Killer Killar

Last year, the second most impressive thing about Joey Killar's season was how much of the time he spent not wrestling. Competing at 165...

Last year, the second most impressive thing about Joey Killar's season was how much of the time he spent not wrestling. Competing at 165 pounds, the junior won the Ivy League Classic tournament and took third at the strong Las Vegas Invitational. But while wrestling at Stanford in early January, Killar tore the cartilage off his two bottom ribs. After an injury time-out, Sports profilehe finished (and won) the match, but the cartilage problem sidelined him for the heart of the season. For two months, Killar could only swim, pedal the exercise bicycle, and run on the treadmill; he did not wrestle again until early March, at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) tournament.

Killar's comeback was the most impressive thing: he won the EIWAs, which gained him entry to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships. There, he took sixth place, becoming the Crimson's ninth all-American in a sport whose intercollegiate history at Harvard stretches back to 1916. Head wrestling coach Jay Weiss believes that if Killar had wrestled all year, he would have won.

Now in his senior year, again wrestling at 165, Killar is currently ranked fourth in the nation and has a real shot at the NCAA title. His record at midseason was 19-1. He finished second in December's Las Vegas Invitational and third at Chicago's Midlands Tournament, where he gave up only four points--all via escapes. No one took him down. His loss was a one-point decision to a post-collegiate wrestler (Midlands is an open tournament; Killar's collegiate record does not count this loss to a college graduate).

In addition to his propensity for winning, Killar has a propensity for pins. Winning a match by pinning an opponent is the home run of wrestling: it tallies twice as many team points (six versus three) as winning a match on points scored. But pins are rare in college matches; only about 10 percent end with one wrestler's shoulders held against the mat. That fraction changes when Killar wrestles. Last year, when he went 24-5 for the season, 10 of his two dozen victories--more than 40 percent--came via pins. Amazingly, despite having missed two months of competition, Killar led the EIWA in pins.

Part of the reason is his ferocity. "Joey has a very aggressive style--he beats you up, he's physical, which I love," says Weiss, now in his sixth season at Harvard. "Joey's not a technician, he's a brawler. He's a freelancer, a guy who does things you can't teach. In practice he'll take me aside and say, 'Hey, coach, look at this,' and then show me some new move he's made up. It's exciting and inspiring to watch him."

"I do what feels natural at the time," Killar explains. "My wrestling is more athletic than standard wrestling, there are more scrambles. I have good defense on my feet and don't give up takedowns easily. I'm good on both top and bottom [of the standard "referee's position," in which the "bottom" wrestler kneels on all fours, while the "top" wrestler kneels alongside, one hand gripping his opponent's arm, the other arm across the opponent's back]. If you can get out, and hold people down, you tend to win matches."

Winning matches has become an increasingly popular pastime for the Crimson grapplers, whose home is Malkin Athletic Center. At last year's NCAA championships, Dustin DiNunzio '99 (now assistant wrestling coach) finished fourth, joining Killar in all-American status, the first season in Harvard history to see two wrestlers reach that pinnacle. Last year's squad went 8-6 overall, 3-2 in the Ivy League, where Penn and Cornell are the powers to grapple with. Harvard, with much smaller enrollment, cannot match those squads for depth, but the Crimson's contingent of top performers is truly impressive. Weiss took three wrestlers to Penn State for last year's NCAA championships, for example, while Cornell brought six. Nonetheless, Harvard finished twentieth of 79 colleges entered, far ahead of the Big Red's thirty-sixth-place showing. The Crimson also outperformed six Big Ten squads.

The Ivy League no longer has a full contingent of wrestling colleges. Yale and Dartmouth have dropped their programs, and Princeton, too, has cut off support for its grapplers, though alumni resurrected the program and now fund it. The 13 colleges of the EIWA are perhaps a better yardstick, and there Harvard has been moving up. When Weiss arrived at Malkin in 1994, "the cupboards were bare," as he puts it. Harvard won only two dual meets. At that season's EIWA tournament, Harvard ranked thirteenth of 14 entrants, and only two of its 10 grapplers were placewinners (among the top six finishers). Last year, in contrast, Harvard was third among 13 EIWA entrants and saw nine of its 10 wrestlers achieve placewinner status.

This season's squad hopes to improve on those strong showings, and one key to doing so is Killar's co-captain, 174-pound senior Ed Mosley, who returned to the Crimson mats after a year off and was 18-4 at midseason. As a 158-pound freshman, Mosley won the EIWA tournament, the first Harvard frosh ever to do so. He has compiled an 80-15 record over three varsity seasons, and has wrestled three times in the NCAA championships.

Mosley's rise in weight classes does not necessarily reflect an adolescent growth spurt, but is due in part to changes in NCAA rules. Killar, too, has moved up from the 150-pound class, where as a freshman he went 23-11 and became Ivy League Rookie of the Year, and the 158-pound class, where as a sophomore he was 24-4 and won the Las Vegas Invitational with a pin. But that season, three American college wrestlers died while trying to make weight as a result of extreme training practices that caused severe dehydration. The NCAA responded with several rule changes, including the addition of seven pounds to all weight classes in midseason. The most important change was moving the weigh-in time from 24 hours before matches to only one hour before. Under the old rules, dehydrated wrestlers often made weight and then drank fluids to replenish their tissues before competing. The one-hour lead time foils that strategy.

Killar's athleticism enables him to succeed under any rules, however; at Saucon Valley High School in Hellertown, Pennsylvania, he twice made the all-state football team and broke one older brother's rushing records. He also ran 100-, 200-, and 400-meter sprints, and nearly qualified for the state track championships.

But the Lehigh Valley, Killar's home turf, is a true wrestling hotbed in a state that is mad for wrestling. (Weiss, himself a Pennsylvanian, notes equably that "at the NCAAs, the majority of all-Americans are from Pennsylvania.") Hence Killar followed his two older brothers onto the wrestling mats as well as the gridiron. He began in a midget wrestling program and started winning matches regularly by fifth grade. As a high-school freshman he qualified for the state tournament at 130 pounds, and the next year took fourth place there at 140. In Killar's junior year he went 36-0 until the state tournament finals; "I should have won, but I wrestled terribly--it was the only high-school match where I didn't score a point," he says. Killar came back as a senior to win the Pennsylvania state championship, the wrestling equivalent of, say, winning the California state tennis championship.

Football coaches, including Harvard's Tim Murphy, contacted him, despite his small size, but Killar found football practices "boring, though I liked games. In wrestling, I always enjoyed both practice and competition. So I marketed myself as a wrestling prospect." All eight colleges that he applied to accepted him, but he "liked Harvard the most, by far. I liked coach Weiss, the wrestlers, the value put on education, and I saw the team getting better--it looked like a good program to join." His freshman suite in Canaday included two other future varsity captains, Trevor Allman (hockey) and Darren Dinneen (track).

Now a Leverett House resident, Killar concentrates in biology and may seek a career in the pharmaceutical industry, which employs his father and one brother. But at the moment, he is a potentate of the mats. For Killar, a key attraction of wrestling is that it's "one-on-one competition. There's not much room to make excuses. You go out there knowing that your opponent is thinking the same things you are." Maybe so, but luckily for the Crimson, very few opponents can do the things he can.

~ Craig Lambert

 

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