Five wrestlers to represent Kent State in NCAA Championships

Then a redshirt freshman, Kyle Conel wrestles against Jackson Lewis of Central Michigan on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. Conel was one of three Kent State wrestlers to earn a victory during the Flashes’ loss at Eastern Michigan on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018.

Dan Armelli

The Kent State wrestling team will have half of its 10 starters wrestling in Madison Square Garden for the Division One NCAA Wrestling Championships.

For the 10th time in 11 years the Flashes will be sending at least five wrestlers to the national tournament, with four earning a seed.

Ian Miller, Mike DePalma, Mack McGuire, Tyler Buckwalter and Kyle Conel will look to lift some hardware, as well as extend the program’s streak of seven consecutive seasons with an All-American (top-eight finish).

If someone fell asleep at the beginning of the wrestling season and woke up just in time for the national tournament, they would see nothing unusual about Miller as a fourth seed with a 20-1 record, but it hasn’t been a smooth final season for the two-time All-American.

Miller has battled injuries all season, some of which forced him to sit out, but the one that was the biggest thorn in his side was perhaps not a “serious” injury at all.

“They took something from me that I can’t get back,” Miller said, talking about the trainers at the MAC Tournament. “They had no right to do it. It’s upsetting, but I have got to get over it.”

What they took was the chance for Miller to become the third four-time MAC champion in Kent State history (Brent Thompson 1998-2001, Dustin Kilgore 2009-2013).

It’s not the first time Miller has had to deal with an unexpected and devastating blow. In 2015 Miller was stripped of a chance of a national title after a scoring error in the quarterfinals.

“It just seems like everything that can go wrong does,” Miller said. “ But I’m toward the end here. I’m almost done. I’ve just got to focus on one more tournament.”

This season is his last chance to get the title he’s desired since the first day he stepped foot on Kent State’s campus, He admits he’s feeling different than in the past.

“I don’t usually get nervous for matches or for tournaments, but this one’s kind of big,” he said. “I’ve got nerves, but once the adrenaline kicks in, the nerves go away. I’ll be ready to go. Nothing’s going to affect me.”

Even before DePalma became the lone MAC title winner this year, coach Jim Andrassy told ESPN that DePalma had two great weeks of practice before the tournament.

With a little over one week to prepare for the tournament, Andrassy said it’s been more of the same for the three-time NCAA qualifier.

“I think a lot of it is just mentally where he’s at and I think he’s really focused right now,” Andrassy said. “I think he’s right on as far as where he needs to be going into the national tournament. That doesn’t automatically mean success, but I think it gives you a better opportunity to be successful.”

This will be DePalma’s third trip to nationals, but his first time being seeded.

“I realize the severity of the situation I’m in,” DePalma said. “I’m just focused on me and going day-by-day.”

DePalma will be making the trip to New York City with three of his fellow seniors as well as redshirt freshman Conel.

“It’s business when it needs to be business,” DePalma said. “When we’re not in that atmosphere, it’ll be time to just have fun, walk around and enjoy time with teammates.”

McGuire has been multiple-time national qualifiers and is looking to continue his comeback from the first round loss in the MAC Tournament.

“I think we got a little more out of (McGuire) this week,” Andrassy said. “I think he pushed himself harder than he had the time before the MAC Tournament.”

McGuire has been dealing with an injury he sustained against Northern Illinois University and kept him out of the final three duals of the season.

“I think now, it’s an injury he’s dealt with, and he’s had some really good practices,” Andrassy said. “Until you really push yourself and know your limits, he wouldn’t figure that out. I think we got a little more out of him this week because he was able to find out what his limits were.”

McGuire and Miller became the seventh and eighth four-time qualifiers in school history. After his first round loss, he rallied behind three wins to place third at the MAC Tournament.

Buckwalter is the final senior to round out this group. Like Miller, he received an at-large bid into the tournament. Unlike Miller, he has never made it to this stage, but Andrassy never doubt he’d be selected.

“We looked at how it all worked out and we knew he was getting invited just because of how many guys got eliminated and who was left and the process they do,” he said. “I would’ve been shocked if he didn’t get invited.”

Buckwalter will go into the tournament unranked, but it’s hard to question he deserves to be there, especially after his performances in the latter part of the regular season and the MAC Tournament.

Before Kent State’s tri-meet with Central Michigan University and Edinboro University, Buckwalter’s best wins had come over the currently ranked No. 28 and 29 wrestlers in the country.

With both McGuire and Miller out for the tri-meet, Buckwalter beat the No. 33 and 24 wrestlers in the country in duals that were decided by three points or less.

Buckwalter followed those performances up with fifth place finish at the MAC Tournament, making it hard for the NCAA to deny him.

Conel’s year began with a win over teammate sophomore Stephen Suglio to become the team’s starting 197-pounder.

Conel proved his worth, going a perfect 17-0 in duals and earning MAC Wrestler of the Week after going 4-0 at the Virginia Duals. This week, he will be facing the biggest stage in his life.

“After those couple losses at MACs, I just talked to (DePalma) and (McGuire) a little bit,” Conel said. “They just said not to worry about it and when it comes to nationals, just keep my head on straight.”

Andrassy was critical about Conel’s overtime loss to Northern Illinois’s Shawn Scott, calling it “the worst match I’ve seen him wrestle all year. Andrassy said he had Conel go against smaller guys in practice last week to pair him with guys that are more active.

“Regardless of what happens to him this year, he’ll have three more years after this to reflect back on this experience and how he’s going to do better,” Andrassy said.

Conel has had a meteoric rise to success this year, and his goal for nationals is just as high.

“My goal is to be an All-American,” Conel said. “That’s my realistic goal. I really think I can. If I don’t, then it’s a great experience, and I’m going to learn from it.”

At least one person who is in Conel’s corner, DePalma, is ready to see him perform at MSG this weekend.

“(Conel) is a gamer,” DePalma said. “He will be ready to go no matter what’s going on. He’s going to put on a show.”

Dan Armelli is a sports reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].