Former Thompson wrestler Gabe Hixenbaugh returns home to help University of Montevallo build wrestling program
Published 11:09 am Monday, December 4, 2023
By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor
Gabe Hixenbaugh has accomplished a lot during his wrestling career, with wins against some of the top wrestlers in the country and success on the biggest stages in Alabama and the entire nation.
But he has never done one thing: wrestle collegiately in front of his hometown fans.
Now thanks to a fresh start with the University of Montevallo’s wrestling program, he has a chance to do just that and chase his dreams close to home while laying the groundwork for wrestlers from across the state to follow in his footsteps.
Hixenbaugh was a five-time individual state champion for Thompson in high school, going 249-16 during his high school career to become the second-winningest wrestler in program history. He also helped the Warriors to three state championships as a team.
He was an elite wrestler nationally during that time as well, winning a national championship at the Junior Nationals in Fargo, one of the most prestigious wrestling tournaments in the country, and was named a Fargo All-American.
At the time he graduated, however, the only college wrestling program in the state was Division-III Huntingdon College, so Hixenbaugh went to Division-I Campbell University for four years.
At Campbell, he was named to the SoCon All-Freshman team in 2021, and during his senior season in 2022-23, he finished 17-1 and had a perfect 7-0 record in duals.
While he didn’t wrestle in Alabama as an undergrad, the perfect opportunity arose for him to return to Shelby County and compete at a high level.
With Montevallo starting its wrestling program in November 2023, Falcons coach Daniel Ownbey recruited him to come to the university on a graduate transfer to help build the team from the ground up in its inaugural season.
For Hixenbaugh, it was a chance to wrestle close to home while building something he could only dream of when he was at Thompson.
“Just the opportunity to wrestle for the people that have watched me wrestle for so long, an opportunity to grow wrestling in Alabama,” Hixenbaugh said of what drew him to Montevallo. “It’ll be really cool to have a good Division-II program right in my backyard, so now I’m trying to do what I can to get us off in the right direction.”
Individually, he has thrived with Montevallo so far this season. As of Nov. 30, Hixenbaugh is the No. 8 wrestler at 133 pounds in all of Division-II and is 12-0 in matches this season.
That includes two first place finishes in tournament brackets, going 5-0 at both the Patriot Open and Life University Open with five technical fall victories across the two tournaments.
Hixenbaugh has high expectations for himself, but beyond any individual success, he’s focused on elevating others along the way.
“Of course, I want to be a national champ,” Hixenbaugh said. “But, I want to put other people on the stand. I want to get other people around my way that I can help with technical-wise. I want to get them on the stand, and I want the program in the future to be successful. My goal is to give as much as I can to this program as it’s given so much to me already and it will in the future too.”
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Montevallo is in a unique situation for a college athletics program as many of its wrestlers are competing as freshmen this year.
Hixenbaugh, on the other hand, is working on his masters’ in business administration, and has years of Division-I wrestling experience that his teammates don’t have.
“My job right now, how I see it is, there needs to be a foundation for the program,” Hixenbaugh said. “Most of the team are freshmen. I think there’s only like three or four of us that have wrestled, but all of them have only wrestled a year of college, and I have that four-year experience. Really, I’ve already been through college, so I kind of know what the expectations are.”
More than anything, Hixenbaugh has led by example in showing his teammates what it takes to compete with the best wrestlers in the country.
Ownbey has seen the work ethic that Hixenbaugh brings to training and how it challenges his teammates to match his intensity.
“Having Gabe here who’s been through it and knows what it takes, they can just look over at him and he’s doing everything we’re asking them to, working as hard as he needs to, and so they have no room to talk or really try to snake out of a workout,” Ownbey said. “Leader-wise, and especially work ethic-wise, he’s been one of the most important aspects to our program.”
That type of leadership is nothing new to Hixenbaugh. Thompson wrestling coach Shawn Weltzin saw how younger kids looked up to him while he was with the Warriors and how he would lead his teammates even from a young age.
“He’s done the right things along the way for a while,” Weltzin said. “He was leading by example when he was an eighth grader on our varsity team and just doing the right things, so he’s been in a leadership role in wrestling for a long while.”
PUTTING ALABAMA ON THE MAP
His leadership and love for teaching others has also led him to coach local wrestlers. During the offseason, Hixenbaugh coaches at Stronghold Wrestling Club and teaches the next generation of wrestlers.
He began coaching full-time last summer, and he enjoys teaching the finer points of the sport to younger kids. As he nears the end of his playing career, he believes that coaching helps him see a different side of wrestling as he helps kids find themselves as athletes and as people.
“It’s helped myself more than it might help them because it gives me a different perspective on wrestling,” Hixenbaugh said, “It’s helped me look at wrestling different, but also, it’s helping individuals because I see where kids who have failures where their shortcomings are at in their training and their technique, so I think I can help them with that.”
As a team built of mainly Alabama wrestlers and as one of just two NCAA wrestling programs in the entire state, Hixenbaugh and the Falcons recognize their unique position within the local wrestling scene and how they can grow the sport and give it a platform to grow and develop.
At the school’s first home dual against Midway on Nov. 15, high school programs from around the Birmingham area descended on Trustmark Arena not just to watch Montevallo compete for the first time at home but to cheer on the wrestlers they shared the mat with as teammates and as opponents.
Hixenbaugh and Derek Hussey both competed at Thompson together, and now they have a trio of younger Warriors at Montevallo as well in Jeffery Tubbs, Carson Freeman and Cory Jones. The Falcons also have an Oak Mountain alum in Austin Buird, and Chelsea is represented by Collin Burroughs.
And those are just the Shelby County wrestlers, with many more Falcons hailing from schools around the state.
The hope is that the number of local wrestlers only grows from there. Montevallo held prospect days each of the last two years, with 76 participating last year and 67 attending the most recent one.
Ownbey believes that is a testament to the hunger for wrestling in Alabama and that Montevallo can provide an opportunity to compete for national championships while staying in-state.
“I’ve talked to a handful of old Alabama wrestlers that have been offered by other programs, and a lot of them have told me they wish that this was an option when they were in school,” Ownbey said. “Now, we’re giving them a scholarship opportunity to wrestle in the state. And I believe with the program that we’re building and the trajectory that we’re going, not only are we going to give them an opportunity to wrestle in-state, we’re going to give them a competitive opportunity.
“I can see us in the next couple of years breaking into the top 10, and the next couple of years after that, breaking into the top five, and eventually bringing home a team trophy and just showing the world that Alabama does have really good wrestling and just giving them the opportunity to get on the mat and show it.”
That starts with the foundation that is being laid this season, and that comes back to Hixenbaugh.
As one of the most successful wrestlers to come out of the Birmingham area, he has been heralded with great expectations as the one to lead Montevallo today and set the program up for future success.
That may be a heavy burden for some, but he is up for the challenge and everyone around him knows that he is prepared for this moment, not just to compete for individual national championships, but to help others reach the podium as well.
“I think they’ll set the groundwork this year and the standard of what Montevallo wrestling is going to be in the future just like he came into this program and did the same thing,” Weltzin said. “He was our first and only five-time state champ, so hopefully he goes into Montevallo and competes for a national title right away.
“I think with him doing that and doing the right things that he’s learned along the way and showing those other guys how to do it, he’ll be a leader by example there too, and hopefully they’ll be able to get a couple more guys contending for national titles.”