photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com
What do you do when you are trying to bring more Division II wrestling coverage to the fans and you have a weekend off from work? I was faced with that conundrum last week and I had myself an idea, what if I traveled four hours south to St Louis. I even had a built-in babysitter in my oldest sister and her family. I have a four-year-old and she has two kids right around the same age. I could drop her off with my sister and give my wife a weekend with just her and our eight-week-old while I took the chance to visit three Division II wrestling powerhouses all within 45 minutes of each other. How could I miss up an opportunity like this? Three emails later and I had visits set up with #4 McKendree University, #5 Lindenwood University, and #9 Maryville University. The trifecta!
McKendree University is the oldest university in all of Illinois. Located in the sleepy retirement community of Lebanon, McKendree has been around since 1828. The University may not be the most affordable private option in Illinois at just beyond $40,000 a year, but it offers things other institutions do not. It is the perfect blend of country and city located in a small town surrounded by farm fields, but less than 20 minutes outside of St Louis. It can appeal to those looking for either college experience or both. The Bearcats offer over 50 different undergraduate areas and four master’s programs. A truly ridiculous stat is the 14:1 student to faculty ratio, I guarantee that the professors there know the names of their students. Only the students there know if that is a good or a bad thing. Academics play a large role on campus with athletics coming in a distant second. It makes recruiting all the more difficult for the only head coach the McKendree Bearcat wrestling team has ever had. James Kisgen is entering his 15th season leading the program he has built from the ground up and the four-time All-American, himself, has coached nine national champions. Last season the Bearcats finished third in the team race behind national champion Michael Pixley and this year they enter the season ranked fourth.
For coach Kisgen, the Team is paramount. Any wrestler who steps into the McKendree wrestling room does so knowing that the Team comes first. Everything they do is for the betterment of the Bearcats. That means the rules apply to everyone. There is no favoritism from coach Kisgen or the staff, no one is above the Team. It seems odd that McKendree built an entirely separate facility with a wrestling room and a weight room in it until you hear the story of why. It was part of an agreement that helped spawn a women’s program at the University that Kisgen also oversees. Last season the women had two national champions of their own and much like Lindenwood, are building a legacy for our sport that goes beyond just a men’s team. Driving up, it is almost like you are approaching a strip mall development and then you see the sign and know you have reached your destination.
There is no hiding the purpose of this building, the sign says it all. The wrestling center could be the site of jazzercise or a Panchero’s, but instead, it houses the training mats for one of the best teams in the entire nation. The team that practices in this room every day during the season knows exactly what is required of them. There are no hidden agendas, the goal is winning a national championship.
I spent close to 90 minutes just sitting on the bleachers talking to coach Kisgen on Saturday afternoon. He gave me a tour of the wrestling center and then we just sat down and talked. It was a great time, being able to sit down and ask anything I wanted and coach Kisgen did not disappoint. From funny anecdotes, being totally honest about his lack of social media, and the importance of having alumni events. Everything he said had my attention. Even when brutally honest about how little our sport matters to college administrators, coach Kisgen talked to me not down to me. There were some incredible takeaways from my time with coach James Kisgen. You feel his love for the University, but more than that, you feel his passion for the sport. The fact that this program is his own child may play a role, but I believe that he is truly an ambassador for wrestling and is a student of the sport. I was impressed that he was already calculating team points at nationals and that he knows precisely what it will take to beat a loaded Pitt-Johnstown team. The fact that he continues to build his program in an age of social media with literally no personal presence is even more amazing. He knows it is not what he is good at, so like the seasoned veteran he is, he has staff who is in charge of things like Twitter and Facebook. Just do not expect pictures of his Sunday brunch date to come across Instagram, I believe his words were, “I do not think it is important for everyone to know what I ate today.” He does understand the power of connections, though, his alumni event had over fifty returning athletes this Fall. He is already planning next year with a little help from a certain writer. For him, an alumni event is a chance for old teammates to get back together, but more than that, it allows them to stay connected with the new team. New Bearcats see the banners on the wall, but this affords them a chance to actually meet the person. Alumni can see who the next generation is and be reinvigorated to support their alma mater.
The McKendree University Bearcats could be the 2020 national champions, it would be a bit of a surprise, but it is very possible. I know that they have the talent to compete for a trophy again. I cannot wait to see how their lineup moves work out for them; oh wait, is that foreshadowing???