Way back in 2006, Dave Klepfer found himself in the corner seat the Giant Center coaching his first wrestler to a state final.
Eli Morres, favored at heavyweight against Reynolds’ Mike Edwards. The two had met the week before at the Northwest Regional in Sharon and Morres won a major decision.
This time around, it was Edwards who came up with a 7-4 win. Morres wound up fifth the next year and graduated as the team’s all-time winningest wrestler.
But that loss stung the rookie coach.
“I’d like to think if I knew as much as I knew now that Eli Morres would have a gold medal hanging around his neck,” Klepfer said in the Raiders wrestling room Monday night. “We majored the kid a week earlier.
“I played that match over and over. It’s one of the toughest days in my coaching career. I felt as a coach I didn’t get him ready for the match the way I should have being that he beat the kid by eight the week before. It was a tough one to swallow, but at the same time, I learned a lot from it.”
Some 13 years later, Klepfer hasn’t lost a finals matchup since. He’s 4-0 over the past six years, the latest coming Saturday in Colby Whitehill’s 5-2 win at heavyweight.
That’s seven state champions in Raiders wrestling history — Chuck Yale in 1993, Jeremy Reitz and Jason Gilligan in 1999 prior to Klepfer’s coaching run of Brock Zacherl in 2014, Taylor Ortz in 2016 and Gavin Park in 2017.
“The last four especially, we leave the arena, we watch film and talk about eating the right things, getting rest and not wearing yourself out by walking around, especially as a heavyweight,” Klepfer said. “Colby had a 2 1/2-3 hour wait Saturday. It was really important that he find a dark hallway to sit in and listen to some music and relax and keep away from the wrestling. There’s all kind of things. Every kid is different in the way you handle it.”
Whitehill handled it all about as well as one could expect this year. He wiped out his opposition — 39-0 with 26 pins. He was 6-0 against five other eventual state medalists this year and on his four-bout run to the title, Whitehill beat, as per papowerwrestling.com’s rankings, the Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 9 wrestlers.
“The biggest thing is that it’s all he’s thought about since he showed up in his room,” Klepfer said. “He was very forward about what he wanted to accomplish int he sport when he came here and he worked very hard for it.”
Whitehill is 92-13 going into his senior year. A similar run could vault him over the leading winning percentage wrestlers for the Raiders — Zacherl (130-13, .909), Ortz (156-16, .907) and Morres (151-16, .904). He’s at .876 right now.
Headed to the corner before the finals, Klepfer indeed knew the statistical breakdown, perhaps with a little superstitious twist.
“We are now 4-0 in the corner we were in Saturday and 0-1 on the other side,” he said. “Don’t think that wasn’t the first thing I checked when I got there Saturday.”
In the final, Whitehill was the underdog according to the rankings, although it was 1 vs. 2 as he took on a very confident and brash Jake Ryan of Mount Union.
“I told Colby (Ryan) was bullying and throwing everyone all weekend. Let him into that position, because he wasn’t wrestling Greco last summer, you were,” Klepfer said. “Let him get in that position. Most kids, once they get there, realize that’s not where they want to be. And Colby’s caught on to that. He’s better than others in that position.
“And He felt both headlocks (from Ryan) coming. He wrestled very tactical and fundamental match.”
Whitehill took a 3-1 lead into the third period and rode Ryan out for the first 1:07 before he escaped to cut it to 3-2. Then in desperation for a takedown late, it was Whitehill who easily slipped a Ryan headlock attempt and took him down with 13 seconds left. He laid on top of Ryan celebrating as the clock wound down. Ryan had nothing left.
“The first minute of the third was very key,” Klepfer said. “Colby rode him out and really wore him down. He didn’t have much left in the gas tank.”
Last year, Whitehill heeded Klepfer’s words leaving Hershey with an eighth-place medal. Get bigger and stronger.
This time around? Get bigger and stronger, and that’s scary. He wrestled at around 267 last weekend and dominated.
“When we were leaving Hershey over the weekend, I told him 20 more pounds of muscle and get to 290 and no one will touch him. He understands that.”
Indeed he always has apparently.
“The thing I’m most proud of was the work he put in and his ability to be coached,” Klepfer said. “He listens pretty well and he really bought into what we were saying. It was all him. He put in a tremendous amount of work. When kids were at the pool or camping in the summer, he was on a bus to Fargo. When no one’s looking, that’s when all the work got done. That’s important to know. He sacrificed a lot as a kid the last year to get where he needed to be. When you have a kid with those goals and ambitions, you’re going to go far in life.”
Klepfer said that in preparing during the season, especially in the postseason, Whitehill would work out with former Raider Jimmy Miller, who scrambled and wrestled with Whitehill.
Whitehill’s workout partner bringing the bulk? Eli Morres.
“So many guys who aren’t even on the staff anymore, so many who have put work in to help get the program where it is,” Klepfer said. “I’m very fortunate to have the guys that I have coaching. I hope we keep it rolling. It’s a lot of commitment, but hopefully the guys are excited about where we’re at and make long-term commitments out of it.”
He had just left working out with this weekend’s PAJW state qualifiers, the youngsters.
“There are a lot of dedicated coaches here right now. There are five coaches out there with seven kids. If you want to talk about getting one-on-one and extra help, it’s there,” Klepfer said.
Other odds and ends and recollections of Klepfer’s previous champions:
— Brock Zacherl, 2014: “With Brock, he was so far ahead of the rest of the field, I really didn’t treat it that way because there are no guarantees,” Klepfer said. “I felt like if we were healthy and feeling good and getting enough rest, I felt Brock was the only guy who could beat himself. I wasn’t too worried about the rest of the bracket.”
— Taylor Ortz, 2016: “Tate was a little bit different. He beat the kid in the finals in the last few seconds in the Powerade a few months earlier, so with him, it was a lot of the same. We focused on what he did well. His top game was what separated him from his opponents. He was extremely hard to score on when on his feet, so I knew if it got to the mat with a lead or at least even up … We took a 7-0 lead and it set the tone for the match. He couldn’t make a big mistake from there and it was pretty easy for him to do, to hold on to that lead.”
— Gavin Park, 2017: “I’ve had more than one person tell me he was a surprise. I knew he was as good as the best guys, but when you get down there it’s who is healthy and has a little bit of luck sometimes and just who was preparing the right way,” Klepfer said. “Once we found out we had Benton kid in final, Gavin defaulted to him at the Powerade. We knew his strong points and weak points and I thought Gavin went out and wrestled well.
“But if you ask a lot of people, that was a surprising one. I’m not sure why. I felt he was one of the best 2-3 guys all year long and when you’re in the top five, it’s who’s putting it together for three straight days.”
Rich Rhoades is the sports editor of the Jeffersonian Democrat and the Leader-Vindicator in New Bethlehem. E-mail: email@example.com or follow on twitter at @TheSkinny1969.