Lake wrestlers and best buds Damon Keister and Matt Church only have one rule when it comes to their winter after-school activities.
What happens at practice, stays at practice.
“We push each other so much in the wrestling room,” said Keister, a senior 106-pounder. “After practicing against each other for three years, we know exactly what each other’s going to do. I have to wrestle completely different against him, and it helps me out in a match. When we get at it, we really get at it. There will be days he won’t say a word to me. We’ve gotten mad at each other plenty of times, but it never carries over after practice.”
Church, a junior 120-pounder, and Keister both advanced to this weekend’s Division III district tournament at Bowling Green State University. They both won Northern Buckeye Conference titles two weeks ago, and they both finished second at last Saturday’s sectional tournament.
“I started wrestling as a freshman,” Church said. “I came right in and Damon was my partner and he was really good. He’s taught me everything I’ve learned in this sport. He’s motivated me, mentally, to beat people I think I can’t beat. We really practice hard and we’re leaders in the (practice) room. The coaches look for us to be examples and show the younger guys what they should do.”
Lake coach Tom Jackson had three seniors, one junior (Church), three sophomores and eight freshmen on this year’s squad. He said Keister, a captain, has been the perfect individual to show the younger guys how it’s done at the high school level.
“He’s a real tough kid who works hard,” Jackson said. “He’s a leader. We had a very young team this year and Damon’s done real well with working out in the room. He sets a good example for the younger kids. He’ll plan all kinds of team bonding type of things. They’ll go bowling on a Sunday afternoon or if we get done with a tournament early. He’ll be missed next year.”
Keister (31-2 with 16 pins) was a district qualifier last year in one of the district’s more difficult weight classes (106). He competed at 113 for most of this season, losing just once (4-0), to a returning state qualifier from Riverdale, before dropping down for the postseason.
“The district is stacked at 113 this year and I felt like I had a better chance or reaching my goal at 106,” Keister said. “It’s easy to cut (weight). I’m at a size and speed advantage at 106. Last year I was cutting 12 to 14 pounds a week, and this year it’s six to eight pounds a week and it’s a lot easier.”
Keister lost in the sectional finals, 8-2, to Genoa sophomore Damian D’Emilio, who earned his 100th career win during the tournament.
“Damon didn’t wrestle his match,” Jackson said. “He didn’t wrestle real aggressively. I think he was trying to defend. He beat D’Emilio twice last year and it’s hard to beat a kid more than a handful of times. Last year D’Emilio was a small 106-pounder and Damon had that strength over him. D’Emilio grew up a little bit, so it wasn’t as big of a strength difference this year.”
Regardless of that loss, Keister, a four-year starter, said he is peaking at the right time.
“I feel I’ve had a really good season,” he said. “I didn’t wrestle as great as I could have in the sectional finals, but I’ve had a great week of practice this week. I’ve hit my stride. This weekend is when it matters and I feel I’m ready to go. I set pretty high expectations for myself and I want to place at state. It’s been my dream since I was 6 years old.”
Church (23-11 with 14 pins), a three-time district qualifier, lost to Woodmore junior Josh Cowell, 5-1, in the sectional finals.
“Matt is real aggressive and I like his intensity,” Jackson said. “Those two (Church and Keister) are drill partners and they work hard in the room. We try to tell the younger kids it’s just as important to wrestle live in practice as you would live in a match. Damon and Matt usually do that. A lot of times they’re pushing each other across the room, completely out of bounds, running into other groups.”
Church said his goal was to reach the district tournament for the third straight year, and added that winning the NBC title “really made my season.” He had three pins at the NBC event.
“That was a really big accomplishment,” Church said. “I worked really hard for that one. That was all focus. We focused on improving ourselves technique-wise and making sure everyone was physically ready. I couldn’t have been more ready.”
With a few more wins this weekend, Church will find himself wrestling against the best in the state in Columbus.
“It would be a really nice thing to make it there and represent my school,” Church said. “I had a lot of friends who told me to come out for wrestling, and I didn’t think I could wrestle with kids who had been doing it their entire life. Coach Jackson taught me how to represent myself and my school and he made me a better person.”
Eventual 120 pound runner-up Lake junior Matt Church takes on Genoa senior Dustin Widmer in a Division III sectional semifinal match-up. (Press photo by Harold Hamilton/HEHphotos.smugmug.com)