TA Star Wins As He Quietly Mourns
Posted: February 15, 2013
BRIDGEWATER — Luke Kiser is, in his own words, “not a real people person.”
Don’t take that the wrong way. The Turner Ashby High School wrestler is a leader for his teammates. He’s tight with his coach, who he’s known since elementary school. He likes having his older brother, Bryce, as a mentor.
Kiser enjoys toting a couple of friends in his blue Jeep and driving them into the mountains, off-roading into rocky, muddy, uncharted territory. He likes hunting and playing video games with his buddies.
But when Kiser needs to muster all his strength to wrestle other people – or, for that matter, his own emotions – he doesn’t want to share the experience. He is, as teammate and close friend Nic Moyers called him, “a lone wolf.”
It’s part of why the 5-foot-7 senior is the defending Group AA state champion at 145 pounds, and why he’s probably the odds-on favorite to win another title at 152 at this year’s two-day state meet today and Saturday at Salem Civic Center. If he does, he’ll be just the fourth TA wrestler to win two state titles, and only the second Knight to win back-to-back titles (Beau Baker won three in a row from 1996-98).
If it happens, Kiser – who’s 41-1 this year and 155-21 for his career – will do it largely on his own. That’s when the brown-haired, green-eyed 18-year-old native said he functions best: When he’s in his own head, sorting out the good thoughts from the bad.
“When I need to focus or something bothers me, I just stay by myself,” Kiser said before practice this week. “Because, less distractions. Focus on stuff.”
Especially this year.
On Oct. 30, six days before preseason wrestling practice started, Kiser’s close friend and teammate, 16-year-old Jackson Reel, died in a car accident that also claimed the life of Reel’s girlfriend, 17-year-old fellow TA student Cyndal Ward. It was a heart-twisting moment for TA’s entire wrestling team, but especially for Kiser, Reel’s practice partner all last season.
“For the first few weeks, just walking in there [to practice] and not seeing him was definitely tough,” Kiser said. “Still today when they say, ‘Grab a partner, I think, ‘Mine’s not here.’”
Some high-school kids might be best advised to turn to someone close for counseling in such a situation. Not Kiser. As usual, he sought solitude.
“I just really stayed by myself,” he said. “That’s just the kind of person I am.”
He still visits the crash site where Reel died – in particular, where the car struck a tree on Coopers Mountain Road – on a regular basis, often by himself. He said he almost always goes there after his matches.
Why? He’s still figuring that out.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just somewhere I like to go, because I feel like he [Reel] should have been at the match. I don’t know if I go to look for him or what. I just feel like I need to update him or something. Because when I think of wrestling, I think of wrestling with Jackson. So it all kind of ties together.”
For Kiser, figuring things out isn’t a bad thing.
He needed to do that in wrestling, too – and that turned out pretty well.
As a sophomore, Kiser won the Valley District and finished fifth in states at 130 pounds – a nice finish for an underclassman by most standards. But TA coach Marshall Smiley, who has known Kiser since he was a fourth-grader, saw the potential for more.
“All the tools were there, and he just had to figure out who he was going to be as a wrestler,” Smiley said. “I think he had a lot of people say, ‘Hey, you’re this style, or you’re that.’ We just kind of stepped back and said, ‘Hey, you’ve just got to figure this out.’”
It was a smart move. Kiser went on to win his first state championship, even while moving up a couple of weight classes.
“It wasn’t anybody else. It wasn’t me or any other coach,” said Smiley, a TA state champion in 2004. “…He really did take it in his own hands and say, ‘I’m going to figure this out. I’m going to get this done.’”
Of course, that also took some willpower – which Kiser has apparently had since the day he was born.
His mother, Teresa Kiser, recalled that Luke was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, to the point where he was “blue as he could be.” At eight weeks old, he contracted a life-threatening respiratory virus where “he just can’t breathe,” Teresa said, and he made it through that, too.
“He’s just always had a strong will to live,” Teresa Kiser said. “…He started out that way. He’s always been strong.”
Luke gets some of that drive genetically, and some from his upbringing. He comes from a farming family – his father, Keith, was raised on a farm just a mile from the one where he’s raised Luke and Bryce in Mount Clinton. Keith Kiser puts Luke – and his older brother, Bryce, a former state champion wrestler at TA – “to work,” Luke said, tending to their chickens and beef cows. Luke happily obliges – it is, after all, a solitary activity.
“I like it; it’s simple,” he said, noting that he’d like to follow in his father’s footsteps as a farmer. “I get to be left alone out there. It’s peaceful.”
Luke said he gets his preference for solitude from his father, also a former TA wrestler. That’s where Luke gets his toughness, too. When Luke was in fifth-grade, Keith hung a rope inside a barn, for his two sons to climb to get stronger. As recently as last summer, Luke was still climbing that rope.
“He was a fighter,” Luke said of his father. “He was always trying to be the toughest, and I’m kind of the same way.”
All of that translates to the wrestling mat.
“The kids that have that drive, and the kids that want to be great – regardless to whether they’re average to great athletes – those are the kids that are going to get it done,” Smiley said. “Those are the kids that are going to find a way to reach their goals, to put in whatever time is necessary to get it done. And that’s what he has [done].”
Kiser harnesses that drive prior to every match. Before stepping on the mat, he said, he plays out the upcoming match in his head. Sometimes, he’ll think of Reel – Kiser wears Reel’s old singlet on his ankle, which reminds him to wrestle his hardest, like his old buddy would want.
Sometimes, he turns on a tune – nothing in particular, though. He just turns his iPod to shuffle. As long as there’s a good beat.
It’s his beat. It’s no one else’s.
He’s all alone, figuring things out.
“I like to worry about myself,” Kiser said. “I don’t really know how to describe it. Being left alone, I just get to focus on what I want to get done. I don’t have to deal with a bunch of other people and deal with their problems, too.
“When I’m alone, it’s just me, and I get what needs to be done, done.”