Wrestling

West Liberty wrestler Joe Kelly has 'one clear goal'

West Liberty's Joe Kelly is introduced in West Liberty on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017.

West Liberty’s Joe Kelly is introduced in West Liberty on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017.

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Joe Kelly still remembers it — could recite every moment of that late-February day in painful detail.

First, he nearly lost his entire sophomore season at West Liberty to a shoulder injury sustained during the first match of the first tournament. But he returned in time for the River Valley Conference tournament. Somehow, fresh off eight weeks on the pine, he finished second at 152 pounds.

Then he won sectionals. Then he won districts.

Then he marched through the first round, quarters and semis of the state tournament to set up a final match against top-ranked Matt Malcolm of Glenwood on Feb. 20, 2016.

That didn’t go as well. Kelly lost in a major decision, 18-5, to the current Iowa wrestling freshman. Kelly’s post-injury, blitzkrieg of dominance abruptly ended with a thud.

“I know what it’s like to lose in the finals,” said Kelly, now a junior. “I don’t ever want to feel that feeling again. Still sticks with me today.”

The loss — and the bizarre season as a whole — changed Kelly. He notices it. So does Jeff Wiele, his head coach at West Liberty, who’s watching Kelly dominate the field.

There’s just something different about him.

“I think I’m a lot more prepared this year,” Kelly said. “Freshman year it was all kind of new to me. Sophomore year I was out for the majority of the season, since the first tournament to conference, I hurt my shoulder. So this year I’m more prepared mentally, physically, in every aspect.”

West Liberty's Joe Kelly wrestles Cascade's Cain Hoffman in West Liberty on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017.

West Liberty’s Joe Kelly wrestles Cascade’s Cain Hoffman in West Liberty on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017.

Kelly is Class 2A’s No. 1 wrestler at 152 pounds, and after Thursday night’s pin against Cascade 160-pounder Cain Hoffman, he boasts a 20-1 record. He’s helped lead the Comets to their No. 4 team ranking in 2A.

“He was upset,” Wiele said of Kelly after last year’s finals loss. “Obviously that wasn’t the way that he wanted to go out. I think if he wouldn’t have lost in the manner that he lost in, he would have been a little more OK with it. But maybe that’s a good thing, because I can tell you that it drives him right now.

“You can see it every day. There’s one clear goal. He obviously has to get a lot better to achieve it, but there’s one clear goal for him.”

That’s your cue, Kelly …

“(Winning) the state tournament,” he said, smiling. “It would mean everything. It’s been my dream since as long as I can remember.”

Kelly, who also plays football at West Liberty, has wrestled since third grade, seriously since fifth grade. The sport runs in his family; his dad, Mitch Kelly, wrestled at Iowa in the mid-1980s.

He wants to continue wrestling in college, and there’s little doubt he will. No offers yet, but Kelly said Maryland, Brown, Stanford and Cornell College have all expressed interest.

As the state’s top ranked 152-pounder in 2A, Kelly could probably secure at least one scholarship as he is. But he’s got the rest of this season and the next to improve.

“Every time I get on the mat, I just work as hard as I can,” Kelly said. “And if I go into every practice trying to get better and learning something, I think it’ll pay off and I’ll be where I need to be at the end of my season.”

Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at mbain@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.

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