KAUKAUNA – The little kid has grown into a big guy and the past has turned to the present.
But the Cheesehead Invitational remains what it has always been to Keaton Kluever: an extra-special wrestling tournament.
The highly productive Kaukauna junior was among a talented group of heavyweights who competed in the 18th annual Cheesehead at Kaukauna High School. He finished in third place Saturday after pinning Malik Scates of Carl Sandburg in 1:20 in the third-place match.
Kluever has a closer connection to the Cheesehead than many of his teammates. His father, Scott, a middle school coach in the Kaukauna program and the state coach coordinator for the Wisconsin Wrestling Federation, has been the tournament director since its inception in 1999.
As a young child, Keaton tagged along to Scott’s practices, matches and tournaments, including the Cheesehead where he regularly worked as towel tapper to alert match officials when a period was over.
“It’s always been a special tournament for both myself and my dad,” said Kluever, who carries a No. 3 ranking in the 285-pound class of the Wisconsin Wrestling Online Division 1 state rankings. “He always ran the tournament and I always felt like I was a part of it.
“Every year after (youth wrestling) practice, they would say, ‘Hey, you guys have to towel tap at the Cheesehead. And I’d be like, ‘Yes.’ It was great because you’d get to see some of the best wrestlers around and hang out with your friends. I’d watch and tell myself, ‘Whoa, this is wrestling, real wrestling.’ I was on top of the world.”
A young Keaton soaked up every moment of the action on the mat.
“I always thought the Cheesehead was the coolest thing ever,” said Kluever. “I always thought it would be really special for both of us if I could win it some day.
“I used to tell my dad, ‘Why does everybody get so crazy when they win a state title compared to a Cheesehead title?”
Kluever has been wrestling, in his words, “since birth,” starting in kindergarten in the Kaspers program offered by the Kaukauna Recreation Department.
“I love wrestling,” Kluever said. “When I go home, I watch wrestling videos just because I enjoy watching them. I like the competitive part of wrestling. Football, baseball and basketball are more team sports, where in wrestling, it’s just one person. It’s all on you. You can change what’s happening out there. It’s all your choice.”
Kaukauna coach Jeff Matczak says Kluever’s passion for the sport is easy to spot.
“He’s a wrestling junkie,” Matczak said. “He’s into wrestling as much as anyone I’ve ever coached and he invests a lot of time in it. Sometimes I’ll watch old Cheesehead videos and I’ll spot him as a towel tapper. We’d always ask our middle-school kids to work as towel tappers in three-hour shifts, but he’d do the whole tournament just because he liked being out there for the big matches.
“This is a big tournament for him because of his dad and his history with the tournament. He’s been around this tournament his whole life.”
Kluever, who currently weighs in the 265- to 270-pound range, has been wrestling at heavyweight the last two years and is a two-time state individual meet qualifier.
“I enjoy wrestling heavyweight — I can eat,” said Kluever with a grin. “What made it a little different for me as a freshman was that I was wrestling kids two or three years older than me. People say that watching heavyweights is like watching two bears fighting on their feet, but I’m starting to wrestle more out there. I’m starting to wrestle more like a little guy, getting my attacks and stuff down.”
Kluever has made such an impression that he already has a Division I scholarship waiting for him. He made a verbal commitment recently to wrestle for the University of North Carolina.
“He’s not a heavyweight who is a 300- or 400-pound bench press kid,” said Matczak. “He’s still developing strength-wise. But he made a big jump from last year to this year in terms of strength and he’s going to make another jump from this year to next year and get stronger and stronger.
“He’s developed a great style of technique as a heavyweight. He understands throws, positioning and footwork and has really done a good job from a technical standpoint.”
Wrestling collegiately at the Division I level was always Kluever’s ultimate goal, and the intense competition at the Cheesehead should help prepare him for his future in Chapel Hill.
“North Carolina was the perfect opportunity to continue with my dream,” Kluever said. “They’re a team on the rise. I think we’ll be able to compete with some of the best teams in the country.”
Tim Froberg: 920-993-7183 or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @twfroberg