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By Mike Finn
Kendric Maple admitted the purple-and-gray-colored letterman-style jacket — presented to the Oklahoma sophomore after being named the Champion of Champions at the recent Ken Kraft Midlands — was a little big for him. (The recipient is selected by the other finalists.) He was also named the Dan Gable Outstanding Wrestler by the media at the 49th annual event.
The native of Wichita, Kan., knows he will eventually grow into the award-winning jacket … just like Maple has grown into the ultra-competitive 141-pound class this year.
“Last year I took a redshirt year, which lit a fire under me,” said the 5-foot-9 Maple, who finished 33-12 and qualified for the 2010 NCAA tournament at 133 pounds just one year after he won two Kansas state championships for Wichita Heights High School. “I’ve worked hard and wrestled every day.”
And that work definitely showed in Evanston, Ill., Dec. 29-30, when Maple outscored his first five opponents 69-10. He racked up one technical fall and three major decisions before edging Iowa’s top-ranked Montell Marion, 5-3, in their championship tilt in Welsh-Ryan Arena … just a few days after Christmas.
“My legs were a little tired but I got it done,” said Maple, who scored a first-period takedown and used over two minutes of riding time to help him beat the Hawkeye. “The Christmas break was hard to stay in shape, but I kept my head in the game and listened to my coaches.”
“His big focus this year is wrestling at his level the whole match,” said Oklahoma coach Mark Cody. “That seems to be making a difference. And of course he had a redshirt year, which really helped. I think the sky is the limit for him.”
And all of this is happening in a season that Cody, the former successful coach at American University, is in his first year leading the Sooners. He replaced long-time OU mentor Jack Spates, who retired last spring. Spates was the one who signed Maple shortly after the former Kansas prep competed at the NHSCA nationals.
“I think it would be hard if it was someone else other than Coach Cody. He has made the transformation perfect,” Maple said.
“Last year’s (coaching staff) was great but this year they’ve added so much more. There are so many talented guys in our room and Coach Cody just calms you down. He makes you enjoy wrestling instead of hating it the whole time.”
As one of three true freshman to compete for Oklahoma two years ago, Maple admitted he wanted to redshirt that first season but felt he could help out the Sooners.
“My freshman year, I started out redshirting,” said Maple, who didn’t enter the Sooner line-up that season until January. “Then the coaches were talking about it and thought I could help the team out. The following year I wanted to get bigger. I was behind a great kid, Zach Bailey. It was good for me to sit and learn under him. It’s been great. It lit a fire under me.”
Maple, who went 2-2 in the 2010 nationals (including an opening-round lost to Cal Poly’s Boris Novachkov), is the only undefeated wrestler at 141 pounds this season.
As of Jan. 1, Maple was 14-0 in a weight class that returns last year’s national champion in Michigan’s Kellen Russell (16-1), the 2011 national runnerup in Novachkov (21-2), the 2010 national runner-up in Marion (15-1) and Oregon State’s Michael Mangrum (24-2) who won the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational in early December.
“At this weight, it’s up and down all the time,” smiled Maple. “This helps a ton.”
Maple appears to be in position to win more awards this winter. And the confidence he collected in Evanston from becoming the best of the best may be worth its weight in gold.