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      #WrestlingWednesday Feature: Kieffers Overcome Opponents On and Off the Mat

      Brought to you by EI Sports

      Wrestlers live for the sensation of having their hands raised in victory. It’s the ultimate expression of success. It signifies that on that day, in that moment, they were better than the opponent standing across from them.
      Joe Kieffer raised his hand in victory a final time on October 29th. It wasn’t on the mat, it was in a hospital. Joe raised his hand high, clinched his fist and rang a bell on the wall at Riley Hospital that signified Joe had completed his fight against cancer. It was a moment that took three years to achieve. Ringing that bell gave Joe his life back.
      To understand how significant ringing the bell that October day was, you have to know what Joe went through to get to that point.
      Kieffer is the youngest son of parents Kevin and Jenny. His twin brothers, Josh and Justin are both collegiate wrestlers. Joe was following in their footsteps. All of the Kieffer brothers were exceptional wrestlers for Roncalli high school.
      “Joe, before leukemia, was a great wrestler with the same potential both of his brothers had,” Roncalli coach Lance Ellis said. “He lost his freshman year in semistate. He got caught with a headlock his sophomore year. In his junior season he was involved in the most controversial match I’ve ever seen in my life. He was winning and the clock went off and he stopped and a guy jumped on him. I’ve never seen anything like it. We were hoping for a possible state title that year.”
      But soon Joe’s wrestling career wouldn’t matter much anymore.
      After his junior year he was competing at freestyle state and he kept feeling winded and very tired. That was not typical for an athlete of Joe’s caliber. He didn’t think too much of it though, and went on to wrestle at central regionals.
      “I got beat up and I looked terrible out there,” Joe said. “I could hardly practice. I was very weak. We just thought I had mono.”
      Things got even worse at Disney Duals. Joe’s body simply would not allow him to compete at the level he was accustomed to.
      The Kieffer family took a small break from wrestling and went on a fishing trip to Minnesota. Joe’s condition continued to get worse.
      “I came home and went to the doctor,” Joe said. “The doctor wanted to put me on anti-stress relievers. Stress can sometimes cause some of the same symptoms. But when they checked my blood, a few hours later they told me I had leukemia.”
      At first Joe didn’t comprehend the severity of his diagnosis.
      “My first thought was that this wasn’t happening,” he said. “It was unreal. It didn’t even hit me that it was cancer at the moment. Then, the whole thought of dying started to set in. I didn’t realize how serious it really was.”
      The diagnosis immediately ended Joe’s wrestling dreams.
      Justin and Josh were told the news that day.
      “I had just left for college,” Justin said. “It was my first period of time away from the house in my life. I was close to home, but I had moved out. Wrestling and college had picked up, and when I learned it was so hard to wrap my head around everything that was going on in my life. I was trying to balance that horrible news as well as all these new challenges in my own life. It was almost impossible for me to think about anything but Joe.”
      After the initial shock of his diagnosis, Joe approached his battle with cancer just like he did with his opponents on the mat. He went on the attack and refused to be defeated.
      Joe started chemotherapy treatments almost immediately. But because of his extensive battle with leukemia, he was forced to drop out of school at Roncalli.
      “Physically the hardest part was the very beginning,” Joe said. “I pretty much lost all mobility from the waist down. I had no strength in my legs. I couldn’t stand up or walk. I felt crippled and I was in a wheelchair for about a month.
      “But by far the most difficult part was the mental aspect. I felt secluded from the whole world. My immune system was so weak, I could not go to school. I couldn’t have visitors. If I talked to my friends, it had to be over the phone or through texts. I was extremely lonely.”
      Although he was lonely, Joe was far from being alone. The entire wrestling community rallied around the Kieffer family. They participated in charity golf outings and other fund raising events to help pay for Joe’s treatments. Messages poured in from coaches and wrestlers from around the state.
      “The whole wrestling community really stepped up,” Ellis said. “So many people who had no real ties to Joe stepped in to help. I remember New Castle coach Rex Peckinpaugh bringing me a museum of stuff to raffle off to raise money for Joe. It was like a whole collection that would take someone 30 years to collect. He handed over stuff I didn’t want to give up. But he did it to help Joe. So many people stepped up like that.”
      After nine months of treatment Joe surprised everyone and returned to school, and to wrestling. He was still going to chemotherapy once a month, and his body was nowhere near at the strength level it once was, but he didn’t care.
      “I only wrestled four matches the whole year,” Joe said. “But that didn’t matter. My best moment in my wrestling career came on my first match back. For me it was an extremely tough match, and I ended up winning. All the emotion of where I had came from to get back to that point really overwhelmed me. Our team was cheering and even the other team knew what that win meant for me.”
      Justin was happy for the win, but it was hard for him to watch.
      “When he won, I had this weird feeling,” Justin said. “I was very happy for him. It was a long time coming. But it was weird seeing him out there looking the way he did. It was hard to see kids give Joe a good match when I knew Joe would dominate those same kids before cancer.”
      Joe would not win another match in his high school career. That didn’t matter — because he was still battling the one opponent he wanted to beat more than anyone. His fight with cancer was not done.
      Joe and cancer went toe-to-toe for three long, grueling years. There were periods of time when cancer seemed to have the advantage. But Joe never quit. He never gave in.
      “This has opened my eyes to so many things outside of wrestling,” Joe said. “Before leukemia, wrestling was my priority. Now I want to do things for others. My whole lifestyle is different now. My priorities are different.
      “But I know wrestling helped me in this journey. In wrestling you don’t quit. You have to be a fighter. Wrestling toughened me up and helped me be mentally tough enough to fight this disease.”
      As Joe battled cancer, he would see others ring the bell on the wall at Riley Hospital. He couldn’t wait until he got his turn.
      On October 29th, he did just that. Surrounded by friends, family and the doctors he had grown to love at Riley — Joe rang the bell. His treatments were officially over. Joe had won the most important battle of his young life.
      Joe is now 21 years old. He will go to the University of Indianapolis, where his brothers wrestle, and study supply chain management. He wants to get into a logistics firm. He also has applied to be on a fire department, because he knows he will always have a strong desire to help others.
      He is healthy now. He’s not as strong as he wants to be yet, but he’s getting there.
      Joe’s journey has changed many around him, including his brother and his high school coach.
      “Joe’s battle has taught me a lot,” Justin said. “I take every day as it comes and thank God I’m here on this world. It has helped me get closer to God and my family. I want to cherish every moment I have with them.”
      Ellis, who won four state championships in his Indiana high school career before taking the coaching helm at Roncalli, says watching Joe go through what he did was one of the toughest things he’s ever endured.
      “Honestly, this was the hardest thing I ever went through,” Ellis said. “But you learn you can’t take anything for granted. Love your family. Love your kids. Live your life the best you can.”
      If you have a feature story idea about Indiana wrestling, please email jerhines@cinergymetro.net.

