After negotiating a seemingly endless series of treacherous obstacles, Brian Singleton and Brent Thompson have earned the right to enter collegiate wrestling's promised land.
The NCAA Championships.
Kent State's standout grapplers will be in action when the thrilling set of NCAA title skirmishes begin Thursday at 10 a.m. at the CSU Convocation Center. Matches will continue on Friday, with championship bouts scheduled for Saturday.
Both Singleton and Thompson received their respective keys after claiming individual titles at the Mid-American Conference championships, a feat that marked the end of a long a difficult journey to the land of the elite for both young men.
"They're two distinctly different success stories," said Kent State wrestling coach Frank Romano. "And I'm happy for both of them, to say the least."
Singleton, a two-time state champion at Crestwood High School, won the 134-pound MAC championship in 1996 as a sophomore and made a huge impact during his first trip to the NCAA Championships.
He won his first two matches and was just one victory away from earning All-American honors. But instead, Singleton lost his next two bouts by the slimmest of margins and was eliminated from the tournament.
Singleton then dropped out of school and entered the Army Reserves before returning to Kent State last summer.
"I worked my butt off to earn my academic eligibility," said Singleton. "And I did it for one reason, and that's to get back to the NCAA Championships.
"That's all I've thought about this entire season. Nothing else matters to me but getting in shape for NCAAs."
Singleton (15-3) proved he's ready to make a run at All-American honors once again by knocking off Central Michigan's Casey Cunningham, then ranked No. 2 in the nation, 7-5 in overtime in the 142-pound MAC Championships title match on March 8. The win vaulted him from 17th to 11th in the nation.
"The top 12 in each weight class earn a seed, and now he may get one," said Romano. "That would help a great deal."
Meanwhile, Thompson had to overcome a frustrating rash of injuries that threatened the former Walsh Jesuit High School state champion's career.
"I tore my ACL, and missed just about all of last year," said Thompson, who received a medical redshirt in '96-97. "Then I had my other knee scoped before this season, and I had to undergo nose surgery.
"Then in my first match of the year, I drew the No. 1 ranked wrestler in the country. So I got off to a rocky start."
But the path smoothed out as the season progressed for Thompson (11-8), who knocked off No. 1 seed Davon Gray of Central Michigan 8-7 to earn the 118-pound conference title and MAC freshman of the year honors.
"Winning the MAC as a freshman is awesome," said Thompson. "I'm really looking forward to NCAAs. That will be a great experience."
Singleton and Thompson will attempt to become the first Kent State wrestler since 1986 (Don Horning) to finish among the top eight in the nation in their respective weight class and earn All-American honors.
"We're just happy to have two guys in the tournament who will both be back next year," said Romano. "They've come a long way and they've trained hard, and now we'll just hope for the best."
Two sessions will be held each day at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.