Kjar becomes UVU’s first All-American wrestler
Wolverine senior Ben Kjar may have just given Sylvester Stallone a reason to write another chapter to the classic Rocky series with his inspirational run at nationals.
Just like Rocky, Kjar had high expectations for himself and wouldn’t settle for anything less. The UVU wrestler spent hours upon hours training in the gym conditioning and improving upon his weaknesses until he soon found himself running the streets of Philly looking up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Cue the music…
With “Eye of the Tiger” playing in the background, onlookers watched as the 125-pounder sprinted and climbed his way to the top of the stairs, foreshadowing his soon-to-come climb to All-American status.
As an at-large qualifier for nationals, Kjar was unranked in the brackets but still un-phased. He would go on to beat three of the top-seven wrestlers in the nation to guarantee himself All-American status during his Cinderella run in the 2011 NCAA National Wrestling Championships in Philadelphia.
In the match where he reached this life-long dream of being an NCAA All-American, more than 17,000 fans cheered Kjar on against the tournament’s No. 5 seed, Zachary Sanders of Minnesota. The crowd exploded with a standing ovation after Kjar’s victory when it was announced that he had just become UVU’s first wrestling All-American.
“ESPN was calling it a Cinderella story, but I always knew I could do it,” said Kjar. “From day one I set the goal of becoming an All-American and after my upset in the first match I remember saying, ‘It’s on’ and I used that momentum through the tournament to reach the semis. Having all those fans cheering me on was indescribable and I loved every moment of it.”
Kjar would go on to a fourth-place finish and was the only unseeded wrestler to compete in the semifinals. His 4-2 loss to No. 1 seed and nationally known Anthony Robles from Arizona State was the closest margin of defeat for the two-time 125-pound national champion.
Robles, an inspirational wrestler who was born with only one leg, completed his career with a national title and was also named ESPN’s No. 3 Top Overall Athlete of the Week for his performance at nationals.
Kjar would go on to get another loud ovation from the crowd as he climbed the podium to receive his All-American award, and just as Rocky shouted for his wife Adrian, Kjar wanted his wife standing next to him as he credited her for being his driving force in his wrestling career.
With the 4-2 record at nationals, Kjar finished the 2011 season 30-8 and his four-year career at UVU with a 129-35 record and more wins than any other Wolverine wrestler.
Kjar qualified and competed at nationals with fellow teammates Flint Ray and Justin Morrill.
Ray, who qualified for nationals for the second straight year after winning the 133-pound weight class at the NCAA Western Regional, went 3-2 in his national title run. Ray was just one win shy of also earning All-American status, losing to now two-time All-American Mike Grey from Cornell.
Ray was also the Wolverines’ only wrestler named to the WWC All-Conference first team and finished with a season 25-4 overall record and is second all-time at UVU with an 86-36 career record.
Winning back-to-back conference championships and competing at nationals both years, Ray has raised the bar for the team and all future Wolverines who will step foot on the UVU mat.
“At the beginning of my career, I set some high goals for myself,” said Ray. “You can’t always reach all your goals, but when you give it your all and try as hard as I did, you can’t have any regrets. I feel really blessed for accomplishing all that I did and will never forget my time here at UVU.”
Morrill’s run at the national tournament may have been short-lived, but was an opportunity that was almost never there. Last year around this time Morrill was finishing up his last semester in his Bachelor of Social Work degree, where he would go on to walk in the 2010 graduation ceremonies.
Having one year of NCAA eligibility left, the 141-pounder made the easy, yet normally difficult decision of going back to school to receive another degree, accompanied with another full year of training to cut weight in hopes to reach his ultimate dream of competing at nationals.
His extra hard work and determination through his final year paid off. Morrill reached his goal and also earned WWC All-Conference second team honors, finishing the season with a 23-11 record. The 141-pounder sits behind only Kjar and Ray on the career wins list with a record of 80-49.
“I knew going into this season it would be my last chance to compete for a shot at nationals,” said Morrill. “I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to come back after last year and prove that I could do it. The whole experience was so much fun and I’ll never forget my time there.”
When asked what was to come next for the graduating seniors, all three showed interest in coaching or volunteering for UVU in the future and were excited to leave behind the strict diet they’ve had over the years of their wrestling career. Ray smiled as he described the sleeve of Oreos he enjoyed while Morrill, who had to cut the most weight all season, already went from 141 to 165 pounds in a week.
The three seniors went to Philadelphia as unknowns representing Utah Valley’s new up-and-coming wrestling program and left with young wrestlers from all over the country asking for autographs and UVU apparel to wear as they cheered on their new role models.
This trio of seniors has had a huge role in building the wrestling program at UVU and is now responsible for the Wolverines’ national hype in the world of wrestling.