t may have been the biggest upset in Kent State wrestling history and one of the biggest ever in the NCAA Championships.
Kent State’s Kyle Conel was facing the nation’s No. 1 wrestler in the 197-pound weight class in the quarterfinals of the tournament at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Friday.
Entering the tournament unseeded, Conel wasn’t even a starter for the Flashes for half of the season. He had to win a “pigtail round” just to get into the main tournament.
A minute and a half into the match, Conel and Ohio State’s Kollin Moore were on their feet, fighting for an advantage, when Conel pulled Moore toward him. He flipped Moore to his back and held both of Moore’s shoulders to the ground.
A pin. Match over.
18,000 people in the stands were already shouting and screaming before Conel even stood up. After the referee slapped the mat to show Conel had won, the crowd didn’t break its standing ovation for five minutes.
Conel stood up and shouted in triumph. He walked to the edge of the mat and hugged Kent State coach Jim Andrassy. The coach was jumping up and down in excitement, and the two walked out of the arena to waiting reporters.
Tears were in Conel’s eyes as he answered questions.
“The greatest feeling in the world,” he said.
Conel went on the finish third in the tournament, the second-best finish ever for a Kent State wrestler. (Dustin Kilgore won a national championship in 2010 after being ranked among the nation’s best all season.)
Conel almost wasn’t on the Kent State team this season. He left the team early last season, feeling overwhelmed by a lot of things going on in his life.
“I didn’t feel I would ever wrestle again,” Conel said. “I didn’t watch wrestling. I didn’t think about wrestling. I had zero intention of coming back.”
But last summer, he and his brother went to a trial martial arts class.
“I went out there, and I'm like, ‘Wow, I kind of missed this,’” Conel said.
So he texted assistant coach Matt Hill and rejoined the team. Conel had to lose 50 pounds to get back to his wrestling weight.
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it down,” he said. “But I did it.”
Conel won his pigtail match Thursday over Randall Diabe of Appalachian State, 3-2, then beat Preston Weigel of Oklahoma State, 5-0, then beat South Dakota State’s Nate Rotert, 8-2.
He was the only wrestler in the tournament to go 3-0 on the first day.
The next morning, Conel pinned Moore in front of a crowd that was about one-third fans that had come to Cleveland to follow Ohio State.
Conel was pinned in the semifinals Friday night by eventual champion Michael Macchiavello of North Carolina State. The loss put Conel in the consolation bracket, where he pinned Jacob Holschlag of Northern Iowa Saturday morning.
That set up a second match a few hours later with Moore for third place. Conel took a 2-0 lead in the first period and never fell behind. The final score was 5-3.
That earned Conel third place. He already had earned All-American status by placing in the top eight.
“This is one of the greatest moments of my life,” Conel said after beating Moore a second time. “A part of me thought that (doing well at the tournament) could happen, and another part of me thought it couldn't. It didn't feel real until yesterday (after he beat Moore for the first time).”
Conel, who grew up about an hour away from Cleveland in Ashtabula, Ohio, had dozens of friends and family at the tournament.
“I’m very glad I get to represent Kent State,” Conel said. “There’s so many people behind me. This is not a one-man show. I am so thankful and grateful.
“I feel like all this hard work has paid off, and I feel like I pushed through a lot of adversity this year.”
Andrassy beamed all weekend as he talked about Conel.
“Kyle’s gone through a lot in his life,” Andrassy said. “If he doesn’t write a book about it or make a movie, I will. ... What he’s gone through to where he’s at now, people wouldn’t believe it.”
“This isn’t just about wrestling. This is a life thing for him.”
Kayla Proctor is a sports reporter. Contact her at email@example.com.