Wrestlers Kelly, Wagner not counting themselves out

BY SAM LOUWAGIE | MARCH 01, 2012 6:30 AM

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Mike Kelly doesn't like what he sees when he looks back at his last few matches.

"I've been thinking a little too much," the Hawkeye redshirt freshman said. "I went out there and maybe hit zero shots in a match, which is not OK with me at all."

Kelly has scored 9 points in his last four matches. So, before practice began on Wednesday in the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex, he was practicing setups for his attacks with a coach.

Kelly is one of two Iowa wrestlers who will need to pull off an upset or two at the Big Ten championships this weekend in order to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Cedar Falls native earned the 10th seed at 149 pounds; the top nine finishers in each weight class earn automatic bids to nationals.

Head coach Tom Brands said Kelly, who is 9-11 on the season, isn't far away from a strong showing at the conference tournament. The problem isn't that Kelly isn't taking enough shots, the coach said, instead, he's taking them in the wrong situations.

"The things he needs to change are little things," he said. "It's about putting energy in the right little things. Sometimes you try to do too much because you think you're bulletproof or you're solid in positions where your opponent is dangerous. That can be a recipe for winding up on your head."

Kelly has been painfully close to beating some of the wrestlers a few seeds above him. Seventh-seeded Eric Terrazas of Illinois beat Kelly on Feb. 19, 3-2. Indiana's Taylor Walsh, seeded sixth, beat him 4-3 on Jan. 6. Northwestern's eighth-seeded Kaleb Friedley topped him, 3-2. And Kelly even hung surprisingly close to Penn State's top-ranked Frank Molinaro, holding him to an 11-5 decision.

"I think every guy in the Big Ten, I'm more than capable of wrestling with and scoring a lot of points," Kelly said. "It's an opportunity to put myself out on the mat, and establish who I am, and give my name a little bit of credit."

The other Hawkeye who hopes to vault himself into the NCAA Tournament is Vinnie Wagner. The senior cut to 184 pounds at the beginning of the season to fill in for Grant Gambrall, who was prevented from making that weight by injuries. Once Gambrall was able to reach 184, Wagner bumped back up to 197, where he will attempt to qualify for NCAAs.

Wagner wasn't given one of the eight Big Ten seeds at the Big Ten tournament. He'll have to pull off a few surprise wins at a weight in which the top seven finishers qualify for nationals.

He certainly works hard enough to do so, Brands said.

"Vinnie Wagner is one dedicated guy," he said. "He's one of the more quiet and dedicated guys we've had. One of the more dedicated guys I've coached, as far as no complaints. Not one complaint — ever."

Wagner won't have much familiarity with his Big Ten opponents at 197 after spending much of the season at a different weight class. He said that could benefit him.

"I never mind being the guy no one knows about," he said. "I'm sure a lot of the guys at 197 don't know much about me. I'll definitely use that to my advantage."

The Hawkeyes often speak about the desire to dominate at all 10 weight classes. In order to send all 10 to the NCAA Tournament, they'll need Kelly and Wagner to wrestle the best they have this season.

"We have some guys who, maybe, people are counting out," Brands said. "But the thing about our program is, philosophically, you're not counting yourself out and we're not counting you out."

Follow DI wrestling reporter Sam Louwagie on Twitter.

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