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Matt Keller making his mark at Tennessee-Chattanooga

Matt Keller has attended two colleges and had three different head coaches over the past three seasons.

But even with all the changes and transition, the senior standout at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has never felt more comfortable than he has this season.

The three-time NCAA qualifier is off to a blazing 11-0 start and is ranked second nationally under new UTC head coach Chris Bono.

The 133-pounder knocked off defending national champion Matt Valenti of Penn en route to winning the title at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational earlier this month.

Eighth at the NCAA Championships last season, Keller is focused on ascending to the top of the All-American podium this season.

"All I care about is March and the national tournament," Keller said. "I know I can wrestle with anybody in the country, I've just never got over that hump where I do it at the right time. I've been finding ways to lose in March and I have to find ways to win. That's what I'm working on."

Improving his stamina is one area Keller has placed more emphasis on this year.

"I am going to scrap and fight for every single point of every single match," Keller said. "My goal is to make my opponent struggle to get back to the center of the mat in the third period. I want to beat guys with my conditioning. My style calls for constant pressure. I am going to pound on you and stay on you for seven minutes."

Bono, a past NCAA champion at Iowa State and a three-time U.S. World Team member in freestyle, said he is impressed with Keller's fast start this season.

"Once Matt became an All-American the realization of being a national champion was right in front of him," Bono said. "He's always been a tough, hard-nosed kid. He's doing everything right and has no distractions. He's home now and he's settled in. He believes in our system and he wants to win.

"He wants to pin everybody and he's a kid who wants to score a lot of points. He wrestles the way you're supposed to."

Keller and his UTC teammates pulled off a key early season win with a 28-13 win over No. 14 Ohio State on Sunday, Dec. 17 in Columbus, Ohio. Keller recorded a fall for the Mocs, who are 5-0 in duals.

"We expected to win that dual," Keller said. "It was a big statement for the program. They're a Big Ten team and we're a Southern Conference team, and theoretically we're not supposed to beat a team like that. But Bono has us believing we can wrestle with anybody."

Keller is looking forward to competing in the Southern Scuffle on Dec. 29-30 in Greensboro, N.C. The Southern Scuffle has become one of the best college tournaments of the season. Top-ranked Minnesota and No. 2 Missouri are among the teams taking part this year.

Keller's college career has been interesting, to say the least. A four-time state champion from McDonald, Tenn, Keller signed with the University of Nebraska.

Keller was 28-12 as a Husker freshman. He narrowly missed All-American honors after going 3-2 in a stacked 133 class at nationals. Keller dropped down to 125 as a sophomore and finished 20-8. He won his first match at the NCAAs, but lost his next two.

"That was my mistake, dropping down to 125," Keller said. "It was a pretty hard cut for me and I just didn't have the energy that I did at 133."

He left Nebraska after his sophomore season and transferred closer to home to UTC.

"I'm real comfortable down here," Keller said. "My mom and dad are only about 30 minutes away now. I have a huge support system here."

Keller bumped back up to 133 as a junior at UTC and became an All-American for the first time. He won the Southern Conference title and was named Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament. He was 37-11 last year, including a win over No. 1 Tom Clum of Wisconsin.

He went 3-3 at the 2006 NCAA meet, but lost his last two bouts to finish eighth.

"That was disappointing, to finish like that," Keller said. "That's obviously not what I wanted. We're working hard to make sure that doesn't happen again."

Keller underwent another change when Joe Seay resigned as UTC coach following last season and Bono took over as head coach after being an assistant with the Mocs.

"Matt's our leader," Bono said. "He's had three different head coaches telling him three different things over the last three years, but he's really bought into what we are doing this year. Once he bought in, the rest of the guys on the team have jumped on board with him. Matt believes in our system and now he just has to follow the game plan."

Keller said he loves Bono's approach.

"I obviously have great respect for what he's accomplished as a wrestler," Keller said. "He knows what it takes and I don't second-guess him. He knows what's best. He said at the beginning of the season to us, 'You want to win? Here's how you win.' We've worked hard on the basics and worked on staying in good position, and we believe we're the best conditioned team in the country.

"Bono is a really good coach - everybody around here loves him. He's brought some stability to our program and everybody is on board with him. He's a great motivator and the guy just has so much energy. He really pumps you up and gets you excited to wrestle."

Keller is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in sociology. He plans to wrestle internationally in freestyle at 55 kg/121 pounds.

He said competing for Nebraska and UTC has provided an advantage for him.

"I've had a lot of great coaches in my career," Keller said, "and I've learned a lot from all those guys."

Scoring a 9-7 overtime win over Valenti in the finals of the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational was a pivotal early win for Keller.

"It's a big win, especially for seeds at the national tournament," Keller said. "It was not really a shock for me to win that match. I know I'm capable of winning matches like that. I just need to do that in March now."
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