SIOUX CITY | Keegan Hessler remembers the conversation well.
It wasn’t a pleasant talk at the time but as he looks back on it, it was certainly a motivating one.
“It sticks in my head pretty vividly,” Hessler said. “My freshman year I made some choices that weren’t the greatest for me on the mat or academically so that conversation helped change things around for me.
“Ever since then everything has been going great. We have been pushing each other and pushing the team. We keep going, keep pushing, keep changing for the better.”
Mustangs head coach Jake Stevenson sat down Hessler after he just missed All-American status as a freshman and shared his thoughts.
“When I recruited him I expected him to be a four-time All-American, and after his freshman year I told him we were never going to get that back,” Stevenson said. “I know that stung quite a bit for him and he said ‘I am definitely going to be a three-time All-American.’"
Hessler responded by coming away with a sixth-place finish at the national tournament last season as a sophomore, and seemed poises to keep his promise as he looks to climb higher on the podium.
He came to Morningside as a three-time state finalist for Scottsbluff High School in Nebraska where he won a pair of state titles and finished as the runner-up as a junior.
“We were chasing a team trophy and I went up a weight,” said Hessler of his junior prep campaign. “I was making some leaps and bounds for the team going after a team trophy and we ended up losing by a point and a half. I bumped up to wrestle the best kid in the state at that time Brent Velasquez, who happens to now be a national champion at the Division II level as a freshman. It gave me a different outlook on things. I wasn’t top dog anymore and it gave it more fuel.”
Hessler, who has a 36-14 record entering his junior campaign and is ranked second at 125 pounds, turned a corner last season after coming up one win short of All-American status as a freshman for the Mustangs. His confidence grew as the season went along and it included a victory over then No. 1-ranked Hugo Perez of Midland.
“Being in this room with our great coaching staff – you know we lost a great coach this year in coach (Josh) Hardman – he was our lower weights coach and he showed me a lot, did a lot for me. I feel like last year he pushed me to a whole other level.”
He also credits his workout partners in the room like Devin Phaly and Alex Schmitz who have pushed him to be a top-level guy. He increased his strength training in the offseason and believes he is significantly stronger than he was a season ago.
One of the biggest reasons for Hessler’s run last season came in the summer before his sophomore season as he took part in seven months of basic training for his commitment in the U.S. Army Reserve.
“I was gone from May until October just training for the Army,” he said. “It was fun, it was a different experience for sure. You go through people in your face and you learn to deal with adversity pretty well, and you get a lot of pushing to do the right things and stay on the right track. I believe I deal with that in the wrestling room as well.
“It is just another life aspect that is going to get me that much further in life adding on to what wrestling has done for me.”
Perhaps one of Hessler’s biggest obstacles to winning a national title is simply health. As a freshman he partially tore the MCL in his right knee on top of a meniscus issue he had to deal with from his final year in high school. Last year he wrestled with a partially fractured wrist.
The Mustangs enter the season ranked 12th in the nation, the highest ranked GPAC team.
“We have put in a lot of work this summer and this offseason and preseason we have put in a ton of work,” Hessler said. “We have a great freshman class, a lot of guys in there ready to bang so we are pretty excited because we have quite a few guys ranked in the GPAC about six or seven of us ranked nationally. We are pushing for not only a GPAC title but a tournament trophy as well.
Hessler is joined in the rankings by No. 2 Steven Garcia at 149, No. 13 Dakota Drenth at 157, No. 19 Jacob Wiley at 174 and No. 4 Logan Moore at 184.
“We always have high expectations but I think we are getting to the point where we are in a good spot,” Stevenson said. “The guys that are seniors this year have never won the GPAC and I know they and that is something they are very focused on.”
Morningside finished second in the GPAC a year ago with a 6-1 mark behind Concordia.