If Nicolet 170-pound wrestler Parker Keckeisen (42-1) is going to win a WIAA state title, he is going to have to earn it.
The sophomore sensation, who has been ranked first or second in his class all season by Wisconsin Wrestling Onliine and was fifth at 160 last season, dominated his weight class in the Oconomowoc sectional on Feb. 18, but all that netted him was a proverbial state bracket from heck.
He will meet up with fifth-ranked Jake Belongia of New Berlin Eisenhower (37-2) in a first-round state match at the Kohl Center in Madison at 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23. Then later that day, should he advance, he would see sixth-ranked Nolan Paar of Oak Creek (39-3), and if he makes it to the semifinals Friday, Feb. 24, oh yes, there will be top-seeded Connor Williams of La Crosse Central (44-1).
It's a long road to the finals at 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, but as he has said on numerous occasions, Keckeisen's attitude is "State title or bust."
"I'm feeling good," he said. "I hope to win it all. I feel like I've improved steadily in all positions. Last year (at state) helped a lot because I feel like I know what I'm doing now ... I'll take it one match at a time, treat each one like it could be my last."
Coach Gus Kaufmann also has a positive attitude.
"You have to beat them all at one point or another if you want to win it," he said. "We'll get to work right away. Parker saw the bracket last night (they were up the evening of Feb. 18), and we were texting all night. He told me he feels comfortable. Right now, the road doesn't matter."
Jim Wolf at 103 pounds back in 1962 is the only other state wrestling champion in Nicolet history.
Keckeisen's qualification was a highlight of a day that was just off of being truly great for the Knights. Earlier in the week on Feb. 14, they lost the WIAA state team-qualifying dual meet to Menomonee Falls. That came a few days after the Knights had won their first regional championship in decades. "That was awesome," Keckeisen said. "The gym was just so loud."
Kaufmann thought the Knights had realistic hopes of also qualifying Ryan Kuesel at 113 and Collin Shea at 182 but both came up just a bit short, as Kuesel was fourth and Shea third.
Keckeisen did his usual good work, winning by tech fall over an Arrowhead opponent, pinning a Homestead foe and then tech-falling a Pewaukee wrestler in just 2:35 in the final.
For senior Shea (27-9), it was a heartbreaking day. He pinned a Hamilton opponent (4:34) in the quarterfinals. In the semifinal against an Arrowhead opponent, he fell behind early but then caught his man in a throw in the final minute. Trailing, 8-2, he needed the pin because the five-point move would leave him a point short.
Almost everyone in the room thought he had the pin, as he had his man down through the final buzzer, but the slap of the pin never came. Shea went on to overpower a Pius XI opponent in the consolation match (11-3), but no wrestleback for second was forthcoming, as the Arrowhead wrestler lost in the final.
"Everybody knew he had the pin (except the official)," Kaufmann said, "and I know it's (a pin) always going to be an objective opinion. I was very proud of Collin going into that consolation match knowing that there was probably little chance of him getting a wrestleback."
Kuesel (36-9) went 1-2 on the day, getting pinned in the semifinals by a Falls wrestler and then losing the consolation match to a Homestead opponent he had beaten already this season. The Homestead wrestler would go on to win the wrestleback and claim a state tournament berth.
"This is something we'll learn from," Kaufmann said.
Other Nicolet wrestlers at the tourney lost in the first round. They included Kazi Wynn-Beavers at 106 (12-14), Robert Lagerman at 126 (15-22), Alex Riedijk at 132 (20-21), Jaren Yoder at 138 (21-23), Ray Martin at 145 (2-7), Nick Noble at 152 (10-18), Peter Driscoll at 160 (19-20), Will Deitrich at 195 (7-11), Barry Quinnies at 220 (3-9) and Cameron Cooper at 285 (11-18).
Kaufmann was impressed with the efforts of Lagerman and Yoder.
With it now over, the team portion of the season was a big success in Kaufmann's eyes, as the Knights had only two seniors and 20 overall athletes.
"No matter what the outcome was, as a team, we came through," he said. "Everyone contributed to that regional title and third-place finish in the conference."