Meeting the challenge: Kocer brothers lifting SDSU wrestling
BROOKINGS -- One attribute resonates when Alex and David Kocer speak about wrestling for South Dakota State University. Pride. They're prideful of the Jackrabbits' success, climbing to No. 15 as a team in the national rankings, something that see...
BROOKINGS - One attribute resonates when Alex and David Kocer speak about wrestling for South Dakota State University.
They're prideful of the Jackrabbits' success, climbing to No. 15 as a team in the national rankings, something that seemed out of the realm of possibility in 2013 when Alex, now a senior, joined the team.
Similarly, they're proud to represent the state as homegrown South Dakota talent. And they're proud that they've been able to wrestle together dating back more than 15 years, when David was just five years old.
Both Kocer brothers have been key figures for the Jackrabbits this season, who are 13-5 in dual matches and second in the Big 12 Conference and the pair of Wagner natives are seeking return trips to the NCAA Championships. Alex wrestles at 149 pounds and David is at 174 pounds and both currently rank No. 1 and No. 2 in active career wins for the Jackrabbits.
"It's been real special," Alex told The Daily Republic this week. "I'm glad I came to SDSU. Looking back, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else and when you consider where we were a few years ago, it's gotten more fun and it's gotten better each year."
The brothers have each had big impacts for the Jacks this season and will be at the core of what SDSU coach Chris Bono hopes is a big run in March, first in the Big 12 Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma on March 4-5 and then March 16-18 at the NCAAs in St. Louis, Missouri.
"It's been awesome, really," David said. "We've had a lot of firsts this season and it's a lot of fun to see this team be successful and come together. The first few years were pretty rough but we're seeing some results."
For both, they've managed to not just become adequate college wrestlers, but standouts who continually aspire to greater heights.
"They're exactly the type of guys we need on this team," Bono said earlier this season. "They're both animals and we expect big things out of both of them."
A whole new game
College wrestling meant new eating habits for David Kocer.
Gaining the advantage meant the right diet, getting enough sleep and prioritizing wrestling over his social life were all part of the deal, Kocer quickly learned.
"It was really tough," he said. "Everyone works really hard in college, so you have to dedicate yourself to your goals and what you want to accomplish. You can't stay out late and you have be around the right people. If you have a bad day, it's another day behind you."
While at Wagner, the Kocer brothers re-wrote the record books. Learning from his old brother, Ryan, himself a three-time state champion, Alex Kocer was among five prep wrestlers all-time in South Dakota to win five state championships, capped by a 44-0 season as a senior. David Kocer won 234 matches in high school and was a two-time state champion.
Alex said it was the time commitment that stood out to him when he first stepped on campus. Coming out of high school, he didn't plan on wrestling in college until he changed his mind and decided to give SDSU a shot.
"I remember thinking about how much time you put in and that's what it's about. It's almost like a full-time job," he said. "It's got to be about wrestling and you have to think about it all day, every day."
Both brothers admitted they weren't very good on their feet in a neutral position and attributed their improvement there to Bono. David said it was clear early that he wouldn't be able to overpower wrestlers in college like he could in high school.
"Everyone is better defensively, so you have to be able to win on your feet," David said.
That hard work has paid off and with the rise of the Kocer brothers, South Dakota State wrestling has followed. Bono's hire at SDSU injected energy into a mostly lifeless program in 2012 and the Kocer brothers were at the forefront to see the change in Jackrabbit wrestling. The Jacks have been in the top-20 nationally all season and fan support has followed. More than 4,000 fans saw SDSU wrestle Iowa in December and more than 1,700 witnessed SDSU defeat Iowa State and Oklahoma earlier this season.
"Four years ago, you could hear a pin drop during the matches," Alex Kocer said. "Now, SDSU probably has as strong of crowds as anywhere we travel. There's never a quiet match and it's electric."
Alex added that he's proud to carry the flag for South Dakota wrestlers at the state's flagship college program.
"This is a wrestling school," he said. "We've got people talking to us all the time and it's been a real honor to represent South Dakota. I'm proud of all the South Dakota kids who come here and hopefully we'll have more follow us."
Alex Kocer already has his third 20-win season in hand and has recorded an 89-39 record for his career. For the season, he is 23-6 and 15-3 in duals for the Jackrabbits, including seven technical falls and five pins.
David Kocer is 19-7 and 14-4 in dual matches for SDSU, recording five technical falls and is 75-40 for his career. The pair is second and third, respectively, in dual points scored for the Jacks this season and both are ranked in the top-16 in the NCAA coaches' panel rankings, which are used in the national tournament selection process.
The pair of brothers are in position to return to the national tournament, a third time for Alex, and a second straight year for David. While the younger Kocer said he intends to just take the season one match at a time, Alex said he's shooting for a top-16 seed in the NCAA tournament. That would mean he would at least avoid the top wrestlers in his weight class in the first round.
Neither David or Alex mind being mentioned in the same breath as the other, as both consider each other fortunate to wrestle together at the same school, separated by two weight classes.
"It's a pretty cool experience to share with your brother," David said. "I think it's something we'll remember for a long time."