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Kent State's Dustin Kilgore returns to college, ready to make run at 2nd NCAA title
Craig Sesker USA Wrestling

Dustin Kilgore (in blue) won three international tournaments in freestyle wrestling during his Olympic redshirt season. Larry Slater photo.

Dustin Kilgore realized his first international tournament was going to be challenging enough.

So he figured the less he knew about his opponents the less intimidated and overwhelmed he might be during the experience.

When Kilgore walked onto the mat for his very first freestyle match in an overseas event, he had a request for U.S. Assistant National Coach Brandon Slay.

“Don’t tell me what this guy’s credentials are,” Kilgore told Slay. “I just want to go out there and see what I can do.”

Kilgore’s game plan worked. He knocked off Turkey’s Serhat Balci 3-0, 1-3, 1-0 in the first round of the Heydar Aliyev Golden Grand Prix event in July 2011 in Baku, Azerbaijan. Balci went on to win a World silver medal that year.

“The Turk was a big, strong guy, but I just went out and wrestled hard,” Kilgore said. “He got upset with me during the match and threw a punch. I knew I was doing something right because he got frustrated and started to break. Slay told me afterwards who he was. I was real ecstatic and real excited when I found out. It was a great international win for me.”

That win was one of many Kilgore collected on the Senior level in freestyle wrestling while taking an Olympic redshirt during the 2011-12 school year. Kilgore spent a year at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs after winning an NCAA title for Kent State in 2011.

Now a college senior, Kilgore is ranked No. 1 nationally at 197 pounds. He is 10-0 this season for the Golden Flashes. He became the school’s first NCAA wrestling champion in 2011.

“Everything is going really well,” Kilgore said. “It’s been a smooth transition, going back to college. I had no trouble at all getting back down to 197. I am keeping my weight down and I feel great.”

Kilgore’s punishing, hard-charging style has served him well as he adjusts to folkstyle wrestling again at the college level.

“I like wrestling freestyle, but I like folkstyle better,” he said. “With my style of wrestling, it’s literally a grind match in folkstyle where I can hold guys down on the mat and wear them out. The folkstyle matches are longer and conditioning is definitely more of a factor. I wish the matches were 10 minutes long.”

Kilgore made major gains on the mat during his Olympic redshirt season while competing at 96 kg/211.5 lbs.

He won the Sunkist Kids International, the Cerro Pelado International in Cuba and the Pan American Championships. He also made the University World Team for the U.S.

“The Olympic redshirt year was an unbelievable experience,” he said. “I worked with some of the best coaches in the World, and it opened my eyes to a whole new style of wrestling. It was exciting to be able to travel around the World. And living in Colorado, I loved it out there with the mountains and the rivers I could fish. I really enjoyed it out there.”

Kilgore plans to return to Colorado Springs after his senior season at Kent State.

“I want to make the World Team next year,” said Kilgore, who placed third in the 2011 World Team Trials. “I know what it’s like to train with the best guys in the World, including (2012 Olympic gold medalist) Jake Varner. It was an excellent experience for me to see what it is like training and wrestling on the Senior level.

“Right now, I’m not even worrying about that. I have to keep my mind on the college season. I feel like my chances are just as good as anyone else’s of making the World Team. I will be a little smaller because I am wrestling 197 in college. I will need to get bigger and stronger after the college season. The biggest year for me is going to be for the next Olympics in 2016. That’s what I am working toward.”

The hard-working Kilgore was a joy for U.S. coaches to work with during his time in the Springs.

"Dustin’s hungry, he's young, he doesn't know any better, and he believes he can beat everybody,” U.S. National Coach Zeke Jones said. “You've got to love that attitude. He's extremely coachable and happy-go-lucky.”

“I like the progress Dustin is making. He made a lot of gains during his Olympic redshirt year and definitely learned the freestyle game. He needs to grow into the weight class some more, but he really still is growing. I think he’ll be a perfect size for 96 kg in the next year.”

Kilgore worked closely with Slay, a 2000 Olympic gold medalist, during his time in Colorado Springs.

"Dustin had a full-time freestyle focus,” Slay said. “He made huge strides in his overall awareness of freestyle technique, positions, strategy, and mat awareness. He gained a lot of experience from all of his international competitions as well. Because of the support Kilgore received from his club, the Sunkist Kids, he was able to compete internationally in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Poland, Cuba and Finland. All of this freestyle experience and international exposure will bode well for him after he graduates from Kent State and commits fully to winning an Olympic gold medal in Rio in 2016."

Kilgore is on track to earn his degree from Kent State in criminal justice in the spring. Once he completes this semester, Kilgore said he will need to take only one class in the next semester to finish school.

“It means everything to our program to have Dustin back,” Kent State coach Jim Andrassy said. “The presence he brings and the way he wrestles has a big impact on our guys. He wins a lot of matches because of how he wears guys down. He is a lot bigger and stronger than he was two years ago. He is so much more physical now. He is a workhorse. He practices hard and wrestles hard. He’s a great example of doing things the right way. No doubt, he’s a special young man.”

Kilgore and his Kent State teammates are scheduled to compete at the Cliff Keen Invitational this weekend in Las Vegas. The Golden Flashes are ranked 17th nationally.

“It will be a good test for us,” he said. “It’s a tough tournament, and we are looking forward to getting some good matches in.”

Kilgore has led the resurgence with the wrestling program at Kent State, which is located about a 45-minute drive from his hometown of Berea, Ohio.

“The program has changed and developed a lot since I came here,” Kilgore said. “We have great coaches who have done an amazing job. We don’t get a lot of multiple state champs coming in here. We get a lot of hard working, dedicated kids who develop into good wrestlers. I have loved my time here. Kent State is a great school with a great campus, great facilities and great people. I would recommend this school to anyone.”

Kilgore now takes aim at capping his college career with a second NCAA title for the Golden Flashes.

“I just need to do what I’ve done before,” he said. “I want it just as bad as I wanted the first one. I won state as a junior in high school and finished second as a senior, and I don’t want a repeat of what happened in high school. I’m training and working very hard, and I’m very persistent about wanting to win this again. I know guys are gunning for me. I just need to be aggressive and stay in their faces. I need to keep wrestling hard and wrestling smart.”

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