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      #WrestlingWednesday Feature: Drew Hughes of Lowell on Task for Elusive State Title

      Brought to you by EI Sports

      Drew Hughes has already had the type of high school wrestling career many dream of. He finished second in the state his freshman season and fifth last year. But Hughes is far from satisfied.
      Hughes doesn’t aim for fifth place. His goal is a championship — nothing less.
      Hughes sets the bar high for himself. Anything less than a state championship will be a disappointment.
      Last state tournament might have been a turning point in Hughes’ career. He had beaten Lawrence North’s Tommy Cash and Merriville’s Jacob Covaciu during the season. He topped Cash 4-0 and Covaciu by technical fall. But after he was pinned in the first minute of the second round of state by Center Grove senior Tyler Fleener (via the spladle), he had to watch Cash claim the 138-pound title with a 5-3 decision over Covaciu.
      “That has motivated me,” Hughes said. “The fact that I was there just watching, and not being out there wrestling in the finals pushes me every day. I realized I had to get better on my feet. I needed to work harder on my all-around technique.”
      Hughes has done just that.
      Hughes is one of the best in the state from the top position. He can turn almost anyone he faces. But now he’s added a new dimension to his repertoire. He has greatly improved his attacks from the neutral position. He has become more confident on his feet.
      The improved performance on his feet has led to a 13-0 start to the season for the Lowell junior. He has not given up a point, and has pinned all 13 wrestlers who have stepped on the mat against him.
      “My goal is a state title,” Hughes said. “But I also want to go through the year without getting scored on, and by pinning everyone I face.”
      Hughes is currently the top-ranked 160 pounder in the state. The No. 2-ranked grappler at 160, Crown Point’s Darden Schurg, is one Hughes will likely see several times during the tourney. The two are in the same sectional, regional and semistate.
      “We have grown up wrestling each other,” Hughes said. “We have wrestled each other since we were 8-years old.”
      Inside the Lowell wrestling room, Hughes has been training with Eric McGill, a former two-time state champion for Munster High School. He won the 125-pound class as a junior and 140 as a senior. McGill went on to wrestle for Cornell University.
      “I wrestle with him quite a bit,” McGill said. “.He has good practice partners, but most of the live wrestling is done with me. When he was smaller I could beat him. Now he’s bigger and he’s getting the better of me. It’s fun, but he’s a beast now.”
      Hughes has great respect for McGill.
      “He has been a really good influence on me,” Hughes said. “He’s one of the best partners you could have.”
      Hughes’ older brother Kenny has also been a good influence. Kenny was ranked No. 2 last year at 160 pounds. He lost in the same round of state as Drew, and ended up finishing seventh.
      Hughes has jumped from the 120 pound class as a freshman, to 160 now. This year he isn’t having to cut weight, unlike past seasons. That decision has allowed this year to be his most fun so far.
      “I love wrestling because it’s a fun sport,” Hughes said. “And when you’re not cutting weight you’re not in that bad mood that cutting can some times lead to. I’m able to focus a lot more on wrestling now.”
      With weight no longer an issue, Hughes is concentrating on getting back under the lights. His freshman year he was defeated by Warren Central’s Deondre Wilson 6-2 in the championship match at 120 pounds.
      “I was hoping I was going to be wresting for a title last year,” Hughes said. “But I remember as a freshman that it was a great experience. Looking back I know I was a little shocked to be there wrestling under the lights. I really felt I could have won, but I froze up. If I get there again, I’m not going to get so caught up with the atmosphere. I’m going to go out and do what I do, and just wrestle.”

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