SPORTS

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May 25, 2004

"Wolfman" Kehagias always found ways to surprise teammates

Nick Kehagias is short and powerful, yet somehow he does not feature a stocky build. Overall, he doesn't have the exaggerated look of some in his sport, except there is definitely something that sets him apart.

His face. Nick Kehagias wears his power on his face. First, one notices the narrow, intense eyes, then the thin, taught lips and the closely cropped beard. The crippling handshake of a large man is a painful but not unexpected experience. The serious handshake of a 125-pound All-American wrestler is a startling one.

"When I go out there, I'm like Wolfman. I transform into an animal," Kehagias used to say to his fellow graduating wrestling teammate, Tim Daly. In a sport ruled by tactics and strategy, there was always something inexplicable about Kehagias's wrestling.

Daly remembered one meet this season when he and another fourth-year, Ryan Hlinak, were watching Kehagias take down guys with such quickness and force that neither of them could recognize which move they had just seen. "We've both been wrestling for 10 years," Daly said. "So, for him to move well enough and quick enough for us to not even be able to follow it was just impressive."

Then again there was always something unexplained about Kehagias in general. "Nick has…a unique imagination," said head coach Leo Kocher, laughing. As to the specifics, he demurred, preferring to leave them to a classmate.

"The entropy story," Daly said, eager to pick up where Kocher had left off. "It was our first year here. Nick had been a pretty quiet guy. Everyone was kind of like, ‘He's a good guy. He doesn't talk a lot.' So we're sitting at the dining hall one day, and Nick's perfectly quiet. All of a sudden, he just reaches over, knocks over a pepper shaker, and it spills all over the place, and he's just like, ‘Right there guys. That's entropy.'

"That was kind of the first time that something like that happened, and every once in a while he'll make observations that absolutely astound us."

As funny as it may make him in the dining hall and as fearsome on the mat, Kehagias's tendency to veer violently from one condition to another almost cost the Maroons one of their most accomplished athletes of the last half decade. An Arizona high school state champion in the 112-pound weight class, Kehagias was heavily recruited by Kocher, but he nearly didn't join the team.

"It really just takes a lot out of me. Throughout high school it was like, ‘I'm going to try my damn hardest to win this thing just to prove to myself that I can do it,'" Kehagias said. "And then I was able to do it, and it was like, ‘I'm happy with that, I don't know if I want to work as hard as I had to in high school, if not harder, to wrestle at the same competitive level.'

"But I did it. And it's weird. Once you turn it on, you can't turn it off."

While Kocher clearly remembers his first impression of Kehagias the wrestler—"excellent strength, excellent speed, and explosive"—Kehagias remembers just as well his initial reservations about competing in college.

"I kind of doubted myself," he said. "I always kind of think that because I didn't start wrestling until my freshman year [of high school] that I know the least amount of technique in the room compared to the other guys. I had really one or two good moves and that was it." That year, Kehagias said that he "basically just won by being in shape and not giving any ground."

But his inexperience, oddly enough, was an advantage as well as a burden. Because he didn't have his own favorite tricks that got in the way of learning new ones, Kehagias was a coach's dream.

"He just took everything that Kocher taught and perfected it," Daly said. His "Wolfman" spirit and emerging technical proficiency, Kehagias soon began to experience the same sort of success as he had enjoyed in high school.

His second year, he just barely missed out on qualifying for nationals, a feat that he surpassed the following year when he beat the second-seeded wrestler in nationals to finish eighth overall and lay claim to a coveted All-America award.

This season, however, was an obvious disappointment. After injuring his left knee in an early tournament, he was never the same, and he bowed out early at regionals. Daly, for one, believed that Kehagias "easily could have placed in the top five of the nation" had he remained healthy.

Talking to Kehagias, one gets the sense that he is still in the process of convincing himself that his outstanding career was not marred by a disappointing last season. Still, an exciting future lies ahead. A biology concentrator, he intends to enroll in medical school eventually, but not before heading home and earning some money as an assistant wrestling coach at his former high school.

Whatever he does, he'll certainly do it with his "Wolfman" spirit.