Three years ago, West Virginia University heavyweight wrestler Ryan Kehler went to Morgantown with the expectation of redshirting one year and then being a four-year starter. After two years behind Sean Hage, an unexpected heavyweight on the roster, Kehler has finally began his career at WVU in earnest.
And what a beginning it has been for the junior from Klingerstown, Pa. He has started the season 20-4, was ranked the No. 1 heavyweight in the country by Amateur Wrestling News in December and currently stands at No. 3.
He opened the season with a second place finish in the WVU Open before winning the Navy Classic and the prestigious Las Vegas Invitational. He also placed fifth at the Midlands Tournament in Chicago behind three Olympians.
Although he believes it is an honor to be the first WVU wrestler ranked in the top position since Scott Collins in 1991, Kehler is not getting a big head. After all, he has more important things on his mind -- like winning championships.
"I think (the poll) is a bunch of guys that don't make it to any tournaments and think that they are gods sitting behind a computer -- and they have no idea," Kehler said.
"Right now, the heavyweight competition this year is so close there are ten guys right now that could easily be ranked No. 1 at any given time. It is that close.
"Does it make me feel good sure, great, but its like a falling star. It is there for a second and then it is gone. So, I have to take it in stride and if I can have that No. 1 behind my name in March that is when you can come ask me about that."
Kehler, who has been wrestling since the third grade, starred at Tri-Valley High School under coach Barry Adams while also wrestling freestyle and greco roman on the national scene. He placed third at Cadet Nationals in Lincoln, Neb., as a sophomore and as a junior won the Junior Olympics in New Orleans.
He also place third at Junior Nationals in Fargo, N.D., and followed that up with third place at the High School Nationals in Pittsburgh as a senior.
After high school, Kehler made the "easy decision" to attend WVU. He based it on the coaching staff, at the time Craig Turnbull and Nate Carr, and potential training partners like Sean Hage and Dominic Black.
"Training partners in college for a heavy weight are absolutely key because, this year, I have nobody," Kehler said. "The only person I have is our 197 pounder (John Foster), which, don't get me wrong, he is terrific and thank god we do have him, but all the big guys go to play football so it is really hard to find someplace you can go with a great coaching staff and great wrestling partners. WVU had both."
Kehler committed with the understanding that he would be The Man at the heavyweight position, but two weeks before school started Turnbull read him a letter from Vince Pellis who was having reservations about going to Temple. In the letter, Pellis said he wanted to wrestle for one year and eventually work his way into a football scholarship.
"He came in thinking it was going to be a one year deal," Kehler said. "Vince never really beat me out of a position or anything he just came in my freshman year and it was expected that I was going to come back the next year and wrestle my four years, but nobody ever told Shawn Hage that."
Hage, who was supposed to wrestle at 197 pounds, just plain outgrew the weight.
"He came back the following year and started putting on the weight," Kehler said. "So, the next thing you know, it was a war because he knew everything I was going to do, I knew everything he was going to do. We'd wrestle off, he'd beat me by a point; life goes on and I am sitting the bench for two years. It sucked, but I did learn a lot.
"I attribute all of this year's success to those two guys beating the snot out of me for the past three years. It was always close, always very competitive and it was always 'Who is going to be the man?,' so it kept everything very edgy in the practice room, which probably turned out to be the best for me."
A major decision over Penn State's Kevin Shippos on Saturday at the Colisium increased Kehler's career record to 38-11, something he calls 11-too-many losses, and he remembers each loss vividly.
"It sucks losing," Kehler said. "Especially in wrestling because it's not like you can say 'he did it.' It's all on you. That's the worst part about this sport."
Kehler's goal for the immediate future is simple. He wants to win a championship -- or two -- because he doesn't have the luxury of three more years to do it. He has faced most of the top 20 wrestlers in the country this year and has just the two losses -- each in overtime.
He will have a chance to avenge one of those losses, a 6-4 decision to Ohio State redshirt freshman Tommy Rowlands (20-2) at Midlands, when he travels to the National Wrestling Coaches Association All-star Classic, Jan. 29, at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
Kehler will be just the eighth Mountaineers to compete in the prestigious event and he is ready to face the wrestler now ranked No. 1 by Amateur Wrestling News.
"I'm excited," Kehler said. "This is an opportunity that I never thought would be presented to me. It's an honor and a privilege."
Sports writer Shawn Yonker can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.