Wagner native Kokesh is No. 1 in the nation

WAGNER -- For the first time in his career, Robert Kokesh holds the top ranking at 174 pounds in every major NCAA wrestling poll. The feat is exciting for Kokesh, a Wagner native, but he has bigger plans. "My goal is to win a national championshi...

Nebraska senior and Wagner native Robert Kokesh, top, wrestles an opponent from Maryland during a Big 10 dual on Nov. 16 in Lincoln, Neb. (Stephanie Carpenter/NU Media Relations)

WAGNER -- For the first time in his career, Robert Kokesh holds the top ranking at 174 pounds in every major NCAA wrestling poll.

The feat is exciting for Kokesh, a Wagner native, but he has bigger plans.

"My goal is to win a national championship," the University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Daily Republic. "Being ranked number one isn't going to win me that national title."

Kokesh ascended from the No. 2 spot after winning his weight class at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational over the weekend. He earned the No. 1 ranking from InterMat, WIN Magazine, and Asics Flo Rankings.

The two-time All-American entered the Las Vegas tournament ranked second before recording five wins en route to winning the 174-pound title. He beat three ranked opponents, including No. 12 Mark Martin, of Ohio State, No. 6 Tanner Weatherman, of Iowa State and No. 9 Blaise Butler, of Virginia.


Kokesh took the No. 1 spot away from University of Minnesota junior Logan Storley, a Webster graduate. Storley took fourth in Las Vegas, dropping him to No. 4 this week in the polls.

The two South Dakota natives have pushed each other through high school and college competition, and Kokesh is grateful for that.

"I've known Logan for a long time, and it's definitely exciting to have him in my weight class," Kokesh said. "We're rivals on the mat, but friends off the mat. It's fun to have someone like that who's trying to achieve the same goal you are."

Last season, the two met at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships twice. Storley came out victorious in both matches, including wins in the quarterfinals and third-place match. In 2013, Kokesh beat Storley in the third-place match at the national tournament.

With Kokesh and Storley working toward a coveted national individual title, Kokesh has perspective on the big picture.

"In the long run, it's just wrestling," he said. "I'm glad that Logan is pushing me to be better, and I'll remember this for the rest of my life, but it's not a life or death situation."

This year's NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships is March 19-21 in St. Louis, Mo.

This season, Kokesh is 14-0 overall with a 4-0 dual record. He took first place at the Cowboy Open on Nov. 8 and has four wins against ranked opponents to go along with three pins, two technical falls and two major decisions.


Kokesh, who is the reigning Big Ten champion at 174 pounds, ranks seventh in school history in career wins with 119.

He looks to extend that number as the Huskers (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) host conference rival Wisconsin at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Devaney Center in Lincoln.

Recovering from ACL injury was 'the hardest part'

The most challenging part of Kokesh's career wasn't wrestling in the national championships with a torn ACL.

It was recovering from it.

Nine months ago, the Wagner native and University of Nebraska 174-pound senior was ready to go after a national title. He was halted in the quarterfinals by rival Storley, a Webster graduate, falling 6-4 by tiebreaker 2. In the following match, Kokesh tore the ACL in his right knee, but still won the match.

"It was devastating," he said. "It's the most important tournament, and it was really difficult to keep going."

Kokesh wrestled three more matches and met Storley again, this time in the third-place match for the second straight season. They wrestled into extra time for the second time in the tournament. Storley won 3-1 by tiebreaker 1.


Kokesh said he didn't think twice about his decision to finish the tournament, despite having a major knee injury.

"It was very painful, but the team needed me and I didn't want to let my coaches down," Kokesh said. "I talked to my head coach (Mark Manning) and he said, 'You have to do what you have to do sometimes.' So, I kept wrestling."

Surgery occurred nearly two weeks later, then the real challenge started. Kokesh spent hours doing rehab and getting treatment on campus during the summer. Despite being antsy to spend time at home and have fun with friends, he stayed focused.

"The hardest part of that injury was coming back from it," he said. "I was tested. At the time, it was tough to wrestle through the injury, but I feel like I'm a tough kid and for me, it wasn't a big deal. It was the coming back."

Kokesh said Tyler Weeda, an assistant athletic trainer, kept his mind on the right things through the tough recovery process.

"I lot of the time I'd say, 'I don't even want to do this,' " Kokesh said. "But then I'd have Tyler saying, 'Do you want to win a national title this year?' I had to focus on the little things that were making me better."

Three to four months after his April surgery, Kokesh was able to "take some shots" on the wrestling mat. He said that relieved some of the stress of not being able to train regularly like the rest of his teammates.

When season practices began in mid-October, Kokesh was able to train at 100 percent, but it didn't come easy.


"It was very frustrating for me because normally, I'd win every match against my practice partners," he said. "But these guys were giving me good competition and sometimes beating me."

Kokesh, who is 14-0 this season, got back to form quickly and earned a No. 1 ranking at 174 pounds on Tuesday. He said he still has small issues with his knee, such as pain from the scar. Kokesh went from wearing a brace to a knee pad and finally without.

"I feel great," he said, adding he feels like his right leg is stronger than his left after rehabilitation. "(The injury) has really motivated me because I've put a lot of time in to get back to where I needed to be. I could've been at home, but I had to be here. Mentally, I had to stay focused. Now, I'm ready to go."

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