SUAMICO – Ben Kitslaar knows the road to Madison very well.
The Bay Port senior wrestler made the nearly 300-mile round trip after school on Mondays and Thursdays during the spring last year to practice at the Wisconsin Regional Training Center.
Kitslaar was one of about a dozen high school competitors in the state that took advantage of the opportunity to train at the facility with members of the University of Wisconsin wrestling team and three-time NCAA Division III national champion Nazar Kulchytskyy.
“I would usually come back with a black eye and pretty beat up, but it was definitely worth it,” Kitslaar said. “It was a real cool opportunity to wrestle with great guys. You learn a lot.”
Kitslaar was more than willing to put in the extra miles and mat time because he learned last February how hard it was to return from Madison empty-handed.
The empty feeling of not being able to reach the WIAA state podium at the Kohl Center is fueling him during a dominating senior campaign.
Kitslaar (29-0) enters the stretch run of the season as the only undefeated wrestler in the Green Bay area and is ranked No. 2 at 220 pounds in Division 1 by WIWrestling.com.
“I knew how hard I worked before state last year and it wasn’t enough,” he said. “I thought I have to take every opportunity I have and start training harder.”
Kitslaar earned the opportunity to practice at the Wisconsin Regional Training Center based on his performance at the Wisconsin Wrestling Federation Freestyle and Greco-Roman state tournaments.
Kitslaar carpooled with Kaukauna’s Trenton Leon and Keaton Kluever and Denmark’s Brock Bergelin for the practice sessions in the weeks leading up to nationals last spring.
The opportunity to grapple against Ricky Robertson and Ryan Christensen of the Badgers has been paying dividends thus far for Kitslaar, who hasn’t been scored on against in-state competition this season.
“You have to give him credit to commit to giving up that time and going to work out with somebody that tough,” Bay Port wrestling coach Brad Shefchik said. “You know you’re going to take a beating, but part of the sport is learning how to survive against tough people because that’s what gets you through tournaments like the state tournament.”
Kitslaar went 2-2 in his second WIAA Division 1 state appearance last year, recording two pins and getting pinned twice against the runner-up and third-place finishers in the 195-pound weight class.
In moving up to 220, he has the opportunity to reach the WIAA state podium in the same weight class his older brother, Joe, medaled in as a senior during the 2014 season when he placed fifth.
Kitslaar was a freshman that year, getting some opportunities to compete in the varsity lineup of the Pirates’ state runner-up team. He went 9-5 and made his first pin in 8 seconds.
The 6-foot-3 standout has made 60 pins since for Bay Port and has a 104-16 career record.
“He’s got the lengthy type, which adds leverage,” Shefchik said. “It adds a lot of dimensions. It’s hard to get to his legs because he’s got that length that you have to try to break that barrier. He’s learned to really use his body to his advantage.”
“He’s always been a pretty physical wrestler and aggressive. He’s always known the technique, and he’s learned more and more as he’s gotten older. But the biggest change is his mental preparation, bringing the right attitude to practice and to the match, and all the other aspects to putting a quality wrestler on the mat.”
Kitslaar feels his offseason work should help as he attempts to string together some quality wins on the road back to Madison next month.
“My confidence has boosted a lot since the summer,” Kitslaar said.
“My defense is on par. My offense is great. I feel good with how I’ve been performing. Obviously, I’m going to have to keep working hard in here, but I expect out of myself to win a state championship.”
– firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @andrewpekarek.