It wasn’t hard to find Dalton Kuenzel at the Mizzou Arena.
Sporting a bright red trihawk, Kuenzel stood out among the many competitors at the MSHSAA Wrestling Championships.
“It’s the greatest feeling,” Kuenzel said following the title bout.
Kuenzel especially stood out at the top of the podium, when he accepted his medal and bracket after winning the Class 3 182-pound state championship bout over Winnetonka’s Markel Fluker by a 3:05 pin Saturday night.
The smile on Kuenzel’s face was a final acknowledgement to the crowd as his prep career came to a close during the event. An energetic and emotional wrestler in a stoic sport, Kuenzel wasn’t afraid to let his euphoria show through as he took in the scene from the arena floor.
Even with the smile on his face, it took a bit for the reality of a state championship to set in for Kuenzel.
“It really just felt like another tournament,” Kuenzel said. “It’s going to take a while for reality to set in that I actually accomplished my goal to win state.”
Union Head Coach Justin Cranmer said Kuenzel has made his mark with the Wildcats.
“He is a dynamic exciting wrestler who is really fun to watch,” Union Head Coach Justin Cranmer said.
Kuenzel hopes to inspire the next generation of wrestling Wildcats with the championship.
“I think this is going to be a confidence booster for all of the younger kids coming up,” Kuenzel said. “It shows that no matter where you start, you can always finish higher than where you began.”
Kuenzel described his emotional style as coming from hating defeat.
“Growing up, I always took losses really heavy,” Kuenzel said. “When I didn’t perform good enough, I always was hard on myself, so I got to become an emotional, physical wrestler.”
Called DK by his friends and teammates, Kuenzel (46-2) captured Union’s first state championship since 1992 when he pinned Winnetonka’s Markel Fluker in 3:05.
“He’s very good,” Kuenzel complimented his opponent. “He’s a very athletic kid.”
The match was pure DK. Fluid in his motion, Kuenzel got caught for a takedown in the first period and trailed 2-0 after two minutes of action.
Starting on top for the second period, he surrendered an escape before it happened.
Establishing upper body control, Kuenzel pulled Fluker off of his feet and to his back. By the time the head referee moved into position, it was over.
“It’s was a gillpin, a move I’ve practiced just in case I’ve needed it,” Kuenzel said. “I just felt I could hit it on him to win the match and it worked. He’s a great kid.”
Cranmer has seen Kuenzel record many quick pins over the last couple of seasons.
“In his finals match he was also down 3-0 to when he got the takedown against Fluker and the fall,” Cranmer said.
Kuenzel quickly sprung back to his feet and started the celebration.
DK was the first Wildcat to appear in a state championship match since Jimmy Barnhart finished second in the Class 2, 215-pound, weight division in 2009. With the pin, he became the first Union wrestler to ever win a state title by a pin.
The previous Union state champion, Mat Machelett, won the Class 3A heavyweight title by a 5-3 decision over Neosho’s Russell Lewis, 5-3.
“I tried not to look at the names on the wall in the wrestling room so I wouldn’t get so hungry and I would get it on my own,” Kuenzel said.
Kuenzel was proud that this year’s senior class has been able to establish a standard for future Union wrestling teams. Union claimed two state medals with senior Joe Lasky finishing sixth at 220 pounds.
“I love my teammate, DK,” Lasky said. “He’s one of my best friends. He’s the main reason I came out for wrestling, so it’s great to medal with him.”
Dalton leaves Union with the career wins record at Union, going 141-28 as a Wildcat.
Kuenzel hopes to continue his wrestling career and will be competing in two events in March. He is scheduled to wrestle in the East-West All-Star Meet in Edwardsville, Ill., and then will travel with teammate Joe Lasky to the senior national tournament in Virginia Beach, Va., March 27-30.
Kuenzel’s only two losses during the season came to his longtime opponent, Pacific’s Austin Repp.
Repp, who capped the first 58-0 season in MSHSAA history and won his second consecutive Class 3, 170-pound, state crown, had moved up to grapple with Kuenzel during the two times Union met Pacific this season.
The first meeting came during the Hillsboro Tournament, an 8-3 victory for Repp. The second meeting came in the Four Rivers Conference dual meet in Pacific Feb. 6. Repp won by a pin in 4:38.
“Austin’s a great kid,” Kuenzel said. “I’ve wrestled him since we were in third grade. I’ve beaten him once. It’s always been a big rivalry between us and it’s just a head game now. He’s great. He has all the respect I can give to him.”
Another area wrestler Kuenzel has developed respect for is Washington’s Kyle Summers. The two wrestled twice this season with Kuenzel winning both matches, including the district championship bout.
“He’s a very athletic, straightforward, hard wrestling kid,” Kuenzel said. “I love wrestling with Kyle. I didn’t like how the match ended at districts because neither one of us wanted that to happen and I did not want to win like that. I wanted to see him in the state finals. I thought that would have been a great finals match here. I was happy that he came back to win his fifth-place match.”
Heading into the postseason, Kuenzel and his Union teammates once again cut and colored their hair bright red.
“I had a mohawk last year,” Kuenzel said. “This year, I wanted a red trihawk, so that’s what my friends and I did. I guess it’s just a tradition now.”
In the state meet, Kuenzel didn’t have a match reach go the entire six minutes as he won all four of them by pins.
In the opening round Thursday, Kuenzel finished Branson’s Christian Robertson just 11 seconds into the second period.
His second match, Friday against Grain Valley’s Joe Sodano, lasted 45 seconds.
But Kuenzel hit his toughest bout of the tournament in the semifinals against Willard’s Hunter Yeargan.
“I underestimated him more than I should have,” Kuenzel said. “They tell you not to underestimate people and I did. He’s a lot stronger and better than I thought. He’s a very good kid. I expect him to win the next two years. He’s a fantastic kid.”
Facing the 49-1 sophomore, Kuenzel had his hands full. The match was touch-and-go until Kuenzel found his opening and attacked in the third period.
“In his semifinal match, he got down 3-0 but he battled back and overcame adversity to tie the score in the third period before Yeargan took his second injury timeout,” Cranmer said. “Dalton got the choice and picked down. He got the reversal to his back for the fall.”
DK jumped to his feet after winning by a pin in 5:20, knowing he had just one more match in front of the packed Mizzou Arena the next night.
Kuenzel hopes to pass his knowledge on to younger Union wrestlers.
“My dad’s a little league head coach,” Kuenzel said. “I guess after this, I’m just going to have to come back and help coach.”
(182) Dalton Kuenzel, Union (46-2) state champion
• Won 2:11 pin over Christian Robertson, Branson
• Won 0:45 pin over Joey Sodano, Grain Valley
• Won 5:20 pin over Hunter Yeargan, Willard
• Won 3:05 pin over Markel Fluker, Winnetonka