Kilgore is driving the Kent State wrestling team to new levels

Caleb Raubenolt

VIEW photos of Dustin Kilgore at wrestling practice.

Dustin Kilgore isn’t used to losing.

Nearly a month has gone by since the final seconds of the redshirt freshman’s All-American title run dwindled away in St. Louis at the NCAA Wrestling Championships.

Promising underclassmen

&bull Nic Bedelyon, sophomore, Pa. state runner-up, KSU All-American.

&bull Dustin Kilgore, redshirt freshman, Ohio state champ.

&bull Brendan Barlow, redshirt freshman, Ohio state champ.

&bull Ross Tice, redshirt freshman, Ohio state runner-up.

&bull Marcel Clopton, redshirt freshman, Ohio state runner-up.

&bull James Myers, redshirt freshman, Ohio state runner-up.

&bull Troy Opfer, freshman, three-time Ohio state runner-up.

&bull Adam Cogar, freshman, two-time Ohio state runner-up.

&bull Mallie Shuster, freshman, Pa. state champ.

&bull Sean Collins, freshman, Ohio state runner-up.

&bull Stevie Mitcheff, freshman, Ohio state champ.

&bull Chase Skonieczny, freshman, Ohio state champ.

&bull Keith Witt, freshman, Ohio state champ.

Exiting the national tournament as its fifth-seeded 184-pounder, Kilgore said his sixth loss of a 33-win season will motivate him as he prepares for next season.

“There’s always that thought of your last loss that always haunts you, and you always have to come out with another win to make up for that,” he said. “I’m definitely going to come in next year doing a couple different things smarter, and I’m going to train real hard this summer.”

But in the meantime, Kilgore and nearly 20 of his teammates have yet to hang up their headgear, as freestyle wrestling season is underway.

In contrast to the rules of folkstyle wrestling that apply to the NCAA’s standards, Kilgore said freestyle wrestling is more common internationally and practiced in the Olympics. Factors such as scoring and a match’s duration are slightly different than that of folkstyle. For example, winning is based on a best-of-three, 2-minute period match, or by fall.

Kilgore was one of four wrestlers to place in last weekend’s FILA Junior Freestyle Tournament in Las Vegas. By placing third, he and redshirt freshman Brendan Barlow qualified to compete in the FILA Junior/University World Team Trials in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the end of May.

From there, the two could be named to compete for the U.S. World Team, which will wrestle in Turkey. Kilgore, who looks to further his wrestling career after college, said his goal is to compete in the Olympics.

“I want a career – not just with my college tournaments, but I want to be good around the world as well,” he said.

His father, Kevin Kilgore, said he remembers Dustin as a “real stout” and “very strong-willed” youngster.

“It’s funny,” Kevin recalled, “when he was just a little kid, I used to wrestle around with him on the floor, and he would become so frustrated. I would hold him down and he couldn’t move, and you could just see the fire in his eyes. And I kind of see that fight in him today.”

Kevin said a lot of his support stems from his experience as a wrestler, also at Berea High, and that he greatly enjoys watching his son compete in events regardless of how far he has to travel.

“Once you’re a wrestler, you’re always a wrestler,” Kevin said. “It’s in your blood.”

‘He never took days off’

Before ever donning Kent State blue and gold, Kilgore compiled 149 individual victories at Berea High School, including a state – and national – championship as a junior in 2006. In his final three seasons for the Braves, the four-time state qualifier only lost nine of his last 125 matches.

Berea High coach Mike Rice said he remembers being impressed with Kilgore before he joined the team as a freshman.

“When he was in eighth grade, we watched him wrestle and just saw something special in him right away,” Rice said.

Now in his eighth year of coaching, Rice said he has yet to meet a wrestler with a stronger work ethic or desire to win than Kilgore’s.

“He never took days off,” Rice said. “(There were) certain times in his career when he was battling an injury, and we had to force him to stop. He never wanted to quit.”

Rice added that Kilgore, along with Alex Stepanovich, an offensive lineman for the Atlanta Falcons, is “by far” one of the most talented athletes to graduate from Berea.

Kilgore’s response: “I’ve worked all my life in this one sport, just this one sport only – not others – so I could be the best. To make that kind of an influence and know coaches realize that, it just motivates me even more to want to keep on getting greater and greater.”

Putting KSU on the map

Although traditionally dominant wrestling programs like Ohio State and Old Dominion attempted to recruit Kilgore, Kent State coach Jim Andrassy said the Flashes had the most to offer.

“Dustin wanted to go somewhere knowing that he could mature,” he said. “(Kilgore) said right off the bat that he wanted to redshirt and (asked) if that was a problem with us. And I had no problem with that.”

Another targeted prospect on Andrassy’s recruiting radar in 2007 was Barlow. Like Kilgore, Barlow was a state champion and runner-up in high school. Upon signing with Kent State, the two wrestlers were part of the 10th-ranked recruiting class that year -the first national top 10 class in program history.

“When we found out we had those two guys, we knew we were making strides as a program,” Andrassy said. “It was a great feeling because we knew we had two really good kids, academically sound and personality-wise.

“They didn’t drink. They didn’t do the things that we’ve had problems with in the past when I was an assistant here, and we knew we were getting two of the right kids. And that started off, for the most part, what’s been a great two-year run as far as getting recruits.”

In 2008, the Flashes were once again among the nation’s top 25 recruiting classes, signing four state champions and three state runner-ups. Andrassy said the key to building a successful program – as he’s done since being named coach – begins with signing the top recruits in the area.

“Recruiting is everything,” Andrassy said. “When you get kids like Barlow and Dustin Kilgore, when you’re out on the road trying to recruit, you say, ‘Listen. We’ve got these guys you’ll be able to work out with. These guys decided to take a chance, why not you?’ You don’t have to go to Ohio State to be good. You can come to Kent State. We’ve got a good program.”

With three years of NCAA eligibility remaining, Kilgore said he looks forward to helping further the progress of Kent State wrestling.

“Jim Andrassy’s a great coach (and) he’s doing as much as he can to make the wrestling program real good, (but) he can only do so much,” Kilgore said. “Eventually it comes down to how much his kids are willing to work hard so we can get the attention of other people, and they’re going to want to come here.”

Contact sports reporter Caleb Raubenolt at [email protected].