Troy Keller became the 46th wrestler to have his name added to the extensive list of All-Americans who have grappled for Niagara County Community College.
The 165-pounder ended his freshman campaign with 45 wins and six losses, the program record for technical falls in a season with 14 and a fifth-place finish at the National Junior College Athletic Association National Championships in Iowa two weeks ago.
Not bad for someone who had no expectations coming into the season.
“I just wanted to have a good year,” Keller said. “I didn’t really know if I was going to be as good as I was or if I was just going to be learning.”
Keller is no stranger to success, by any means.
He amassed 206 wins during his six-year career at North Tonawanda, good for 24th on the Section VI all-time wins list. As a senior, he was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler at the sectional championships after his large schools title and finished as the state runner-up in the 145-pound weight class.
Still, despite that, Keller didn’t know what to expect of himself. That didn’t stop Thunderwolves head coach Keith Maute from setting the bar high.
“I had expectations for him to win,” Maute said. “I didn’t know he’d be as dominant as he was. I knew he’d be good and I knew he’d be in the mix, but he got himself to another level and another gear.”
Forty-two of Keller’s 45 wins this season came via bonus point, which means they were by major decision (wins by 8-14 points.), technical fall (wins by 15 points or more), or fall (pin the opposing wrestler on his back).
As the wins piled up, Keller’s outlook started to change.
“As the season went on I realized I want to win nationals,” he said. “That’s all I want to do, but I came up short.”
Keller flew through the first two rounds at nationals with tech-fall and major-decision triumphs, but a fluke call in the quarterfinals cost him a shot at becoming the first NCCC wrestler to win a national championship since Niagara Falls native and former UFC champion Rashad Evans won the 165-pound title back in 2000.
Keller was up, 9-3, and well on his way to the semifinals when he was disqualified for an illegal mat return with one second left in the match.
“In college they don’t call it as much,” said Maute, who was named NJCAA Man of the Year at the tournament. “The refs didn’t call it at first, but their coach wanted a video review of it.
“If it’s an illegal hold that injures the guy and he can’t continue, then you lose. They claimed they couldn’t continue, but then the kid went on in the semifinals and won and was perfectly fine.”
Keller had to regroup from heartbreak and continue wrestling a half hour later.
“I wasn’t in that match at all,” Keller said. “It was actually close and I ended up winning it. I had the night off, so I went back to the hotel and slept and kind of just regathered myself for the next day. But I don’t know if I ever really came back to myself because I planned on winning it.”
He went on to win the first two matches in the consolation bracket, but lost by fall to the eventual third-place finisher before ending the meet with a medical forfeit in the fifth-place match. Keller was given the Joseph A. Rockenback Sportsmanship Award for the quarterfinal loss.
Earlier in the season Keller earned All-New York State honors for his sixth-place finish at the New York State Championships in November. He dropped a couple of tight matches to top-ranked D-I wrestlers, ones who work out three times a day year-round.
The performance put him on UB’s radar.
“That’s why they liked him so much,” Maute said. “He’s not even going through that training regimen at NCCC and he’s losing to a kid from Cornell by a point who was top 15 in the country. He was losing to a Columbia kid who qualified for the national tournament a couple times by two, and that was his second college tournament of his life. So I think that was the big thing at the New York State Collegiates, where everyone was, like, wow, look at this.”
If anyone could’ve predicted Keller’s success this season, it’s Maute, who’s witnessed the wrestler’s development ever since he walked into Maute’s Cobra Wrestling Academy in Depew a decade ago.
“He couldn’t even make any of our teams. He used to cry every single match,” Maute said. “But then after a couple years he was in it, he was on the teams and doing his thing. He was always right in the mix after that, but never the guy. And now over the past 12 months or so, even his senior year, he became what he is now.”
That transformation started to take shape last March, when Maute told the then 145-pounder that he thought he had the frame to bulk up and compete at 165.
“I basically told Troy and his parents the plan, this is what I would like,” Maute said, “because in college wrestling if you’re cutting weight, it’s a much longer season than what they’re used to. You have to make weight every single week for five months.”
So throughout the summer Keller wrestled a few days a week at Cobra and trained another couple of days at Turnbull Training in Clarence, throwing kegs and flipping tires.
“I just wanted him raw, farm strength,” Maute said.
“It fit me right away,” Keller said. “I didn’t really have to change that much.”
The added strength didn’t take away from any of the technique and quickness that helped Keller be so successful in the past.
“I still wrestle like a little guy because my junior year I was 132,” he said. “Probably the last four years I’ve grown 60 pounds, so I still wrestle like a real lightweight. The bigger guys, they’re slower while I’m still fast.”
Nationals ended on Feb. 25, a Saturday, and Keller was already back in the gym practicing three days later, on Tuesday. He plans on following the same training regimen at Cobra and Turnbull during the summer, but Maute also thinks it might be a good idea for Keller to move up to 174 next season ... if he comes back.
“If he does come back or if he goes to UB or wherever,” Maute said, “I think it’ll be beneficial for him to do it again.”
Keller’s clear that he hasn’t made up his mind yet. He still doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life career-wise, and part of the reason he chose NCCC was to give himself two years to help figure that out. Plus he also wants to see who else is coming back because he wants to have partners to practice with.
The record books would likely need some revising if Keller does end up returning to the Thunderwolves.
For one, the career technical falls record of 16 would be shattered. But of more significance, Keller would realistically have a shot at becoming the school’s fifth national champion and first in Maute’s six-year tenure.
“I expect him to win a national title like this year,” Maute said. “He will be the clear-cut leader of our team and will pave the way for the younger kids on the team and show them how it’s done.”