By PATRICK SLACK
They can be forgiven for having trouble keeping track of Kifer’s career win total, which has been growing by the match since seventh grade.
Regardless, this much can’t be disputed: any discussion of the top wrestlers in Little Falls history has to start with Kifer, the Morrison County Record’s wrestler of the year.
Kifer’s trek to the top of the Flyers’ record book didn’t exactly have a conventional start.
Unlike some athletes pushed into a sport by parents or friends, the only footsteps Kifer has followed have been his own, with his entrance into wrestling beginning simply by being handed a piece of paper.
“I have no idea how I got into it,” Kifer said. “I was handed a sheet and told to ‘try it out, it might be fun.’”
Kifer did and shortly after was wrestling in his first ever tournament in Long Prairie.
“I just got stomped in my first match,” he said, but came back to win his next match and eventually took second.
Kifer stuck with it through elementary, and with years of hard work became the one punishing opponents.
At the start of seventh grade, Kifer began by wrestling junior varsity on and off. A few weeks later, he was inserted into the varsity line-up at 103 pounds.
The majority of the team moved down a weight class at the end of the season to drop him out of the line-up.
Once the next season rolled around, the only place Kifer would be moving come postseason time was St. Paul.
Wrestling up at 119 pounds as only an eighth grader, Kifer put together his first 30-win season.
After battling his way through the section tournament, Kifer found himself in a winner-take-all true-second bout, a match in which the second- and third-place wrestlers have not met.
The deck appeared stacked against Kifer: his opponent had three years of experience on him and was from Perham, one of the elite teams in Class AA.
“I went in thinking I have nothing to lose,” Kifer said. “My dad told me ‘he thinks he already has it won.’ I just came up big.”
With a hard-fought win, Kifer earned the first of five trips to the state tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
He lost in the first round in his eighth grade and freshman seasons. With two state appearances already under his belt, something clicked midway through his sophomore campaign.
Instead of simply winning matches, Kifer was dominating.
“Just out of nowhere, I just started pinning guys,” Kifer said.
“He’s aggressive for sure,” Hendrickson said. “A bit unorthodox at times. He’s very athletic, so he can get by with things others can’t. He’s even been known to make up moves.”
“We could always see something, sometimes more than he could,” he said.
Kifer nearly discovered the state quarterfinals his sophomore year, coming painstakingly close to his first win at the “X.”
After securing a section title, Kifer met up with a senior from Wabasso-Red Rock Central.
Kifer went out strong, but after the match was tied following regulation, was taken down to his back in the sudden victory overtime.
“I went out a little too aggressive,” Kifer said. “In the third period I couldn’t even stand,” which Hendrickson chalked up to the emotions and nerves the tournament produces.
His next time back, Kifer described wrestling at state as “second nature.”
Kifer dropped a narrow 5-3 decision in his first match, but finally was rewarded with a second bout after his opponent advanced in the quarterfinals.
Kifer didn’t let the opportunity slip away, earning a quick fall in his first consolation match before clinching his first state medal with an 11-5 triumph.
Entering this season, Kifer had been the only Little Falls wrestler to advance past brutal Section 6AA in two years.
But with a new home in Section 8AAA, the Flyers found themselves dreaming of accompanying Kifer to St. Paul.
Little Falls opened the season like a team on a mission, winning nine of its first 10 duals, including a 44-26 home win over new section rival St. Cloud Apollo, Dec. 8.
In the process, Kifer earned bonus points in nine of his 11 matches during December on his way to putting together a 24-1 regular season record.
When the calendar flipped to February and the section tournament began, Little Falls was ready.
The Flyers pummeled Sauk Rapids-Rice 44-23 in the quarterfinals and St. Cloud Tech 57-13 in the semifinals, setting up a rematch with Apollo.
Kifer fell to three-time state champion junior Mitch Bengtson, but Little Falls came away with a 46-24 team win and the section title.
A week later, Kifer made it two-for-two, placing second at 138 pounds after a wild 9-8 match with Apollo junior and eventual state champion Grant Nehring in the finals to qualify individually for the fifth time.
“It was going to take a small army to keep him out of state,” Hendrickson said.
During the team portion of the state tournament, March 1, Kifer helped lead the Flyers to sixth place in Class AAA, earning a spot on the all-state team with two falls and a 12-0 major decision.
In the consolation championship, Hendrickson asked Kifer to move up to 145 pounds to take on one of White Bear Lake Area’s top wrestlers.
Kifer didn’t hesitate, and after a close first period, took control midway through the second and recorded a pin.
“Without him we had no chance to win the dual,” Hendrickson said. “We wouldn’t ask someone to do that who is not tremendously capable.”
“Going as a team was better than ever going as an individual,” Kifer said. “Just being able to be down there with the team was great.”
That left the individual tournament, March 2-3, as Kifer set out to finish his career on a high-note.
