Roger Kish has a habit of accomplishing great things in a short amount of time.
He won an MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals title as a freshman at Lapeer West, his first of four.
He was an NCAA finalist as a sophomore at Minnesota.
He was a Division I head wrestling coach at North Dakota State University at 27.
So, it should come as little surprise that before hitting his 40th birthday, Kish is now in charge of one of the nation’s most storied college wrestling programs.
Kish, 39, was recently named the head coach at Oklahoma, a program that has won seven national titles and produced 67 individual champions in its history.
“It’s something I’m very grateful for, and I’m certainly humbled to walk the same halls of some of the Oklahoma greats,” the 2003 Lapeer West graduate said. “Being able to lead this program is nothing short of a dream come true. The administration is great, and in terms of the support system that’s in place, what they have at Oklahoma is second to none.”
Kish takes over a Sooners program fighting to get back into the conversation as one of the nation’s best. His time at NDSU portends well for that, as he had the Bison as high as No. 12 in the country a year ago, the highest ranking in program history.
NDSU also defeated Oklahoma in a Big 12 dual meet, and finished 24th at the NCAAs, with a program record 25.5 points.
“Roger knows what it takes to build a championship-caliber program, and he’s done just that at North Dakota State, with many of his wrestlers having won conference titles and earning All-American honors,” Oklahoma Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione said in a release. “His coaching philosophy aligns with our approach at Oklahoma, and I know he’ll guide our wrestling program toward achieving the standards we’ve set for ourselves.”
Had you told a teenage Kish this would be his future as he was racking up the second-most wrestling victories in state history, he wouldn’t have believed it. Not because it was too ambitious, but because coaching wasn’t even on his radar.
In fact, it wasn’t something he was considering even as he was becoming a two-time All-American at Minnesota.
“I would be lying to say that I wanted to be a high school or college wrestling coach, career-wise,” Kish said. “I had other plans.”
Those other plans were to either continue wrestling beyond college, explore a career in mixed martial arts, or become a chiropractor.
It was all on the table for him as his collegiate career came to a close, but an injury and the long recovery process that followed opened up a new avenue for Kish.
“When I had my surgery, I was off the mats for a lot of time, but I was still able to be on the mats, not as a competitor, but in a way that I could help some of my younger teammates,” he said. “I wanted to be able to give back to those guys that had helped me. That’s where it all began.”
He had been accepted into the chiropractic program at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, Minn. But he chose to put that off to continue his recovery for a possible mat return, and to serve as a graduate assistant for the Gophers.
The following year, he was asked to join Bucky Maughan’s coaching staff at North Dakota State, and his career as a coach took off.
“Throughout that year (at Minnesota), I really enjoyed helping out those young guys,” Kish said. “I took an opportunity from Bucky Maughan, because he needed a bigger guy to train with those bigger guys. It seemed like the best route in the moment, so I took it and never looked back. I was an assistant for two seasons, and built really good relationships with stakeholders in the athletic department. Following two seasons under Bucky Maughan, he retired after 46 seasons, and the position opened up. They did a national search, and I think the relationships I had built with stakeholders, and the immediate success of the program in the two seasons I was part of it, led to a great opportunity for me to take over at North Dakota State.”
Kish built a strong program in his 12 seasons at the helm, compiling a 108-70 record. During his time, the Bison moved from the Western Wrestling Conference to the Big 12 and didn’t skip a beat. NDSU is 33-26 in its time in the Big 12, including a 6-2 mark this past season, which was good enough for fourth place during the regular season.
NDSU has sent 21 wrestlers to the NCAA Championships over the past four seasons, with nine becoming All-Americans.
While it’s now in the corner and not in the center of the mat, Kish and wrestling success have long been synonymous.
Kish was 117-27 at Minnesota, placing second in the nation as a sophomore and third as a junior. He also won a Big Ten title at 184 pounds as a sophomore.
He was 252-2 in his high school career, with both losses coming during his freshman season. The 252 wins are second in MHSAA history only to 260 won by Justin Zeerip of Hesperia. Kish was unbeaten in his last 223 matches, placing him third all-time for consecutive wins behind Zeerip and Brent Metcalf of Davison (228).
In 2003, Kish became the 11th wrestler in MHSAA history to win four individual titles. At the time, nobody had won them at higher weights, as Kish won at 160, 171, 189 and 189.
“For me, it probably didn’t feel as big in the moment as it probably did for other people,” Kish said. “For me, it was the expectation to win it as a freshman. My own father said, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to get out of the Regional.’ I took it very personal and serious. But I didn’t think of how hard it was to do in the moment. I’m in awe of how talented these (more recent four-timers) are. Doing it today is seemingly a lot more challenging.”
Wrestling has long been a family experience for Kish, as his father, Roger Kish Sr., coached alongside Hall of Famer John Virnich at Lapeer West.
Kish’s older brother James was a two-time Finals champion who wrestled at North Carolina and amassed 215 career high school victories.
“I was fortunate enough to have a father who gave a tremendous amount of care to the sport and was always trying to keep my brother and I busy throughout our youth,” Kish said. “He always had us in some sort of activity. It probably also stemmed from having an older brother that was a couple years older than myself. I was always a little bit bigger, and he was a little more agile. We were always competitors – call it a brother thing. That allowed each of us to excel in sports, having one another to compete with.”
Kish also played football at Lapeer West and was a starting varsity linebacker as a freshman.
