There was not much fanfare surrounding Roncalli (Manitowoc) sophomore Mitch Kiel entering the WIAA State Individual Wrestling Tournament, Feb. 26-28 at the Kohl Center in Madison.
“I was a huge underdog,” he said. “I was ranked throughout the year, but low. I think I was ranked sixth at one point. Nobody knew who I was.”
They do now.
Kiel reversed Markesan’s Lucas Brown with 28 seconds left for a 4-3 victory in the Division 3 140-pound state championship match. He finished the season 36-5, capping a surprising journey considering the challenges of his freshman season.
In December of 2007, Kiel and his older brother, Matt, were en route to a band/choral Christmas event at the school when their vehicle collided with another automobile at an intersection.
“We didn’t have a stop sign,” said Kiel. “The lady did a rolling stop. It was snowing and we couldn’t stop. My brother turned the car to try to avoid her. I was on the passenger side, so I got the worst of it. The lady was OK. She had a bump on her head. My brother just had a bruise on his leg.”
Kiel could not open his door. When he tried to crawl out of the car he felt severe pain in his chest.
“I had been watching too many movies,” he said. “I told my brother that we needed to get out of the car in case it exploded. He said we should stay in the car. It started on fire after we got out.”
Kiel had a cracked sternum, which required a hospital stay. He could not lift with his arms and needed assistance getting out of a recliner.
“I had wrestled one match, which I lost,” he said. “It was tough, but I’m glad it happened to me instead of my brother. That would have ruined his senior year. That was his special year.”
Matt finished second at state at 130 pounds in 2008 and posted a 39-3 record. Amazingly, his brother returned to the mat late in the season.
“I wasn’t supposed to, but I gave it a shot,” said Kiel. “I didn’t do very well. I had to injury default a couple matches, but I did get a couple wins.
“I appreciated wrestling a lot more when I came back,” he added. “I made a big improvement this year. It meant more to me than before the crash. I don’t know if I would have accomplished what I did this year if I hadn’t gone through that. I was more ambitious coming into this season. I really wanted to do well.”
Kiel set a goal of qualifying for the state tournament this season. He hoped to medal as a junior and be in contention for a title as a senior.
“I later found out that my dad’s goal for me was to have a .500 record this season,” he said. “I became more and more confident throughout the season. Things fell into place.”
Kiel credits Coach Jeff Daffner and his teammates for their support. Senior Adam Ley constantly pushed him to practice hard, he said. He also points to his brother and former teammate Matt Gille for making him a better grappler. Gille won a state title at 135 pounds as a junior in 2007, and now wrestles at UW-Parkside.
Winning state has caused Kiel, who began wrestling in fourth grade, to adjust his goals. He embraces the challenge of defending his title.
“One goal I really want to achieve is getting 100 wins in my high school career,” he said. “I love (wrestling). I look forward to practice even though I know it’s going to be tough, and I know I’m going to be thirsty, sweaty and tired.”
The love of the sport is shared by his family, members of Holy Cross Parish, Mishicot. His sister, Stephany, served as a wrestling manager at Roncalli. Younger brother, Ben, a student at St. Peter the Fisherman School, Two Rivers, competes in the Mishicot youth program.
Wrestling is not Kiel’s only interest. He enjoys singing in the choir and plans to participate in band next year. He also competes in cross country and track at Roncalli.
In addition to his personal wrestling goals, he hopes the team grows next season.
“Basketball is such a big sport here, so we don’t have a lot of numbers for wrestling,” he said. “I heard that there are some kids who are pretty good wrestlers who will be freshmen, so I hope we get more kids out. I really want to be a team leader.”
Roncalli honored Kiel’s championship the Monday morning following the state tourney.
“We have convocation where everyone goes to the atrium,” he said. “Announcements are made about what is going on during the week. They said, ‘Congratulations to Mitch Kiel 140-pound state champion.’ We watched the last period of the championship match on a big screen. Everyone was clapping. It was nice.
“When I watch that match, I think about how much I improved,” he added. “I had some losses, especially early in the season. I tried to never let the losses get to me. I just focused on improving.”