Derek Skala knew what he was hired to do. He didn’t expect what he got.
Simley wrestling coach Will Short brought in Skala, a 2012 NCAA Division II wrestling champion at St. Cloud State, as an assistant coach this season. His No. 1 duty? Provide junior Daniel Kerkvliet with a training partner.
With no one on the high school team able to keep up with Kerkvliet, Short had to find a way to keep him sharp.
“I expected him to be at 195 [pounds],” said Skala, whose national title was at 184. “He came in weighing about 215 and is wrestling at 220. It’s amazing how powerful this kid is. I’m sore every day.”
Kerkvliet, one of the nation’s top high school juniors, is ranked No. 3 overall in the class of 2019 by Flowrestling.com. A devastating combination of power, athleticism and grit, he’s a two-time individual state champion. Last August, Kerkvliet won the 100 kg weight class at the Cadet World Championships in Athens.
“He is one of the most dominant high school wrestlers of all-time,” said Short, who knows wrestling. His father, Jim, built Simley’s elite program. Will Short was a two-time state champion and an All-America at the University of Minnesota. The Short family received the Legacy Award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for excellence in the sport.
“I always knew he’d be outstanding,” said Short, who has known Kerkvliet since he was a 6-year-old. “He has that inner drive, that intrinsic motive to be great.”
When Kerkvliet takes the mat Friday in the Class 2A individual tournament, he will be seeking his third consecutive state title, having won previous titles at 170 and 195 pounds. It would be the next step in a plan that includes college, national and international competitions and, if all goes well, the Olympics.
For Kerkvliet, it’s all about moving forward. If it helps him get better, he’s willing to do it, including training with an experienced wrestler 13 years his senior.
“Derek has helped me a lot,” Kerkvliet said. “He’s shown me a little trick here and there, and he’s got the experience in a college wrestling room.”
Recalled Skala, “I could tell right away how much he wanted to learn. He loves the sport.’’
In early February, Kerkvliet agreed to move up to heavyweight to face Apple Valley’s Gable Steveson, who hasn’t lost a match since eighth grade. He knew it would be the one match all season in which he would be the underdog and likely lose.
“Having a big match like that doesn’t happen every day,” he said. “I was up for it.”
Giving up more than 40 pounds, Kerkvliet, who weighed in at 213, stymied Steveson for much of the match before a third-period takedown led to a 3-2 loss.
As usual, he turned that a short-term setback into long-term gain.
“What I got out of it?” said Kerkvliet, repeating the question. “I learned what I need to work on. My hand-fighting. Getting stronger.”
Kerkvliet, who is 6-2, will indeed get stronger as he matures. It’s his size that led him to change his college commitment from Minnesota to Oklahoma State. Steveson was also headed to Minnesota, leading Kerkvliet to surmise the program didn’t need two heavyweights. He likely would have been asked to wrestle at 197 pounds.
“I’d gotten bigger since I made my commitment,” he said. “I thought ‘Do I really want to cut [weight] for four, five years?’ ”
His college plans finalized, his eyes are trained on the next few days in pursuit of another state championship, considered a near certainty.
“I don’t seem him losing again in high school,” Short said.