“This year was totally different,” Kifer said. “Every match I knew I was one step closer to being done.”
By finishing as a runner-up at sections, Kifer knew he would have to wrestle a section champion in the first round.
He had scanned the brackets online at midnight the day they were released, finding his name alongside top-ranked Dayton Race of Apple Valley, not only one of the top teams in the state but in the country.
“At first I thought ‘you gotta be kidding me.’”
But Kifer had proven he could wrestle with anybody, and although he lost, the narrow 4-0 score simply reinforced that.
Kifer came up with a pin in the first round of consolation action, then clinched another top-six finish with a 4-2 decision and guaranteed himself two more matches.
Following his final high school defeat in the consolation semifinals, Kifer persevered with a 10-8 victory in a fifth-place bout that had several flurries of action, giving him his best finish ever.
Physically and emotionally spent, having wrestled eight matches at the highest high school level in three days, Kifer slowly walked toward Hendrickson, who asked if he was all right.
Kifer gave a small nod before the pair exchanged a giant hug, with six years of hard work culminating in one final victory.
“He wrestled some physical beasts, right down the line,” Hendrickson said. “He was not going to be denied.”
“People wouldn’t think six minutes is that hard,” Kifer said. “But those six minutes are like a whole basketball or hockey game.”
A review of the record books indicated Hendrickson was correct about Kifer’s win total of 196, which included 117 pins. Unfortunately for Hendrickson, the Flyers won’t have Kifer around adding to his record total next season.
“He has tied or broken every record in the program,” Hendrickson said. “He’ll be hard to replace, no doubt.”
MC Record’s Wrestler of the Year, match-by-match
DecemberDef. Tyler Vogt, Owatonna, Fall 1:22
Def. Cole Ostendorf, St. Francis, Fall 1:50
Def. Mike Vogel, North Branch, 17-0
Def. Austin Kalla, Ann.-Maple Lake, Fall 2:30
Def. Steven Tran, St. Cloud Apollo, Fall 0:45
Def. Alonso Quintana, Burnsville, Fall 3:10
Def. Quade Zupko, Chisago Lakes, 5-0
Lost vs. Bruce Lemon, Frazee, 8-2
Def. Shane White, Brainerd-Pillager, 16-8
Def. Austin May, Zimmerman, Fall 1:01
Def. Cole Knaeble, Big Lake, Fall 1:44
Def. Gage Sonczalla, Alexandria, Fall 0:56
Def. Craig Maas, Bemidji, Fall 1:39
Def. Corey Pritchett, Litchfield, Fall 1:54
Def. Jordon Goebel, Pierz, Fall 3:08
Def. Shane White, Brainerd, Fall 3:41
Def. Matt Kahnke, Prior Lake, Fall 0:44
Def. Dylan Czech, Milaca, Fall 1:22
Def. Jarek Ledwick, Roseau, Fall 0:58
Def. Daven Staples, Blackduck-Cass, Fall 1:46
Def. Colton Doty, Bemidji, 10-1
Def. Joey Reed, St. Cloud Tech, Fall 3:35
Def. Ken Kastenbauer, Mora, 6-3
Def. Bryce Lanhart, Rush City-Braham, Fall 0:59
Def. A.J. Olson, Moorhead, Fall 1:10
Def. Jake Brinkman, Thief River Falls, Fall 1:29
Def. Markus Mehr, Kimball Area, Fall 0:27
Def. Chevy Goble, Foley, Fall 0:31
Won by forfeit vs. Rocori
Def. Chris Keske, Sauk Rapids-Rice, 17-1
Def. Jared Bachler, Anoka, Fall 2:36
Def. Dan Marquette, Hastings, 10-2
Def. Logan Brink, New London-Spicer, Fall 1:30
Def. Zach Kitzman, Princeton, Fall 1:35
Def. Abe Anderson, Sartell-St. Stephen, 23-8
Section 8AAA team tournament
Def. Austin Walz, Sauk Rapids-Rice, 12-2
Def. Thomas O’Brien, St. Cloud Tech, 4-0
Lost vs. Mitch Bengtson, SC Apollo, Fall 3:05
Section 8AAA individual tournament
Def. R.J. Olson, Moorhead, Tech Fall 3:18
Def. Shane White, Brainerd, Fall 3:14
Lost vs. Grant Nehring, SC Apollo, 9-8
State team tournament
Def. Dan Marquette, Hastings, 12-0
Def. Brandon Martin, Champlin Park, Fall 1:06
Def. Cam Brandvold, White Bear Lake, Fall 3:05
State individual tournament
Lost vs. Dayton Racer, Apple Valley, 4-0
Def. Jake Hanson, Rochester Mayo, Fall 3:44
Def. Brenden Olevson, Chanhassen, 4-2
Lost vs. Wes Droegemueller, Wayzata, Fall 1:49
Def. Adam Hammer, Osseo, 10-8