Photo: Aaron Lavinski, Star Tribune
Mark Hall II fell to the mat and stared at the Xcel Energy Center ceiling as the crowd rose and cheered after he sealed his state title Saturday night with a technical fall victory over Hastings’ Austin Eichmann in the Class 3A, 170-pound championship match.
And it all almost never happened.
The same building was nearly as loud five years ago. Hall, then a seventh-grader, was in the Class 3A, 130-pound semifinals against Forest Lake junior Ben Morgan.
Maybe 30 seconds into the match, Morgan put Hall on his back.
Hall knew what the majority of the crowd wanted. He was a transfer who came to Apple Valley, which checks the two boxes many high school wrestling fans use to determine who to root against.
“There’s a lot of people who probably wanted me to lose that match,” Hall said. “It was the longest minute and a half of my life. I could feel the mat shaking from people in the stands pounding their feet. I could feel the eyes on me. I was terrified almost.”
Still, he didn’t surrender. Hall avoided the pin and came back to beat Morgan 8-6 in four overtimes on his way to the first of his six individual state titles. He said it was the closest he’d ever come to dropping a match at the state tournament. Hall said those 90 seconds showed his fighting spirit.
But what if he had been pinned?
“I would have fought back, got third, probably come back for my eighth-grade year (and) wrestled,” Hall said, “then to be honest, I probably would not have stayed (after that).”
Hall said he likely would have gone back to Michigan after that to be with his mom and the rest of his family.
“There’s no way I would have left my mom if there wasn’t something here that I could still do,” Hall said. “There were a lot of implications on that match.”
But he won, he stayed and he made history. Moments after his final high school win, Hall rose to his feet and jumped into his coaches’ arms before climbing into the stands to embrace friends and family.
“When he wins a state title, you still see the joy in his heart,” Apple Valley coach Dalen Wasmund said last week. “He gets out there and he’s like, ‘Yes!’ ”
Unlike five years ago, the crowd in the stands Saturday stood and cheered with him — a salute to likely the best high school wrestler this state has ever seen. Hall said he thinks he has been able to “turn some heads” and make others believe in him.
“Throughout the years I gained people’s respect and gained people’s love,” he said, “(and I) showed people my love for them.”
Like he did Saturday, when Hall saw a father and his son waiting patiently a few feet away. Hall asked if they wanted a picture, then he went to sign an autograph – only no one had a pen. So Hall went down to his knees and started rummaging through his wrestling bag, to no avail. Finally a coach provided a marker, Hall signed two hats and shook the father’s and son’s hands.
“You’re an excellent role model,” the dad said.
Hall is also the model of success in Minnesota wrestling. No one has reached his level of success.
Gophers coach J Robinson recently said that he doesn’t know how Hall, a Penn State commit, can be the face of Minnesota wrestling if he leaves the state — which he will do potentially for good when he leaves to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado in March.
Hall read Robinson’s remarks and even briefly kept them as the wallpaper on his phone.
“I was pretty upset,” he said.
But even after Hall is gone, his legacy figures to live on in Minnesota. Each of the up-and-coming stars of the sport will be compared to Hall, who set the state’s new standard.
“It’s been a goal of mine to be the face of Minnesota wrestling,” he said. “I think after tonight … (I will be).”