Dustin Kilgore has outclassed virtually every foe that's been forced to endure his wrath throughout his wrestling career. But the dominance exhibited by Kent State's senior 197-pounder has reached another level entirely in 2012-13.
It's now a man against boys.
Kilgore is laying waste to the best competition the nation has to offer this season. He is currently 27-0 with 11 pins heading into tonight's 7 p.m. home dual with Ohio University, and has notched seven victories over four different opponents ranked among the top eight in the nation. Only two of his matches have been close, and Kilgore was never in danger of losing either one.
Kilgore was named Mid-American Conference Wrestler of the Week after going 5-0 with four pins and a forfeit at the Virginia Duals last weekend, increasing his current winning streak to 46 matches. He now has the highest pound-for-pound rating of any wrestler in the nation according to Takedown Wrestling.
"I looked forward to this season so much," said Kilgore. "I'm here to win it all. I'm very serious about winning it, I want to make it happen. I want to be a two-time national champion."
Kilgore first reached wrestling manhood nearly two years ago, when he became the Golden Flashes' first national champion grappler. After knocking off top-seed Cam Simaz 10-9 in the semifinals, Kilgore trailed second-seeded Clayton Foster of Oklahoma State 5-1 in the finals before notching a dramatic pin in the closing seconds of the second period.
"That was the best day of my life. Best feeling in the world. It was awesome," said Kilgore. "I was so excited and happy, especially because I was down by four points. I just kept going after it because I wanted it so bad."
On that day, Kilgore became a man on the mat. But his ultimate goal has always been to be the man.
"My ultimate goal is to be an Olympic champion," said Kilgore.
Kilgore fell in love with the sport of wrestling at a young age, but watching the Olympics added drive to that love.
"I remember watching Cael Sanderson win the (2004) Olympics, and right then I knew that was where I want to be," said Kilgore. "I want to be at that level some day."
His pursuit of that Olympic dream had humble beginnings.
Kilgore spurned a chance to wrestle for perennial state power Lakewood St. Edward and remained at Berea High School, which had a wrestling program -- and that was about it.
"In high school we wrestled in a small classroom with some wrestling mats, some padding on the wall, we didn't have much room," Kilgore recalled. "The program did not have very high credentials."
Overlooking the wrestling powers-that-be would become a trend for Kilgore, who also turned down an offer to wrestle for perennial national collegiate power Ohio State.
"Originally I wanted to go to Ohio State, but I changed my mind," said Kilgore. "I wanted to show people that you don't have to go to a Big Ten school or some superstar wrestling school to be a national champ and achieve your goals. It all depends on how hard you're willing to work and push yourself to get there."
Kent State coach Jim Andrassy knew Kilgore's sister was already enrolled at KSU, and pursued him "full speed ahead" after Kilgore won a Division I state championship as a junior.
"He had an opportunity to go to other schools that were much better at high school wrestling, but it was real important for him to go to a school where he grew up and where his friends were," said Andrassy. "Our big sell was, 'Hey, you can achieve your goals at Kent State.' We offered him a full-ride right off the bat, while the bigger schools see the best kids and want to give them a 60-percent scholarship. I think we took care of all the things he was concerned about."
"I went to Kent State to better myself. I loved the coaches," he said. "Even though at the time it wasn't the best program, they've done an excellent job to really turn this program around. I wanted to be one of the guys in the group that helped change this program."
MOTIVATED BY FAILURE
Goals have always been a fierce motivator for Kilgore, especially those he was unable to reach.
After capturing a state championship as a junior, Kilgore lost to Brian Roddy of Lakewood St. Edward 14-12 in overtime in the 171-pound title match his senior year.
That loss still haunts, and motivates, Kilgore to this day.
"It was devastating to me," said Kilgore. "I always have the highest goals for myself, and to not have been able to complete my goals as being a two-time state champ, then finishing third at Senior Nationals ... I had a lot of resentment there. Not achieving my high school goals has been like an extra push. I still look back to that and really regret it."
Kilgore arrived at Kent State more driven then ever, but was still able to accept a logical decision to redshirt as a true freshman.
"When I got to college it was a big difference," said Kilgore. "I went from a wresting room where I didn't have any kids at my level to compete with to guys that were beating me up. That's the experience you need, it's what makes you better. I'm very glad I took a redshirt my freshman year."
Kilgore actually went 27-1 while wrestling unattached as a true freshman, then went 33-5 and qualified for the NCAA Championships as a redshirt freshman in 2008-09 at 171 pounds. He became an All-American the following season, but finished a somewhat disappointing seventh after entering the NCAA Championships as the No. 3 seed at 184 pounds.
"My freshman and sophomore years, I learned from that," said Kilgore. "I did excellent throughout the whole year, but it's a long season and it does take a toll on your body both physically and mentally. You have to make sure you're refreshed."
Kilgore bumped up to 197 as a junior, a weight he can easily maintain, and enjoyed his breakout year. He finished 38-2, closing the season with 19 consecutive victories, and reached the pinnacle of collegiate wrestling when he stunned Foster with a late second-period pin.
"We'd never had a national champion in wrestling at Kent State, and I'm so stoked that I was able to complete that goal for myself and really put this school on the map in wrestling," said Kilgore. "I hope in the future other guys see that and say I can go to Kent State and achieve my goals, because Dustin Kilgore did it."
How he earned the title made it even more special, according to Andrassy.
"If you look back at that championship match and who is the better wrestler, say first takedown wins the match, that kid would probably take Dustin down first every time," said Andrassy. "But (Foster) literally just got tired. Dustin wore him down."
Kilgore is a massive, muscle-bound specimen who intimidates foes with his physical appearance alone. But even though his strength is incredible, it's not his biggest asset, according to Andrassy.
