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Wagner's Kocer, Kokesh set to begin DI national wrestling tourney

WAGNER — While Robert Kokesh is one step away from being a national champion, Alex Kocer is taking his first steps at the national tournament.

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Both Wagner natives, Kokesh and Kocer will compete this weekend at the NCAA Division I national wrestling tournament in Oklahoma City, Okla. The three-day meet starts at 11 a.m. today, and there’s no doubt the Wagner wrestling community will be watching and cheering on their own.

“There’s going to be a pretty good contingency of Wagner fans headed down,” said John Tyler, Wagner’s assistant wrestling coach who watched Kokesh and Kocer win a combined eight Class B state individual titles. “There’s a lot of excitement in the community. There’s a lot of signs and banners around town showing support.”

Kokesh, a junior 174-pounder at Nebraska, is considered a veteran at the national meet. This year marks his third consecutive trip to nationals.

Kocer, a freshman 149-pounder for South Dakota State University, said Wednesday after a light morning workout that this meet feels like he’s going into his first state tournament. Though, he expects to feed off that excitement and pressure, he said.

Kokesh and Kocer helped Wagner High School win three straight Class B team wrestling championships from 2008 to 2010. They both won individual titles all three of those years, and Kocer — a 2012 graduate — added individual championships in 2011 and 2012, making it a five-peat.

He’s one of five wrestlers in state history to win five or more state wrestling championships and credited Wagner’s wrestling room for helping him move on to the Division I level.

“We had tons of great workout partners in the wrestling room and it’s helped that we’ve always been really competitive,” said Kocer, who holds a 29-11 record in his first full season at SDSU.

Kokesh chose not to be interviewed for this story to focus on his ultimate goal of winning a national championship, Nebraska wrestling coach Mark Manning told The Daily Republic.

Last year, Kokesh lost in overtime of the semifinals at the national tournament and went on to take third place. In the semifinals, lost to eventual champion Chris Perry, of Oklahoma State, who is the top seed in his bracket this year. Kokesh is the third seed and faces West Virginia’s Jakob Scheffel in the first round.

Last year’s third-place finish earned Kokesh All-American accolades, meaning he finished in the top eight of his weight class in the 33-man bracket.

His goals go beyond just being an All-American now, Manning said.

“His confidence and his belief is at a high level,” Manning said. “I think last year he proved to himself he could beat any guy in the tournament. Losing in overtime to Chris Perry, in some ways, helped him believe that he can do it. He feels that he’s better than he was last year, which he is. So the sky’s the limit for him.”

Both Kokesh and Kocer are headed into nationals with some momentum.

Aside from Kokesh’s 32-1 record, he won his first Big Ten Conference tournament championship March 8, beating fellow South Dakotan Logan Storley, a Webster native wrestling for Minnesota, in the semifinals, and then defeating Iowa’s Mike Evans in the finals.

Kocer won the West Regional/Western Wrestling Conference Championship earlier this month, but he was given a tough draw in the first round of nationals. Kocer faces his weight’s top-seeded wrestler in the first round, Missouri’s Drake Houdashelt, who beat Kocer 14-1 in mid-December at the University of Northern Iowa Open.

“He took it to me,” Kocer said. “I made a lot of mistakes in that match that I know I made. I watched the video a few times. My first goal is just to win this first match, which will be tough.”

South Dakota will be represented at the national tournament by more than just Kokesh and Kocer. Storley, a six-time individual state high school champion, is the sixth seed in the 174-pound bracket. Storley and Kokesh could meet on the second day of the tournament in the third round.

SDSU qualified three wrestlers — Kocer, Cody Pack (157) and Joe Brewster (165) — for the first time at the NCAA Division I national tournament, while Collin Jensen, a freshman heavyweight, is from Mobridge and Kokesh’s teammate at Nebraska.