Gabe Hixenbaugh returns to Montevallo after historic national championship

Published 10:43 am Wednesday, March 20, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

MONTEVALLO – Friends, family and classmates lined the sidewalk at the University of Montevallo’s Student Activity Center, purple and gold shakers in hand, to welcome the school’s first National Champion, Gabe Hixenbaugh home on Sunday, March 17.

For Hixenbaugh, it was the culmination of his hard work as he celebrated the Division II 133-pound national championship and an undefeated 31-0 season.

“I’m honored to hold this stature of being the first national champ for the school,” Hixenbaugh said. “I can’t thank this guy (coach Daniel Ownbey) and also my other assistant, Michael (Land), (enough) for bringing me here and believing in me. This has been a really special moment for me and the support I get from the school and just all the people around it has been awesome.”

Ownbey was proud of Hixenbaugh for coming in for the program’s inaugural season and learning from the coaching staff to reach this point.

“It was awesome just to watch him come in day one from preseason and watching them do all the right things throughout the entire year, watching him buy in,” Ownbey said. “He came from a very successful program and has wrestled for some very successful coaches, but just knowing that he came in and bought into what coach Land and I were saying, and just listening to the advice we were giving them, being able to take criticism and to continue to want to learn, I don’t think I could have asked for a better athlete, especially for a first-year program.”

Hixenbaugh utilized his coaches and connections to help him prepare for a grueling NCAA tournament where he wrestled four matches in two days against some of the top wrestlers in Division II as the No. 1 seed in the country.

“When I got to the arena, I told Coach this, I was super, super nervous,” Hixenbaugh said. “I reached out to one of my best friends because he’s wrestled in NCAA tournaments and he’s a two-time All-American and I was just asking him for help with dealing with the nerves and we talked for a good 30 minutes and he really helped me. So, it was just when I got there was a little bit overwhelming, but controlling my emotions and getting it all figured out and getting used to it was a little challenging.”

Just hours after one of his toughest matches of the year in the semifinals where he came from behind to pin UMary’s Reece Barnhardt at the buzzer for the win, he stood backstage waiting for his championship match.

Then, the weight of the moment for both himself and the university started to weigh on him.

“Right before my match, I was the second weight class to go, and the guy who won the 125-pound weight class, he came running back to behind the stage and there was like 40 people back there celebrating him, giving high fives and stuff, and I was like, ‘Oh crap, I’m up, this is my time,” Hixenbaugh said. “And then I ran out there and the announcer, he’s like, ‘First one in school history,’ going through all the firsts, and I’m like, ‘I’ve got to finish the job, this is important.

“Once I won it, that was the first time I’ve ever celebrated a match. I’ve never been that kind of guy, but just the emotion behind it, it was really important to me.”

The celebration of beating defending champion Gavin Quiocho 4-1 for the title continued on into the night with a trip to the local Dave and Buster’s. Throughout the night, he received congratulations from everybody who supported him on his journey.

“It was unbelievable,” Hixenbaugh said of the reception. “I think within 30 minutes, my phone was already down to 15 percent. It was crazy. Everyone in the arena was telling me, ‘Good job,’ people I knew, people I didn’t know, so it was awesome.”

Among those congratulating him were his Thompson wrestling family, including coach Shawn Weltzin and the Warriors wrestlers who attended his homecoming reception at Montevallo.

To him, it was just another reminder of the journey he has been on to get here, from his success at Thompson to coaching at Stronghold Wrestling to bringing home a national title to Shelby County.

“It’s something that I’ve worked for for a long time, and this is why I came to Montevallo,” Hixenbaugh said. “My club that I helped coach at during the season and out of season is like 10 minutes down the road and I live five minutes down the road and I know people in Alabama have been waiting for something like this, for a college wrestling school for a while, so that was my goal coming in was to show support for the guys in Alabama.”

As Hixenbaugh has supported and advocated for wrestlers in Alabama, he has felt the love right back from the wrestling community and the friends he has made at Montevallo. It’s something he wishes he had as an undergraduate but is grateful to have now as he wrestles close to home.

“I love my support here,” Hixenbaugh said. “It’s huge. It can’t be matched anywhere else. The guys that I’ve made bonds with through my club, through high school and through now at Montevallo, it’s crazy. And this guy (Ownbey), he believed in me so much and the support he gave me throughout the season and just the family that we’ve grown here, it’s been awesome.”

The team took a long road to get to this point, from years of recruiting and building a program, to packing out Central State Bank Arena for their first home dual, to coping with the loss of teammate Barrett Dempsey in a fatal car accident to now earning their first national title.

Winning immediately has been a big goal for Ownbey and the Falcons as he wants to build the program into a Division II powerhouse and attract the top talent from Alabama and across the southeast.

“One of our things we’ve been saying all year long is, ‘Why not us?’” Ownbey said. “Through the entire recruiting process of everyone I’ve recruited this year and last year, I’ve said I want to win now. I don’t want to be one of those programs that takes a couple years to ‘develop’ or makes the excuse of, ‘Oh, we’re just freshmen,’ or, ‘We’re just a first-year program.’ I want to win now. And with Gabe coming in and winning a national title, it essentially shows that what I was saying wasn’t all just smoke and mirrors. It’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to win now.”

Ownbey’s goal is to become the first second-year program to win a team national championship in wrestling, their reigning national champion leading the charge along with the freshmen who looked up to him throughout the season.

It’s a goal that Hixenbaugh shares, and he wants nothing more than to bring his teammates and friends along for the ride and bring a team title to Alabama.

“It’s cool and all to do this, but I don’t want to make that trip by myself again,” Hixenbaugh said. “It was fun, but I would definitely love to have my teammates there. Seeing all these other teams and they have seven, eight guys there, that’s what we want to do and we want to be the team up there celebrating with the team trophy. So my takeaway is we’ve got the guys to do it, but we just need them to buy in now and put their heart and mind to it and hopefully we get that done.”