Striving for greatness: Winner Area's Kaden Keiser named Republic's wrestler of the year

Jeremy Karll, The Daily Republic, Mitchell, S.D.
·9 min read

Mar. 6—WINNER — Kaden Keiser rested his head on the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center wrestling mat for a couple of seconds.

He was taking the rare moment to soak in his third consecutive state championship, a 13-6 decision over Howard's Lane Miller at 145 pounds. As the Winner Area junior walked off the mat, he didn't add any extra theatrics, despite his year filled with on-the-mat fireworks during a 40-0 season.

It's not how Keiser is wired. He's confident in every tournament, but doesn't let it go to his head. He can earn a tech fall, but still be upset he didn't get a pin.

Keiser doesn't want to simply be great — he wants to be an all-timer. So when he places his head on the mat for a couple of seconds and looks through his legs, it's truly to take it all in before focusing on next season seemingly as he steps off the mat.

"That night I'd celebrate and go out to eat with family and friends," Keiser said, who has also won championships at 120 and 126 pounds. "But the very next day, it's on my mind to win the next one and work for that next one."

It's not an act, or a way to draw attention. By Monday, he's back in the wrestling room preparing for offseason tournaments and on his quest for an elusive fourth state title. He joined Kirk Bainter and teammate Sam Kruger as the only three-time state champions in program history, but to him, he's only 75 percent of the way toward a goal he put in writing when he was 10 years old.

"Of course, people around the community have been telling him, 'Congratulations,' and he said to me last night, 'I don't like all this attention,' " Kaden's mom Jaime Keiser said. "He said, 'I accomplished that goal and now I have to set another goal and work on that next one.' "

Keiser was unanimously named the Mitchell Republic wrestler of the year, becoming the first Winner Area wrestler to receive the honor.

Six other wrestlers received votes: Winner Area's Sam Kruger, Wessington Springs/Woonsocket/Wolsey-Wessington's Quinten Christensen, Chamberlain's Gabe Skustad, Kimball/White Lake/Platte-Geddes' Kasen Konstanz, Howard's Lane Miller and Burke/Gregory's Owen Hansen.

A wrestling lifestyle

Keiser has always been goal-oriented. When he was 10 years old, he wrote on a board at home a list of accomplishments he hoped to achieve as a wrestler: four-time state champ, wrestle in college and goals as a collegiate wrestler.

"He wanted to be a four-time state champ since he knew what it was," childhood friend and former practice partner Wyatt Turnquist said.

A lot of wrestlers have that goal, and many have a strong work ethic. What separates Keiser from that group is his mindset. Turnquist describes it as "stubborn" because when Keiser puts his mind to something, he makes sure he accomplishes it.

For wrestling, that means having his lifestyle revolve around the sport.

He doesn't drink soda or eat candy, and when holidays roll around, he asks for gifts to help him become a better wrestler, like a treadmill. For Christmas four years ago, his parents gave him a Sleep Number bed so he could track his sleep to make sure a lack of sleep didn't hurt his training.

"He's always thinking about the next goal and what he needs to accomplish," Jaime Keiser said.

He also grew up around coaches, who preached goal-setting, whether Jaime as the volleyball coach, his dad, Kevin, an assistant football coach, or his uncle, Jayd Schuyler, an assistant wrestling coach. He'd tag along to practices, and with Schuyler, was able to "absorb the sport" by attending middle school wrestling practices in elementary school.

Schuyler saw the same hyper-focused, goal-driven wrestler when he started to train Keiser in kindergarten. If he told him to lift weights, Keiser lifted. If he told him to run, Keiser ran.

And he also saw that confident mentality during a summer team camp in Denver, Colorado, in 2013.

"He hung out with the high school kids," Schuyler said about a youthful Keiser. "He jumps in their bed at the motel and says, 'Move over, the big dog's here.' That was his attitude."

Becoming an all-time great

The significance of a third state title and undefeated season isn't lost on the junior. But it's also never the legacy he envisioned.

Evidenced by his goal board growing up, Keiser doesn't shy away from lofty goals. He's made it clear he wants to be remembered among the South Dakota wrestling greats.

Keiser points toward Chamberlain's Nash Hutmacher, Canton's Kellyn March and Wagner's Robert Kokesh, not only for their dominance but also how March and Kokesh parlayed prep success into a collegiate career.

"I want to make a name for myself and be known as one of the all-time greats in South Dakota history for wrestling," Keiser said. "And for everyone to remember me through the years."

For someone who hasn't lost to a South Dakota wrestler in two seasons — both of his losses as a sophomore came to Chris Williams, of Valentine, Nebraska — that's what motivates him. He wants to be dominant, citing being taken down four times during the entire season as too many.

But the meticulous attitude is part of what makes him special. He sweats the small details, even if it ends in a win. If he gets taken down, he goes to the film room to make sure his next opponent can't attack him the same way.

