One would think a proven wrestling champion would be a little secretive when it comes to sharing the keys to his success.
Not Kellen Devlin.
The Amherst High School senior, two-time state champion and last year’s National High School Athletic Association 126-pound champ is sharing his blueprint for success with Western New York’s other top-end talents so that they too can have an additional edge at the season-ending state tournament.
Call it his way of giving back to the wrestling community while earning some school credit, to boot, for his government class. Call it training for perhaps his future profession as a coach.
But every Monday night at Amherst High School during the season, school is in session with Devlin as the lead instructor with a class ranging from 20 to 40 wrestlers (depending on schedules). The goal of these special workouts is for Devlin to teach his protégés what it takes to be a state champion – from mental approach to various mat tactics.
Devlin, the only area wrestler to win a state title last season, plans each practice session under the supervision of Tigers coach Dennis Bauer. Devlin then communicates his plan with his peers and then it’s time to sweat. Since these sessions are open only to higher-skill wrestlers via invitation, they practice at a fast, intense pace.
“Iron sharpens iron and everyone gets a good workout because of who they’re working out with,” said Devlin, the North Carolina State commit and Amherst’s all-time leader in wrestling wins. Being trusted to run these practices is “an honor I take very seriously. I know what it takes to get to the top level. I try to come up with the best game plan possible for Mondays and roll with it. … I know the coaches trust me. That goes a long way.”
How do coaches benefit from having a wrestler with 231 wins in 246 career matches providing additional instruction to their athletes?
“They’ve been listening to coaches for so long, I think it’s nice for them to hear the same message from a different voice,” Bauer said.
“Kellen’s gifted in a lot of ways. He’s a great communicator. When we’re in the (wrestling) room I put him on the spot to see what he’s looking for in a match. … He can articulate it so well for a teenager. He doesn’t have any problem speaking” in public.
Lockport coach Joe Scapelliti said he and Bauer had discussed ways to provide additional help to the area’s top wrestlers as a way of preparing them for the postseason. Devlin came up with this idea and suggested it to Bauer. His coach was sold.
When Bauer approached Scapelliti about doing this at Amherst, which has a new wrestling room, and having Devlin serve as instructor, Scapelliti had no reservations.
“Kellen’s accomplishments obviously speak for themselves,” Scapelliti said. “He walks into that room with instant credibility. … I’m perfectly confident with what’s going on there.
“It’s the best wrestlers our section has and it’s run by pound-for-pound the best wrestler our section has. … We’re always talking about ways to make our kids better and this is a good way to do it.”
Who better than Devlin, who is trying to become just the third Western New Yorker to ever win three state championships?
Should Devlin, who moved up from 126 pounds, make another successful run at the state title at 132, 138 or 145 pounds, he’ll be the first three-time champion since Ryan Needle of Newfane in 2003. Devlin will also join Olean’s Jeff Prescott (1985-87), the only Section VI wrestler to win three career state titles in consecutive years.
Devlin’s confident enough in his own abilities that he isn’t afraid of an apprentice taking him down using his own tactics against him. The reason: Devlin hasn’t lost a match to a local wrestler since his sophomore season.
Devlin went 46-2 last year as a junior with both of his defeats coming during a fourth-place finish at the prestigious midseason Eastern States Tournament at Sullivan County Community College in the Catskills, an invitation-only event that attracts top high school wrestlers from across the country. He will participate in that tournament again Jan. 15-16.
For all his success, one would think Devlin always has wrestling on the brain.
Turns out that is not the case. He knows how to decompress. When it’s time to relax and not think about the sport, he does just that – enjoying time with family and friends. Not thinking about winning every waking moment of the day has helped him have success, according to Bauer.
“He has always tried to get better and better,” said Bauer, a Lancaster product who wrestled at the University at Buffalo.
Devlin may not obsess about winning, but he wants to end his scholastic career as a state champion.
“It’s the perfect way to end the season,” Devlin said. “My freshman year, I lost in the state quarterfinal and right after that, I said I would never lose again in this tournament.”