Kokesh gunning for national titleWAGNER — Robert Kokesh didn’t give serious consideration to college wrestling until the summer before his senior year of high school.
By: Luke Hagen, The Daily Republic
WAGNER — Robert Kokesh didn’t give serious consideration to college wrestling until the summer before his senior year of high school.
In 2009, at the junior national wrestling tournament in Fargo, N.D., the Wagner native was contacted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln coaches to see if he had interest in competing at the Division I level.
“I was pretty shocked,” said Kokesh, who won three South Dakota state wrestling championships and eventually signed with the Cornhuskers in his senior year. “I wasn’t even thinking about it at that time.”
Now a sophomore for the Huskers, Kokesh’s main focus this weekend will be the nation’s biggest college wrestling meet, the NCAA Division I National Tournament, held Thursday through Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa. This is the second consecutive national tournament for Kokesh, who’s among the top six at 174 pounds in several wrestling rankings lists.
Last year when he qualified as a redshirt freshman, Kokesh finished one win shy of becoming an All-American, or the top eight in his bracket. This year, his goals soar beyond an All-American status.
“I was one match from being an All-American last year,” Kokesh said. “That really bugged me that I was beat out in the round of 12. I’m not going to let that happen again this year, especially because I have a great shot at winning the national title. That’s my goal.”
Kokesh, seeded fourth, heads into the national tournament with a 33-3 record and is wrestling Ian Korb from Pennsylvania in Thursday’s first round, which begins at 11 a.m. and can be seen on ESPN3. Friday’s rounds will be televised on ESPNU and Saturday’s championship round will be on ESPN, starting at 7 p.m.
During dual matches this year, Kokesh went 15-2. He recorded eight pins on the season, five technical falls and nine major decision wins. He also claimed three individual tournament championships and now has 63 career victories.
Nebraska wrestling coach Mark Manning, a Vermillion native, said the regular season is nothing but preparation leading up to this weekend for all this wrestlers.
“Robert’s had a tremendous year,” Manning said. “I think he’s beat 15 or 17 guys that are ranked in the top 25. He’s wrestled all the best guys in the country, so he knows what’s in front of him, he knows what he has to do, now he just has to get his head right to win a national title.”
Kokesh is coming off a third-place finish at the Big Ten Conference tournament March 9-10 in Champaign, Ill. He lost his first match of the meet to Jordan Blanton, of Illinois, 8-2, but bounced back and avenged his loss to Blanton in the third-place match, winning 4-3.
Kokesh said he had a slow start at the conference meet and wasn’t feeling like himself, but added he feels great headed into this weekend and doesn’t have any injuries.
Besides losing to Blanton at the Big Ten meet, Kokesh’s other two losses this year are to Iowa’s Mike Evans, the national tournament’s third seed, and Minnesota’s Logan Storley, a Webster native who’s the sixth seed at the national tournament.
Storley was ranked first at 174 pounds for a portion of the season, but struggled at the Big Ten meet. When the two South Dakota natives matched up earlier this year, Storley won 3-1 in overtime in a dual in Lincoln, Neb.
Kokesh, who’s been ranked as high as second, said he and Storley are competing in a bracket that’s wide open. The top seed in the bracket is Oklahoma State’s Chris Perry, with Penn State’s Mathew Brown seeded second. Kokesh has beaten Brown this year, but has not faced Perry.
Perry is on the same side of the bracket as Kokesh and the two could meet in the semifinals.
“The top eight guys in the weight class, any one of those have a chance to win it,” Kokesh said. “It’s just who comes to wrestle, who’s hungry and who wants to win it. For me, I just have to go out there and do my job. I have to stick to the game plan I’ve had all year and make sure I’m feeling good even if I’m not. Say if I feel tired, you have to tell yourself you feel great and just go out there and wrestle.
“You can’t overlook anyone,” Kokesh said. “Anything can happen in a wrestling match.”
For Kokesh, he’ll have to put together five perfect matches to win a national championship. Manning says Kokesh has the ability to do so, too. Since being recruited to Nebraska, Kokesh has improved immensely, Manning said.
“Robert has a lot of attributes, his toughness, his work ethic and his desire to be the best, that will bode well for him come NCAA tournament time,” Manning said. “He’s really improved on his feet. He’s always been good on top, and his bottom wrestling has gotten better. My philosophy is you have to be good in all three areas to win an NCAA title. You can’t have a weakness, because at the NCAA tournament it will get exposed.”