McKendree wrestling's program has been a model of consistency at the Division II level. Head coach James Kisgen has guided the Bearcats to top-10 finishes in each of the last eight NCAA Division II championships. This past season, McKendree compiled a 16-1 dual meet record. Kisgen was named was GLVC's Coach of the Year after McKendree won its fourth conference title in five seasons. Kisgen has been named Coach of the Year by the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) four times.
MatBoss caught up with Kisgen and talked to him about this past season, McKendree's top wrestlers, Sam Schmitz leaving the program and expectations for next season.
You finished this past season 16-1 in dual meets, with your only loss coming to Newberry at the National Duals. Placed fifth at the National Duals. What allowed your team to have such a strong dual meet season? Was it your balance?
Kisgen: We had a pretty deep team. We were young. We only graduated one kid. We only had one senior and one junior, but everybody else was pretty young. So we had some depth, but we're useful. Not everybody brought their A game every day, but we had enough depth to be able to withstand it if some kids weren't wrestling well. When we went out to the National Duals we had gotten hit really hard with COVID. COVID just came and had that big surge then and we had nine kids test positive in that week. We had 18 kids in quarantine when we went to the National Duals. So we had kind of a hodgepodge, tape-together team when we went there. We had our backup 174 pounder wrestling 197. We had to figure it out, so it was crazy. Our only loss last year was to Newbery in the first round of the National Duals. They wrestled a really good dual. But I think some of that was that we didn't know what the heck to expect with the team that we were putting out there.
You won the Great Lakes Valley Conference title, beating Indianapolis in the championship. It was your fourth GLVC title in five years. How important is the conference title to your program? How much emphasis do you put on it?
Kisgen: We put a lot of a lot of emphasis on it. It's the teams that we wrestle most all year long. When we get to go head-to-head with them we definitely want to try to win. We've kind of established some rivalries, which I think is easily important for Division II wrestling. I know there are some high-profile rivalries in Division I. Dual meets that everyone wants to watch. On a smaller scale I'd like to have some high-profile rivalries in Division II. I'm trying to emphasize that with my team, starting with the GLVC. Those are the teams that are closest to us. Some of our rivalries are not so much sport-specific, but more conference related. So I'm really trying to generate that interest on my campus and trying to get that to spread a little bit.
You placed in the top 10 at the national tournament this past season with six national qualifiers and two All-Americans. How did you feel about your team's national tournament performance?
Kisgen: I was pretty disappointed. I think our team was pretty disappointed too. We just kind of stumbled a little bit. We were really hoping to make a run at it. We didn't know if we had enough firepower to contend, but we certainly thought that we could get trophy. We just stumbled a little bit. It kind of started two weeks before at the region tournament. We had some kids not get out of the region tournament that we had high hopes for. It kind of shook us a little bit and then we just never recovered. We took ninth. Two All-Americans is probably the lowest amount of All-Americans that we've ever had in history and one of the lowest finishes we've ever had. So we weren't very excited about it.
Cory Peterson finished third at the national tournament to repeat as an All-American. He dropped a close semifinal match to Parkside's Shane Gantz. What makes him special?
Kisgen: He is really talented. That kid is going to be really good. He's just really explosive. He's a lot quicker and a lot more powerful than he appears. I think his opponents come off the mat kind of surprised by his skill level. I think he's just breaking out right now. I think next year he's going to have a really good year. He's just kind of really starting to learn the mental game. The physical attributes have always been there for him, even when he was a little kid. But the mental game is starting to develop for him. He's putting in a lot of work, spending some time in the offseason really training hard. He's just becoming a really well-rounded wrestler. So when his confidence starts building he's going to be really tough.
Christian Mejia was an All-American at 125 pounds in 2021. He was ranked in the top five heading into this year's national tournament. Ended up going 1-2. What does he need to get back on the podium and contend for a national title?
Kisgen: I think he just needs to refocus. He started out pretty strong this year. He was ranked No. 1 in the country for quite a while. Then he was just kind of on cruise control a little bit. He had some good wins in the second half of the season, but then had some bad losses. I think we kind of just blew those off a little bit, and said, it's OK, we'll recover, but didn't follow that up with some urgency. I think he's extremely disappointed in his national tournament performance. He's extremely motivated. He also kind of got bumped and bruised a little bit towards the end of the season. I think he just needs to refocus. He's really tough. He's a tough wrestler. He's beaten almost everybody in Division II at one point or another. He can beat anybody.
Your heavyweight Ian Kuehl was the GLVC Wrestler of the Year. Really had a strong season. What's he capable of in the coming years?
Kisgen: Honestly, from my biased opinion, he's capable of winning the national title. He's good. This past year he qualified for the national tournament, lost in the quarters to the defending national champion and then lost in the blood round to the defending national runner-up, a kid he had beaten earlier in the season. So he's that caliber. He plays football as well. I think he's already made a decision that he's going to not play football any longer and focus solely on wrestling because he sees his own potential as well. When that happens, he's going to be a major player at heavyweight Division II. When he's focused solely on wrestling, you're going to see some major jumps with him.
Your program has been in Division II since the 2013-14 season. What are your thoughts on the current state of Division II wrestling? Do you like where it's at?
Kisgen: I do. There's just a lot of instability with a lot of programs making moves. A lot of schools are transitioning into Division I and things like that. There's some talk about growth. Some schools that don't sponsor wrestling in Division II that are starting to look really hard at establishing programs. I like where we're at in Division II. I think we're in a good place.
One of your assistant coaches Sam Schmitz recently accepted a position as director of wrestling at Central Methodist. What kind of void does he leave?
Kisgen: That's a huge void. Sam is a really good coach. He does a lot of things for McKendree wrestling. He was the head coach for women's program and was doing a phenomenal job with that. He was my main guy on the men's side too. So he leaves a big void here. He just won three women's titles in a row. So it's not an easy void to fill.
You return five of your six national qualifiers. When you look ahead to next season, how good can the team be? What are they capable of?
Kisgen: I think we can be really good. The sky is the limit. Some of the kids that we have on our team are developing fast. I think we can be major contenders, but it takes a lot of work. The experience we gained this year was really, really big. I think if we can harness that, we're going to be pretty good. If we learn from that and understand that it's not a two-week season or a six-week season like it was in 2021, I think we're going to be really good. How good? That's yet to be seen because we're young. Sometimes with youth comes some inconsistency. So it's important for us to be as consistent as possible. If we can do that, we're going to be pretty good.