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Wagner wrestling embracing team-first mentality

Wagner coach Robert Kokesh shouts instructions during a triangular on Dec. 7 in Wagner. Kokesh, a former three-time state champion for Wagner, is in his first season coaching the Red Raiders. (Ryan Deal / Republic)

WAGNER — It's all about the team, for Wagner wrestlers.

That's the message head coach Robert Kokesh is preaching to the group of 23 grapplers. Nearly eight years after helping the Red Raiders cap off a Class B three-peat by winning his third state title, Kokesh is back in the Wagner wrestling room, hoping to reestablish the program as a Class B powerhouse.

The first step, according the former University of Nebraska standout, starts with teammates pushing each other.

"As a competitor, I always put the team in front of myself," Kokesh said. "If you can put the team before yourself, your individual goals will be exceeded because you're not fighting just for yourself. You're fighting for an entire team and the other 13 guys that are in the lineup."

And roughly one month into the season, the Red Raiders are already embracing the team-first mentality.

"We're more connected," said senior Jace Johnson, who is tied for the most wins on the team with 13 at 220 pounds. "(Kokesh) pushes us to be better teammates."

Seven Red Raiders have already reached double digit wins and the team is 2-1 in duals this season. Dawson Lensing (285) is 13-3 and won titles at the Kimball/White Lake/Platte-Geddes Invite on Dec. 2 and Howard Invite on Dec. 9. Bradyn Lhotak (113) also won titles at KWLPG and Howard tournaments, while Lance Soukup is 12-3 with a title at the Howard Invite and a third-place finish at the Madison Invite on Dec. 16. K.J. St. Pierre (195), who is 13-2, took second place at the Madison tourney and placed first at the Howard Invite.

"He's big on keeping ourselves accountable," said Soukup, who placed fourth at 106 pounds as a freshman last year. "We push each other. We get after each other. Both at tournaments and at practice."

There are 23 athletes, ranging from sixth to 12th grade, on the wrestling roster this season with four seniors. With about two months to prepare before regions, Kokesh has his team aiming high.

"I believe we're a top-five team. I really do believe that," Kokesh said. "We have the talent, the quality and the kids to do it. It's going to be tough, but that's why they call them goals. We are going to set our goals high and I wouldn't set a goal that isn't achievable. But these guys have to do. I can only preach so much."

On the sideline

Kokesh last competed for on the mat for the Cornhuskers in 2015, but his passion for the sport is the same as if he was competing. After finishing graduate school and helping Nebraska wrestlers as an graduate assist, Kokesh moved back to Wagner and couldn't say no to be around the sport he loves.

"When I moved back from college, I just didn't want to leave the sport," Kokesh said. "I wanted to stay involved. I have a lot of knowledge in this sport. I had a lot of great coaches my past. I'm from here, so that makes a big difference for me."

The adjustment from competitor to coach has gone smoothly according to Kokesh, but he added there's plenty to keep him busy. He noted when he was competing, he could focus solely on himself. Now he's trying to give 23 Wagner wrestlers the same attention and intensity that helped him to a prep career record of 216-24 as well as 144 NCAA victories, four national tournament appearances and three All-American honors. He finished in third place in his final season at 174 pounds in 2015.

Kokesh's resume and background doesn't go unnoticed for members of the team.

"It's pretty amazing having Robert Kokesh as your head coach," said Soukup. "It's pretty awesome having him come right from college. He's shown me new moves."

It's not just the wrestlers on the team, but other coaches as well who are benefiting from Kokesh.

"Expectations are through the roof. He's brought a new level of excitement to the program," longtime Wagner coach John Tyler said. "It fills me with pride having him come back here and giving back to the program he came up through.

"I feel rejuvenated being with a younger coach that shares the same philosophy. We're trying to instill that hard work and making hard work fun as weird as it sounds."

Tyler added each wrestler has to find ways to challenge himself and not be afraid of losing, while Soukup said the team needs to continue to prepare mentally and always give 100 percent for a full six minutes on the mat. The next test for the Red Raiders is this weekend at the Floyd Farrand Invitational, a two-day tournament hosted by Sioux Falls Lincoln.

Regardless of how the final months of the season go, Kokesh knows the program will continue to challenge the top teams in Class B if the kids continue to enjoy the demanding sport and find ways to improve.

"Winning is nice, but it's about developing these kids and helping them be the best they can be," Kokesh said. "It's been a great experience thus far."