Elyria freshman Kevin Vough was disappointed with his third-place finish in the Division I state wrestling tournament a month ago. So to help soothe the pain of falling short in his quest to win a state title, the heavyweight went out and captured a national championship last weekend.
Vough pounded his way through the 285-pound bracket — and the top three seeds — to win the championship at FLO Nationals at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s a big confidence booster,” Vough said. “It lets me know that I can beat some of the really big (-name) guys. It feels nice to get my name out there, but I know I can’t get a big head and I have to continue to work hard.”
The game plan has worked well.
Pioneers assistant coach Chris Chidlaw, who accompanied Vough to the FLO tournament, said the young athlete rarely takes a day off and improves drastically in short bursts of time.
“What I’ve noticed about Kevin from December until now, even from the state tournament until now, he looks like a different wrestler,” Chidlaw said. “He’s probably put on 10 pounds of muscle since the state tournament.”
The ability to continually improve has helped Vough beat top-level talent on the mat and, more importantly, avenge earlier defeats.
That played a big part in his national championship victory. Vough faced two-time Michigan state champion — and three-time state finalist — Ryan Prescott in the FLO final.
“So we knew we were facing the No. 1 seed in the final,” Chidlaw said. “I watched film from less than a year ago when Kevin wrestled the guy and it wasn’t even close … that guy had destroyed Kevin.”
But Vough had been destroyed by guys on the mat before.
“The (2014 Division I) state champion (Andrew Alten) from Loveland beat me twice earlier in the (high school) season,” Vough said. “He pinned me at Ironman, then we met in a dual meet and he beat me 5-2. Then we met in another dual meet and I beat him 5-2.
“I’m always working to improve and it helps when you’re able to keep closing the gap on a tough guy like that.”
But the odds seemed stacked against the young wrestler in the FLO final. He was facing an upperclassman that had pinned him in their last meeting, was wrestling on a stage elevated 4 feet (higher than in the finals of the Ohio high school state tournament) and “they had cameras that were like ESPN-type cameras that moved all around and got different angles … so it was a little intimidating,” Chidlaw said.
Vough’s confidence had to be further shaken when Prescott came out aggressively, threw Vough for a takedown and tilted him for a two-second nearfall and a quick 4-0 lead.
“But what he did differently this time was he was able to get an escape instead of getting turned and pinned,” Chidlaw said of Vough. “That’s one of the things we preach — being the last to score in a period.”
Vough chose the down position to start the second period and earned a quick reversal to make it 4-3, then rode Prescott for most of the period. Prescott was hit with a stalling warning and a stall point to tie the match, then regained the one-point lead by escaping with just seconds left in the period.
“We almost locked up riding time but ended up needing three more seconds,” Chidlaw said.
Prescott, knowing a riding point was almost a given if he chose bottom, decided to begin in the neutral position at the start of the third period.
“We’ve watched the kid’s other matches and he tired out in the third period,” Chidlaw said. “So we just kept pushing the pace, pushing the pace and nearly got a couple takedowns, and then with four seconds left in the match we got another stall call to tie the match.
“In overtime, the kid got in on our legs twice, and on the second time we were able to get our hips back and spin behind and get the two.”
Vough said the early deficit didn’t shake him, and neither did the earlier loss to Prescott.
“I let myself know that he beat me, but I kept telling myself that I worked harder than him (since that meeting),” Vough said. “I kept telling myself that this time it was going to be different.”
Vough was barely on the mat during the opening day of the two-day tournament. He received a first-round bye, then pinned Shane Lowman in the first period of their second-round match.
Vough faced the No. 3 seed — New Jersey state placer Stephen Johnson — in the quarterfinals, and scored a 3-2 win when he earned a pair of escapes to counter a takedown, then rode out Johnson during the third period to earn the riding time point.
In the semifinals, Vough faced No. 3-seeded Tate Orndorff, who was the Washington state champion and the national runner-up at Fargo, where Vough failed to place. Vough stopped three throws by Orndorff and dominated for an 8-3 win.
“It was just exciting to see how he battled to beat the 3 seed, the 2 seed and the 1 seed,” Chidlaw said. “It wasn’t like he pinned all those guys, but they were all upperclassmen. The guy from New Jersey was a senior and the other two guys were juniors with a lot of credentials.”
In what has become his trademark, Vough was back in the weight room Sunday morning and rolling on the mats in the Elyria wrestling room with Pioneers coach Erik Burnett on Monday.
The FLO win was nice, but Vough still has his sights set on a few other tournaments.
“He’s got FILA Cadets coming up in Akron and he wants to win that, and then Fargo,” Burnett said. “He kind of takes it tournament by tournament, but Kevin wants to win every time he steps on the mat.”
There’s also the matter of three high school state tournaments in his future.
“Kevin had a great state tournament except for one match,” Chidlaw said, “and I think if that tournament’s wrestled again, it’s not even close.”