CLEVELAND, Ohio — Eric Keller stood alone outside a hotel banquet room sometime after a midnight Sunday looking for somebody else to hug.
He was the last man standing.
Just hours after Keller’s Wartburg College wrestling program had won its third consecutive, seventh in eight years and 14th overall, Division III National Championship Saturday at Cleveland Public Auditorium, Keller wanted to make sure he thanked every single person who had a part in the victory — small or big.
When he had nobody else to hug, he hugged the journalist who just happened to be walking back to his room after a late dinner, “thanks for telling our story,” Keller said.
Then, Keller, who feeds his frenzied persona with copious amounts of coffee, got introspective.
“I think I can relax a little now,” Keller added before pausing. “Nope, I can feel the anxiety already building (tapping his chest). Got to finish recruiting, got to start building for the next one.”
Keller is passionate about what he does, and he proudly wears that passion on his chest.
Prior to Saturday’s 10 a.m. semifinals, he and assistant coach Chris Ortner were up until nearly 4 a.m watching video of each of the Knights’ opponents.
Never one to sit in his wrestler’s corner, Keller looks like a contortionist during each seven-minute match. And when Keller feels the need to defend his wrestler, he can chuck the coaches’ challenge brick with the velocity of a Nolan Ryan fastball.
When he can’t find the challenge brick, he will fire his coaches notebook that he fills each match with teaching points, like he did during one of Brennen Doebel’s matches this weekend.
“Should’ve cost us a point,” Ortner whispered while holding back laughter as he walked by when Keller was asked about his antics.
The athletes are just as fiercely loyal to the coaching staff.
“I love those guys,” three-time all-American Eric DeVos said. “Keller. Ortner. I would not be where I’m at if not for them. I owe them so much.”
There are a lot of people who would like to have what Keller has at Wartburg, strong support from the administration, a huge fan base, and a coaching staff second to none, led by Ortner, a relentless recruiter, who is a guru known for getting the most out of his upper weight wrestlers.
Some will say Keller is reaping the benefits of a program that Hall of Fame coach Jim Miller built while winning 10 of Wartburg’s 14 titles.
Maybe there is some truth to that, but at the same time Miller stopped coaching five years ago, and if Keller, who co-head coached with Miller for two seasons, was winning because of a Miller wouldn’t there have been a drop off by now?
No, the difference between Keller and his counterparts, whom would like to win national championships on a regular basis, too, is Keller was thinking about how he was going to win the 2019 championship mere hours after winning his most recent one.
“I’ll be back here next week for the Division I championship,” said Keller, a former Northern Iowa all-American. “It’s always fun. But, you know, I’ll be sitting there in the middle of a session and that is when that anxiety hits me.
“I can’t turn it off. I’m always thinking what’s next.”
Keller and Ortner do have work to complete before next winter.
The Knights graduate five all-Americans — Logan Thomsen at 157, Eric DeVos at 174, Tyler Lutes at 184, Kyle Fank at 197 and Lance Evans at 285.
That group made six finals appearances, winning two titles, and racked up 11 all-American awards.
The cupboard isn’t bare as the Knights return two national champions — Brock Rathbun at 133, the first freshman national champ in program history, and Cross Cannone at 149.
Another freshman, Mike Ross at 165, will be a returning all-American. He was the top seed at 165, but suffered a foot injury in the quarterfinals Friday that severely limited him the remainder of the tournament.
Doebel, a sophomore, fell a match short of all-American status at 125.
And then, Keller has a room that produces guys like Lutes, a three-year back-up who when finally given his chance excelled at the opportunity reaching the 184 final in his only season as a regular.
Guys like Lutes are the epitome of why Wartburg succeeds.
“That guy. There was no doubt that he could do that,” national champion Kyle Fank said. “We saw what he could do every day in the room. It’s not surprising.
“The important thing is he believed he could do it. That is what this coaching staff does. They make you believe. We love those guys. We trust those guys.”
Those are words said every day in Wartburg’s room and it is the reason why, ‘Kitty’ has a semi-permanent home in Waverly.
“Kitty, that is the national championship trophy. She’s coming home to where she needs to be,” Fank said. “She’s Kitty because she’s so sweet to (have).”