University of Chicago wrestler Nick Kehagias placed eighth and garnered All-American accolades at the NCAA Division III national championship this past weekend. The third-year finished his season with a 28-10 record, extending his career record to 56-30.
The national championships were held Friday and Saturday by Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. The 125-pound weight class featured 14 wrestlers, all starting the competition in the championship bracket. After a loss, the losing wrestler would move down into the consolation bracket. Title matches were held to determine first through eighth places. For a wrestler from the consolation bracket the higest place possible to achieve was third place.
When asked how he prepared for the tournament, Kehagias replied, "I tried to keep my routine as normal as possible, just increasing the focus. Also I have to hand it to Ai [Nguyen], Sam [Kunkel], and Dale [Burke] for coming into the room to practice with me."
Two or three wrestlers would work out every day with Kehagias. As each practice wore on, the introduction of a new, rested opponent for him to face each match helped sharpen both his mental and physical skills.
"He was pushed pretty hard during practice because the wrestlers would be coming to him fresh after he was tired [from previous practice matches]," wrestling head coach Leo Kocher explained further. "He received really strong preparation from teammates, which was good of them with their season over."
The national championships began Friday with Kehagias entering the tournament as the number eight seed in his weight class. "I was surprised to get the eighth seed at the start of the tournament. I didn't beat any ranked guys all year but had really close matches with them," Kehagias said.
For the first match, Kehagias was paired off against Salvador Cruz from SUNY-Brockport. The match went into overtime, where he lost 10-8. He dropped into the consolation bracket to compete in the third round match. Kehagias again saw his match stretch into overtime, as he won his second match against James Marrero from the College of New Jersey in a 3-1 decision. He advanced to the fourth round to face his first seeded opponent of the tournament.
This match was indicative of the talent and surprises that nationals have to offer. Davey Starks from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire entered the national tournament as the number two seed, along with an undefeated record. Starks had already been upset in his first match, and as Kehagias said, "I knew I had nothing to lose and just wrestled solid. I ended up beating him with a takedown in overtime with four seconds left." This match also ended in a 3-1 decision in overtime. "Nick beating him was a huge win that shows that Nick can be a title threat next year," Kocher said.
As the end of the first day came to a close, eight wrestlers were left for the next day's competition. These wrestlers might not know what place they were taking home, but as the top eight they knew they would be going home as All-Americans.
"Nick did a huge job on the second day," Kocher continued. "In both matches he led until the final period where he ended up losing." In the first match, Kehagias held a one-point lead until losing to the eventual fourth-place winner. "It was tied 4-4 with about 20 seconds left. He got in on a good double leg, then I tried to turn it into a flurry situation, but he was able to finish it."
The second match was 13-5 going into the last minute of the final period, but Kehagias was pinned by the opponent from his first match on Friday. "I tried to force a shot (bad move) and he was able to counter and beat me," Kehagias said.
"We were disappointed with the result, and I'm sure no one more than Nick. [But] he's now a returning All-American next year, and that's a good tag to have after your name," Kocher said.
The past season has been a very successful one for Kehagias. He was named the 2003 UAA Most Outstanding Wrestler at the UAA Championships last month in addition to winning the conference's 125-pound weight class title for the third straight year. Kehagias was also named the UAA Athlete of the Week three times over the course of the season, twice in February and once in January. On a team note, the Maroon wrestlers captured the UAA conference championship for the third time in a row in 2003, making it Chicago's ninth conference title in 16 years.
"I wish I could've done better but I'm happy with the way I was able to improve on last year's not even qualifying for nationals. In addition, this trip to nationals gave me a taste of what it's like competing at such a high level," said Kehagias.
"Now that I know what it's like being an All-American, I want to know what it's like being a national champion."