Kessler battles through illness to put finish on perfect career Owings Mills 152-pounder wins fourth state title

March 09, 1997|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

In the words of his coach, Guy Pritzker, Owings Mills wrestler Steve Kessler "had lost about eight pounds" due to sickness. "He was sick as a dog," said his father, Larry Kessler.

But yet again, this dog had his day.

Steve Kessler, ranked No. 3 in the nation by USA Wrestling Magazine, overcame an intestinal virus and perhaps the toughest opponent of his career in Southern of Garrett's Nathan Rickman, grinding out a 6-2 decision to become Maryland's second-ever four-time 1A-2A state champ -- the first to complete an 148-0 career.

"This kid was definitely the strongest guy I've wrestled, but I wanted this really bad, and now, it's a relief that it's over," said Kessler, who threw his hands skyward and raced around the mat at the buzzer. "It was definitely a challenge. I wasn't feeling well, but that's no excuse. It was more that he was hard to wrestle, but I did it."

As Kessler stood on the victory podium, being greeted by a standing ovation, his father, Larry Kessler, said through tears: "He deserves this, he really does. He's worked hard for it and he wasns't going to be denied today."

His older brother, Gregg, now a junior at Rider University, said, "Stevie's the kind of kid who is not going to tell you he's not well because he doesn't want any excuses. He doesn't want to take anyhing from the other guy."

The other guy, Rickman, had waited a long while for the rematch of last year's 145-pound final, won by Kessler, 12-4.

Kessler's mouth agape, he showed fatigue throughout the bout. Still, he countered Rickman for a takedown and a 2-0 after one period and, 4-1, in the second against Rickman, a chisled wrestler who fell to 35-2.

"I wanted to come out and take control, but he was attacking and kind of took that away," said Rickman, who has had Kessler's photo posted in his room since last season. "I wanted to win this one real bad, and I gave it my all. But he's always in good position and he kept shifting his weight. I could never get an advantage. He's a good wrestler."

Each wrestler took dominant routes toward their title bout: Rickman's technical-fall win in three bouts were by a combined, 49-4. Kessler pinned his first-round opponent before scoring a 16-1 technical fall over Fort Hill's Louie Schadt, and a 15-2 decision over Atholton's Matt McFadden.

"The way Steve wrestled, I knew right away that he was going to win," said Mike Kessler, 9, a junior-league wrestler. "He's does about 100 pushups a night and he's real determined. I hope some day that I can do what he's done."

Kessler finished 39-0 on the season with 28 pins, seven technical falls and two major decisions, joining Aberdeen's Matt Slutzky (122-5-1 career), who became the state's first four-time champ in 1992. Kessler now has 73 career pins and 46 career technical falls.

Paint Branch's Brian Crane, a 1983 graduate who went on to Princeton, was the first to complete an unbeaten public school career. Crane won three state titles and was 83-0. Bullis' Lenny Bernstein, who graduated from Bullis in 1984, went 110-0 with three National Prep Tournament titles.

Todd Beckerman, a Crofton native who recently completed his redshirt freshman season with Nebraska, went 208-1 as a DeMatha senior last season. After losing his only match, 8-7, to Northeast's three-time state champ Marty Kusick, Beckerman won a national-record 187 consecutive bouts to became America's first four-time National Prep champ.

This past summer, Slutzky watched Kessler beat Pennsylvania's Brian Barrows, one of the nation's top wrestlers, who signed in November with Oklahoma State.

"From what I've seen, Steve doesn't get flustered, doesn't get tired, and he's very, very poised," Slutzky said.

Said Kessler: "There's nothing special about my preparation. No rituals, other than a good half-hour sweat before a match."

Kessler's 36-0 freshman season marked the first time a Maryland ninth grader went unbeaten to win states. In an overtime 130-pound title bout, he overcame a 4-1 deficit against Northeast's Matt Jewer despite being outweighed.

Kessler tied his single-season record again the following season with an even more difficult 3-2 decision over Francis Scott Key's two-time state champ, Randy Owings. Then, last year, he eclipsed that, completing a 37-0 campaign with the 12-4 major decision over Rickman.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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