, few can handle adversity quite like Dutton.