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Iowa's Kelly ready to tackle 2013-14 season

BY GODY GOODWIN | NOVEMBER 21, 2013 5:00 AM

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Michael Kelly’s final match at the Luther Open last weekend had some big implications — whether he admits it or not.

Kelly was set to face Upper Iowa’s Edwin Cooper, a former Illinois prep star who was destined to wrestle at the Division-I level. Cooper nearly had that chance with Iowa after an impressive 2012 season at Iowa Central Community College, where he beat several D-I grapplers before winning a National Junior College Athletics Association national title. He was denied that chance after being arrested and charged with assault in July.

So when Kelly used a third-period takedown to ultimately beat Cooper in the 149-pound finals, 6-5, it sent a message to the Iowa coaching staff: Kelly wants to be Iowa’s 149-pounder this season.

“He seems to be maybe a bit more, what I like to call, smart [with] high energy,” Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands said. “A lot of good things. It’s easier to go forward with a win, and that’s what he did.”

It was the biggest win in recent memory for Kelly, who has struggled to a combined 25-22 record in his last two seasons after posting a 25-4 recording during a redshirt year in 2010-2011.

And though the season is still young, a 5-0 record at the Luther Open — that included a 6-1 victory over teammate Connor Ryan in the semifinals — has allowed Kelly, originally from Cedar Falls, to widen the gap between him and the other contenders for the starting spot.

“The kid was almost coming here, and a lot of people almost wanted to give him the spot,” Kelly said about Cooper. “I tell you what, I certainly wasn’t giving him the spot. I wanted to prove something.”

What Kelly, along with many more Iowa wrestling fans, ultimately wants is to become a threat at the Big Ten and national level — something that a myriad of wrestlers haven’t been able to do for the Hawkeyes at 149 pounds over the last three seasons.

Between 2008-2010, Brent Metcalf occupied Iowa’s 149-pound roster spot. He compiled a 108-3 record during his Hawkeye career, during which he won two NCAA and Big Ten championships. Metcalf won the Dan Hodge Trophy in 2008, earning the distinction as that season’s most outstanding college wrestler.

Since then, Iowa’s 149-pounders have scored a grand total of zero points at both the Big Ten and NCAA championships. Three different wrestlers have combined for a 0-6 record at Big Tens, and none of them qualified for nationals during their respective seasons.

Kelly has been part of that slump. He went 0-2 at the 2012 Big Ten championships. Last year, Kelly limped through the season with an injury and poor weight control, prompting Brands to insert Josh Dziewa, now Iowa’s 141-pounder, into the 149-pound Big Ten bracket.

“Last year, I wanted to push the pace and wrestle at a higher pace, but I couldn’t because my body wasn’t letting me,” Kelly said. “I probably wasn’t toeing the line, weight-wise, as well as I should’ve been.”

Now, an injury-free Kelly scraps and hustles in the practice room. His weight is under control thanks to a healthier diet, allowing his gas tank to help him through an entire seven-minute match.

“Mike Kelly is a tough kid; he’s a tough son-of-a-gun,” Dziewa said. “When he starts performing like he practices, he’ll absolutely be one of the top guys in his weight class.”

It’s still early, of course. Kelly’s only form of recognition comes from the Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine, which has him ranked 16th at 149 pounds.

But being around the Iowa program for as long as he has, Kelly knows that simply being ranked isn’t enough. Rather, he’s looking to make a big, big impact.

“You’re talking probably about separating myself form the pack in the [practice] room, and I’m probably thinking a little bit the other way — separating myself from the rest of the nation,” Kelly said. “I want to go out and get a national championship.”


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