“Wrestling was my passion,” Kish said. “I loved playing football, but it was what I did to take a break from wrestling. It allowed some different facets to cultivate in terms of building relationships and recognizing different factors that helped motivate individuals. … Understanding being on a team, and relying on and trusting other people to help you succeed, whether that’s your teammates or your coaches.”
As someone who made the most of his time in high school athletics, and now remains close to them in a recruiting aspect, Kish is fully aware of how important they are for students.
“Having an outlet for young kids to be active and learn the traits that will help them later in life – the discipline and the humility of wins and losses, the work ethic that’s necessary, understanding what goals are and how to achieve those goals, dreaming a little bigger than what’s realistic – is good for kids,” Kish said. “Athletics is a great platform to do that. Wrestling is a great platform to do that. To help them grow as young men and women, that’s extremely important.”
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PHOTOS (Top) Roger Kish stands atop the MHSAA champions podium in 2003, and was hired as Oklahoma’s head coach in May. (Middle) Kish helps Lapeer West to the Division 2 team runner-up finish with this match against Mason as a senior. (Lapeer West photos from MHSAA archives; Oklahoma photo courtesy of University of Oklahoma athletic department.)
KALAMAZOO – There’s nothing quite like the roar of a crowd after your team has clinched an MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals title.
That’s true whether it’s for title No. 1, or, in the case of Casey Engle and his Lowell teammates Saturday, for their program’s 11th-straight Division 2 championship.
“It’s unreal,” Engle said. “It’s something I look forward to every year.”
Lowell extended its record run of wrestling team titles by defeating Freeland 49-21 in the Division 2 Final at Wings Events Center.
The Red Arrows joined the Grosse Pointe South (1976-86) and Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett (1980-90) girls tennis programs in winning 11 straight Finals titles. Only East Grand Rapids boys swimming & diving, winning 15 straight from 1948-62, and Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice boys lacrosse – with 13 straight from 2005-17 – have longer Finals championship streaks in Lower Peninsula or statewide competition.
“I mean, it’s possible (to reach 15),” said sophomore Jarrett Smith, whose pin at 106 pounds clinched the title. “It’s hard to predict that far, four years into the future. We’re losing some key guys, but we graduated 14 last year, five this year, so we’re returning some firepower.”
Lowell is always returning firepower, and it’s consistently adding it, too, giving new waves of Red Arrows the chance to raise a wooden mitten.
That’s why for coach RJ Boudro, each title remains just as sweet as the last.
“Why would it get old?” said Boudro, who has been in charge for 10 of those titles. “Look at the crowd. When I first walked in here, I looked up, and you see that we have more fans here than anybody else, and that’s what it’s about. Next year will be fun, too. When you can still bring crowds in and you can do it 11 years in a row, there’s more to that than just winning. If it was just about winning, why else would they come? They would probably think it was a foregone conclusion. They love the kids; they love the community.”
One could forgive an outsider for believing it’s a foregone conclusion when Lowell takes the mat for the Division 2 postseason, as it’s won the Final by more than 20 points in each of the past five seasons and in seven of its 11 straight championship victories.
So to avoid that feeling creeping into his wrestling room, Boudro makes it clear the Red Arrows’ responsibility isn’t just to win on the mat, but to strive for something bigger.
“We’re not doing it to just win state championships,” Boudro said. “We’re trying to find out who we are, we’re trying to be better men, better women, better coaches. So, it’s not just about winning, it’s about being a better person. Whether I’m a coach or a kid, just trying to find a way to be better. When you’re doing that all the time, you get better, but you feel like you have a purpose. Every single guy on the team feels like they have a purpose, and that’s really important.”
Just 14 wrestlers can step onto the mat in a single dual, and the same number is the max a team can enter into the individual postseason, so accomplishing that can sometimes be as tough as anything else for Lowell wrestlers, and certainly helps motivate them throughout the season – foregone conclusions or not.
“One of our signs up there I saw, it says, ‘Tradition never graduates,’ and it’s true,” Smith said. “We just keep the kids coming. Even our B Team, C Team are competing at the highest level. At the beginning of Districts, we had 17 ranked guys, and you can only send 14. So we have just great partners all around.”
Freeland, meanwhile, was making its first appearance in a Final, after getting to the Quarterfinals for the third time in program history.
“Outstanding. Outstanding. They’ve been giving their all every match,” Freeland coach Scott VanLuven said. “They’ve been doing it all year. We beat Brighton, we weren’t supposed to. We beat (Bay City) John Glenn in our conference, then we had to beat them again in our District Final when we weren’t supposed to. No one gave us really a chance down here, I think. But they believed, and they did well.”
The Falcons (25-3) still had a shot with three matches to go, trailing 31-21. But Smith put a quick end to that with his pin at 106, and that was followed by a pair of pins from Cole and Carter Cichocki at 113 and 120, respectively.
Of the Arrows’ nine wins in the dual, eight came by either pin or technical fall, as Jackson Blum (138), Jared Boone (165) and Engle (190) also won by pinfall. Logan Dawson (132) and Owen Segorski (144) each won by tech. Cody Foss (126) opened the dual with a win by decision for Lowell (22-3).
Fabian Facundo (150) and Bringham Smith (285) each won by pin for Freeland, while Noah Graham (157), Gibson Shepard (175) and Elijah Murphy (215) all won by decision.
PHOTOS (Top) Lowell’s Cole Cichocki, left, lines up against Freeland’s Michael Wilson at 113 pounds Saturday. (Middle) The Falcons’ Elijah Murphy, left, locks up Lowell’s Ari McFarland at 215. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)