Since attending Blue Mountain High School in Schuylkill Haven, Corey Keener has had one clear goal in mind — to wrestle in college and become a four-time NCAA qualifier.
With a convincing 11-3 major decision over Purdue’s Ben Thornton on Sunday at the Big Ten Wrestling championships, Keener accomplished just that.
After losing a year due to injury and coming up short on his goal at Central Michigan, Keener was not yet ready to give up. When he was granted another year of eligibility, the two-time PIAA champ decided transferring to Penn State was his best chance at a fourth trip to nationals.
“I planned on getting a sixth year due to my injuries,” the graduate transfer told the Centre Daily Times in November. “I had originally planned on staying at Central Michigan for that sixth year. The way things unfolded, and being somewhat unhappy with how things happened there and not accomplishing all of my goals, I felt I needed to move on from that situation.”
Keener became the full-time starter for Penn State at 133 pounds, amassing a regular season record of 14-6 and earning the No. 20 spot in the coaches’ poll. He was awarded the No. 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament and, in a weight class with only seven NCAA allocations, he had little margin for error.
Yet prior to the start of the tournament, Keener said he was feeling confident and like he could beat some of the guys he had lost to earlier in the season.
Keener got a shot at his first rematch, after a first-round bye, against Minnesota’s No. 3 Mitch McKee. The Nittany Lion dropped that match 9-4, but closed the gap since their last meeting in January when McKee came away with a 15-8 decision.
He finished the tournament with a 2-2 record, including a pin and a major decision. His other loss came to Illinois’ No. 7 Dylan Duncan, who beat McKee to finish third.
Keener’s major decision over Thornton for seventh place Sunday afternoon not only clinched his spot in the NCAA tournament, but also came at a pivotal point in the team race where Penn State still had a chance to gain ground against eventual tournament champ Ohio State.
“I thought Corey wrestled really well,” coach Cael Sanderson said after the tournament. “This morning was a big match for us, and he got bonus points, too, which was huge. I’m really happy, more than anything, just that he wrestled really well.”
Sanderson said it was important for Keener to wrestle well in the last match before going to nationals, and having done so, Keener said he has no doubt he’s on track to accomplish one of his other goals — placing at the NCAA tournament.
“With the right mindset and some time for our bodies to recover, I don’t have any doubt,” he said after his match. “I felt good coming off yesterday, and in a few weeks, I’ll feel even better.”
Having gone 1-2 in his past two NCAA tournament campaigns, Keener is hoping to come out this year with a bit better outcome.
“It was always my goal to get there four times and to compete hard when I get there,” he said. “So I’m excited to see in two weeks, what’s in store.”