"I think, now, he scares some people just by how he looks, and when he squeezes them," said Andrassy. "But I don't think two years ago he would go out and muscle anybody. It's the way he wrestles as far as going nonstop. He can wrestle seven hard minutes without getting tired, and most people can't do that."
Unlike most elite wrestlers in the upperweights, Kilgore also has an extremely aggressive style.
"I'm very offensive," Kilgore smiled. "I take a lot of shots."
His ability to score points in bunches as an upperweight wrestler amazes Andrassy.
"You look back at how many guys are able to score 10 points that are big guys, and he scored 10 points in every single match (at the 2011 NCAA Championships) except for the finals match, and he pinned (Foster)," said Andrassy. "I think he would have hit 10 points in that match if it would have kept going. There's not too many guys that can do that in the heavier weights. He gives up some points, but when you're scoring 10 points, you can give up a few here and there."
No one has benefitted more from Kilgore's relentless attacking style than redshirt senior teammate Casey Newburg, who is his drill partner. Newburg never placed in the state tournament while wrestling for Northmont High School, but is currently 25-4 at 184 pounds for the Flashes.
"I don't think I got a takedown on anyone from 165 up for the first couple months of practice (as a freshman)," said Newburg. "I've gotten so much better just from wrestling Kilgore. Right now I'm at a level that I didn't even know I would be able to get to when I walked in my freshman year."
After battling Kilgore every day at practice, actual matches offer a break of sorts for Newburg.
"It's tough coming in every day, and sometimes you get beat on," he said. "Every time you wrestle him, you've gotta be prepared to go as hard as you can for as long as you can. He just goes so hard all time, he has a really high level of conditioning. When you wrestle him you bring your level up to his. It's definitely helped me achieve some of my goals."
BACK FOR MORE
Another one of Kilgore's goals was to take an Olympic redshirt season while at Kent State.
"I set my goals coming in," Kilgore recalled. "I told myself I want to be a two-time national champion, I want to be an Olympian and I want to take an Olympic redshirt. It's funny how things are falling into place."
Olympians wrestle freestyle while collegians wrestle folkstyle, and Kilgore struggled with the adjustment at first.
"I competed in the U.S. Open, one of the best freestyle tournaments in the country, and I didn't place. I went 2-2, and I was very upset," said Kilgore. "Then I went out and trained with my freestyle coaches (at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs), and maybe three weeks later I headed to the World Team Trials in Oklahoma City and I ended up taking third. It blew my mind. I went from not placing to taking third in an even bigger tournament."
After spending a year battling elite wrestlers of all ages from across the globe, Kilgore returned to Kent State for his senior year far more skilled and confident than ever before.
"You definitely have high hopes, especially when you take an Olympic redshirt and you're able to train with the absolute best guys in the country, as well as in the world," said Kilgore, who is on pace to graduate from KSU with a degree in criminal justice this spring. "I think it's all about having a good head on our shoulders, being positive. Just knowing that you've been able to train with such a high caliber of guys gives you the feeling that you should be doing nothing but going out there and dominating."
Kilgore was ranked first in the country at 197 entering the 2012-13 season, and he's certainly proved worthy of the ranking.
"I love the folkstyle grind, just beating up on guys. Literally, you're trying to hurt people," he smiled. "I love to dominate. I love that feeling of domination and knowing that you're the best in the country, now go out and prove it."
When asked how the Kent State coaches are helping Kilgore this season, Andrassy chuckled at first.
"We just try to help him correct some of the tiny things he's doing wrong, but it's hard to even see those things because he goes out and dominates kids," said Andrassy. "The biggest thing is just making sure we don't physically wear him out."
Kilgore's clean lifestyle helps keep his body fresh, according to Andrassy.
"He doesn't party, doesn't abuse his body. He's really demanding on his sleep," said Andrassy. "In five years here, he's never been hurt. He takes care of his body."
All that good, clean living gives Kilgore energy to burn.
"Some people get annoyed with me because I'm too energetic, I have too much energy," he laughed. "I'm energetic, fun to be around, I love to be goofy. I'm such an upbeat, happy person all the time, and I think that's part of what keeps me stress-free and feeling so good throughout the season."
FIRST THING'S FIRST
When his collegiate career soon comes to a close, Kilgore will begin to pursue his Olympic dream on a full-time basis.
"I'm not exactly sure when I'll be heading out to Colorado. I may go in April to start training in freestyle, or if not, in May," he said. "The World Team Trials are in June, and that's probably the most important tournament (of the year in freestyle). Everyone wants to make the World Team, and that's my goal as soon as nationals are over. You win the world tournament and you're top dog. I'd love to win a world title."
But first Kilgore has his sites set firmly on becoming a two-time national champion at Kent State, and the school's first three-time All-American. He will be a prohibitive favorite to secure title No. 2 at the 2013 NCAA Championships, which will be held March 21-23 in Des Moines, Iowa.
"I'm feeling good, physically and mentally. I have such a fresh mind and I'm so excited to wrestle and compete," said Kilgore. "When it comes down to nationals, I'm hoping that I feel then like I do now."
That comfortable feeling is part of what makes Kilgore so tough to beat.
"Dustin's done so much and wrestled in so many places that every match is just another match to him," said Andrassy. "For most kids in college (a national championship) is their ultimate goal, but he's above that. It's enabled him to relax, just go out and wrestle to his full ability all the time.
"His biggest goal is to win a gold medal. When that time comes he'll have to deal with some nerves."
The relentless pursuit of lofty goals has made Kilgore the man he is today on the mat, and could ultimately make him one of the men sporting a gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
"I've got a long way to go to fulfill that goal," said Kilgore. "I'm getting after it."