WAGNER — College degree in hand, David Kocer was living his dream.

Growing up on a beef cattle and row-crop ranch, Kocer long desired someday returning after college to work on the same ranch. After graduating from South Dakota State University with a degree in agricultural science in 2018, he rented a home not far away and decided to sell feed on the side.

But there was something missing that kept him from true bliss: wrestling.

Kocer went 234-26 and was a two-time state champion at Wagner before becoming an All-American for the Jackrabbits as a senior. So, he returned to his alma mater to help the Red Raiders when he could.

A little more than two years after graduation, Kocer applied for Wagner’s vacant head coaching position after John Tyler accepted a position to become principal at Mitchell Middle School. Now, Kocer is balancing farming and wrestling, just as he always intended.

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“I knew the job was open and I thought about it and I really missed the sport of wrestling,” Kocer said. “The times that I was up here last year, it felt good to be out here again. I decided I was going to give it a shot. There’s a lot of kids I think I can help and build their technique and their thought process.”

Kocer grew up in a family filled with wrestlers. His older brother Ryan won an ESPY award for best male athlete with a disability in 2008, while another brother, Alex, preceded him at SDSU and is now a volunteer coach with Wagner.

He went 108-51 as a Division I wrestler, leading the team with 30 wins as a sophomore and qualified for the NCAA national tournament three times. As a senior, Kocer placed seventh in the 174-pound weight class at nationals.

Wagner head wrestling coach David Kocer, right, demonstrates a takedown technique on his brother and volunteer coach Alex Kocer during team practice on Thursday afternoon in the school's wrestling room. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Wagner head wrestling coach David Kocer, right, demonstrates a takedown technique on his brother and volunteer coach Alex Kocer during team practice on Thursday afternoon in the school's wrestling room. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Throughout his career at SDSU, Kocer spent time helping youth wrestling camps in Brookings and Sioux Falls, showing a knack for coaching that many felt could propel him into the profession. Former Jackrabbit coach Chris Bono felt his farm background blended well with a coaching career.

“Everyday you feed the animals or they’re not going to live,” said Bono, who is now the head coach at the University of Wisconsin. “That’s how it is as a college wrestling coach. Everyday you have to get up and make your team better. You’re taking care of 30 kids instead of thousands of cattle. You’ve got to feed these kids, grow these kids and when it’s all done, that’s when they become All-Americans.”

When his wrestling career came to a close, Kocer had offers to become an assistant coach at several Division I programs. When Bono left to take the job as head coach at Wisconsin in March 2018, he went to Kocer to come along to join his staff.

But becoming a collegiate coach was not part of his plan at the time. Kocer was singularly focused on beginning his career in agriculture and shot down every offer sent in his direction.

“I would have loved to have him at Wisconsin and I’m sure he had more than that,” Bono said. “He has a tight, tight family and if they didn’t have the farm, David could have been a coach at the Division I level.”

Now that he has returned to Wagner, though, Kocer wants to remain with the program long-term. He inherits a championship-rich program — which has started 0-4 — that is currently rebuilding after losing two former state champions in K.J. St. Pierre and Lance Soukup.

While Kocer would like to build the program back to a Class B powerhouse that won four consecutive state championships from 2008-2011. But for now, he wants a program that entices kids to come out for the wrestling team and encourages community engagement.

“I’d like to get the (roster) numbers back up to where they were when I was in high school,” Kocer said. “I want to make it fun again, the sport to be in and a good place to be. I want to have a winning spirit in the room and around Wagner.”