ZUMBROTA — Link Steffen is likely the greatest wrestler in Granite Falls-Clarkfield history, winning back-to-back state titles in 1992 and ‘93.
He’s one of the greatest wrestlers in Southwest Minnesota State history, one of three Mustangs to win a national championship. He won the 190-pound NCAA Division II title in 1998. His 39-1 record and .975 winning percentage that season remains the best in school history.
These days, he has made his mark as a coach.
He runs one of the most-respected Class A programs in the state at Zumbrota-Mazeppa, where the Cougars are perennial state entants and two-time state champions.
“It’s a wonderful area and a wonderful community, close to Rochester and not too far from the Twin Cities, 60 miles,” he said. “It’s a great small-town feel with beautiful homes, quiet and safe.
“It’s a great area to raise kids and have a family.”
And it all started in Granite Falls. He grew up in a sports-crazy family three blocks from the baseball stadium, Richter Field.
“I had easy access,” said Steffen, who was a standout in football and baseball as well as wrestling.
At Granite Falls-Clarkfield, he played in a high school football program that had a history of being strong, with three state championships, and won a state amateur baseball title in 1993 with Steffen in the lineup.
“I was the youngest cousin,” Steffen said. “All the older cousins would always play football.
“It got me competitive.”
Stellar prep career
He won his first state title as a junior, beating John Roseneau of Silver Lake by fall in 1 minute, 50 seconds in the Class A 189-pound match at the St. Paul Civic Center.
Afterward, he told the West Central Tribune: “Winning hasn’t hit me yet. I just hope they don’t expect me to win this again. It was tougher than it looked.”
Then, Steffen did it again.
He beat Ben Barton of Wabasha-Kellogg, 9-4.
His response then: “This was a lot tougher than last year,” he said.
And how does Stefen describe it now? “Relieved,” he said. “There’s a lot of undue pressure on you for being a 16-, 17- or 18-year-old.
“That pressure can be enormous.”
Steffen was named the Hengstler-Ranweiler Award winner in 1993. It’s given to the West Central Tribune area’s top three-sport male and female athletes each year.
Passing up some Division I offers, including from the Big Ten Conference, he decided to go to Southwest Minnesota State.
“It was close to home for me,” he said, noting that he worked at his father’s gas station, Boyd’s Phillips 66.
A smaller college also enabled him to play baseball for two years as well as wrestle. At Southwest State, he became a three-time national tournament entrant and two-time All-American. He finished with a 114-22 career record, third-best in school history. He entered the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2009.
“I was very fortunate to be able to go to an area college so that I could keep working and be near family,” Steffen said.
He’s a gift that keeps on giving to Southwest Minnesota State. There are three former Zumbrota-Mazeppa wrestlers on the Mustangs’ roster with a very recent addition. Caden Steffen decided earlier this week to transfer to Southwest Minnesota State from the University of Minnesota. Also wrestling for the Mustangs are former Cougar standouts Tyler Soltau and Hayden Voxland.
It’s safe to say that every college coach in the upper midwest knows about Steffen’s program.
Former Zumbrota-Mazeppa wrestlers also are on the roster at Augustana (heavyweight Luke Dhalen and 197-pounder Jarret Haglund).
After getting a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education, Steffen went to work for Schwann’s, a Marshall company. He ended up first in Owatonna, then Zumbrota. Along the way, he started helping out the wrestling program at Cannon Falls, then moved to Zumbrota-Mazeppa as an assistant before taking over as head coach 13 years ago.
Being a head coach wasn’t necessarily in the grand scheme of things.
“It was kind of sprung on me,” Steffen admitted. ‘I wasn’t sure right away (about teaching and coaching) to be honest with you.”
Since taking over, the Cougars have been to state seven times: 2010, ‘11, ‘12, ‘15, ‘17, ‘18 and ‘19. Included are state team championships in 2017 and ‘18 and a state runner-up finish in ‘15.
Along the way, he has coached two of his sons. Caden is a two-time state champion like his dad. Chase Steffen, a Minnesota State-Mankato graduate, recently was hired to teach in Forest Lake. He will be Centennial’s new head wrestling coach this winter.
Daughter Avery will be a senior at Z-M, meaning Link and wife Jen (formerly Grund of Olivia) will soon have an empty nest.
When he’s not coaching, Steffen teaches all grade levels at the juvenile prison in Red Wing.
“I’ll be there 16 years in September,” he said. “I enjoy it.”
Here’s a list of championships with the date the stories ran in the West Central Tribune:
May 16 — Alex Carlson and Chris Patten (2000 Litchfield boys tennis)
May 23 — 2009 New London-Spicer football
May 30 — 1985 Willmar girls golf
June 6 — 2005 Paynesville baseball
June 13 — Nikki Swenson (LQPV/D-B cross-country/track, 2007)
June 20 — The 1980-1981 Bird Island-Lake Lillian football and boys basketball teams
July 3 — 2010 Minnewaska girls golf team
July 11 — 1986 Midwest Minnesota girls basketball
July 18 — Link Steffen (Granite Falls-Clarkfield wrestling, 1993)
Here is a list of teams and athletes who have won state championships for Yellow Medicine East, Granite Falls or Clarkfield, according to Minnesota State High School League records:
1977 — Jeff Minsink, Clarkfield wrestling, 167 pounds, Class A
1977 — Granite Falls football, Class B
1984 — Granite Falls football, Class B
1985 — Mike O’Toole, Granite Falls boys golf, Class A
1987 — Granite Falls football, Class B
1988 — Dan Durand, Clarkfield wrestling, 132A
1992 — Link Steffen, Granite Falls-Clarkfield wrestling, 189A
1993 — Link Steffen, Granite Falls-Clarkfield wrestling, 189A
2000 — YME dance, Class A jazz/funk
2001 — Mike Hagen, Montevideo/YME boys swimming, 50-yard freestyle, Class A
2001 — YME dance, Class A jazz/funk
2002 — YME dance, Class A jazz/funk
2003 — YME dance, Class A jazz/funk
2008 — YME dance, Class A high kick
2014 — YME dance, Class A jazz