For Keiser, being undefeated isn't good enough. As a senior, he doesn't want to be taken down or scored on, unless he's letting an opponent to their feet for another quick takedown.

"Sometimes it's kind of a headache as a coach because the little stuff that bugs him you're like, 'That's not that big of a deal, Kaden,' " Winner Area coach Spencer Novotny said. "Having a kid that's such a technician, if he messes up, if he gets taken down, he's sitting there watching film."

Novotny started coaching during Keiser's seventh-grade year, and despite Keiser being undersized, he inserted him at 106 pounds. In his first tournament, he took third place, and Keiser instantly knew he could hold his own at the varsity level.

He took sixth place at the state tournament, and then placed runner-up as an eighth-grader, denying him a chance as a five-time champion. Canton's Braden Sehr took him down, 4-3, in triple overtime, a match Keiser still thinks about every day.

"I let it go now and keep it as motivation to go get the next one and keep working," he said about the last time he lost a state tournament match.

Keiser's success has been parallel with Winner Area's rise, amassing four consecutive Class B runner-up finishes. It's partly due to his state championships, but also the knowledge and work ethic he brings in the wrestling room.

He's helping build the culture, whether that's by connecting with underclassmen when leading a smaller group in practice, or helping with AAU practices in his free time. Novotny said 160-pound sophomore Jack Kruger improved this season in part to Keiser being his new practice partner after Turnquist graduated.

"We have kids all the time throughout the year, they'll hit a tilt and I'll be like, 'Hey, where did you get that at?' " Novotny said. "And they'll be like, 'Kaden showed me that.' That's big in the program."

In a way, it's instilling in the rest of his team the work ethic he found working with Turnquist, who "beat up on me a little bit" to make Keiser tougher, more technical and improve his tilts.

"Every day we practice together, we're not going through the motions, we're trying to get better," said Turnquist, who wrestles at Northern State University. "... What I instilled in him and what he's instilled in me is we're going to get the most out of every practice no matter who we're with. I think he's carrying that forward."

Keiser's goal is to wrestle in college, but while he's had contact with the University of Nebraska, Northern State University, Augustana University, among others, he's going to wait until after next season to make a decision.

First, he wants to check "four-time state champ" off his list.

"He has a rare quality that you very seldom see in athletes," Schuyler said. "I've coached 23 state finalists at the high school level and 11 champions, and he has something rare that gives him the ability to be successful. A lot of people have that hard work. He has hard work plus the ability that he's going to win."

Here's a look at the other wrestlers who received points in the voting:

Sam Kruger, Winner Area (13): Kruger finished the season 38-0 at 170 pounds, with a third state championship. He joined Keiser and Bainter as the only three-time state champs in Winner Area history.

Quinten Christensen, WSWWW (12): Christensen capped a 38-1 campaign with a pin in overtime in the 285-pound championship match. He had three pins in the state tournament.

Gabe Skustad, Chamberlain (8): At 145 pounds, Skustad earned the No. 1 seed in the Class A state tournament. He picked up two pins and narrowly defeated Pierre's Tyson Johnson, 3-2, in the championship match. He finished 45-4.

Kasen Konstanz, KWLPG (3): Konstanz won his first state championship as a freshman. He finished 35-1 and had two pins in the state tournament.

Owen Hansen, Burke/Gregory (3): Hansen upset Philip Area's top-seeded Jadyn Coller, 6-2, in the 126-pound championship match. He went 39-3 this year, including three tech falls to open the state tournament.

Lane Miller, Howard (1): Miller finished 39-1 this year, with his only loss to Keiser in the 145-pound championship match. He will wrestle at Dakota Wesleyan University next year.

Past award winners: 1996: B.J. Jones, Mitchell; 1997: B.J. Jones, Mitchell; 1998: Hannon Hisek, Bon Homme; 1999: Matt Evers, Mitchell; 2000: T.J. Christensen, Mitchell; 2001: Andy Everson, Mitchell; 2002: Andy Everson, Mitchell; 2003: Nate Hansen, Gregory; 2004: Tyson Reiner, Mitchell; 2005: Tyson Reiner, Mitchell; 2006: Riley Reiff , Parkston; 2007: Riley Reiff, Parkston; 2008: Dan Koupal, Wagner; 2009: Robert Kokesh, Wagner; 2010: Robert Kokesh, Wagner; 2011: Brent Havlik, Mitchell; 2012: Alex Kocer, Wagner; 2013: Brady Reiff, Parkston; 2014: Luke Loudenburg, Howard; 2015: Blake Bietz, Parkston; 2016: Blake Bietz, Parkston; 2017: Nash Hutmacher, Chamberlain; 2018: Nash Hutmacher, Chamberlain; 2019: Nash Hutmacher, Chamberlain; 2020: Nash Hutmacher, Chamberlain; 2021: Kaden Keiser, Winner Area.