No one can tell Michigan wrestler Kyle Smith that he hasn”t put in the time.
A three-time high school state champion from Montana, Smith came to Michigan in the fall of 1998 ready to contribute immediately to an already-strong program. After redshirting his freshman season, Smith wrestled in his first three varsity matches at the 197-pound weight class.
Then the wait began.
Smith lost that spot for the rest of the season to then-junior Joe Degain. The next year he was moved down to the 184-pound weight class, only to spend the season behind All-American Andy Hrovat.
Now, two years later, Smith is finally back on the varsity team. And he is making the most of his opportunity. He is already 11-4 this season and ranked No. 11 nationally in his weight class by Amateur Wrestling News.
“It was real hard not being in the starting lineup for all that time,” Smith said. “But sitting back makes you want to work that much harder and be that much better.”
Michigan wrestling coach Joe McFarland can see that Smith has learned quite a bit while waiting for his time to come.
“He is more selective on his attacks and he has that ability to explode now,” McFarland said. “I know it was tough on him not wrestling at varsity for a few years, but he has paid his dues.”
Smith”s biggest triumph came last month when he won the Michigan State Open. In the semifinals, he defeated the Spartans” All-American Nik Fekete, 11-5.
Smith gets another chance to take Fekete down Friday when the Wolverines travel to East Lansing to take on the Spartans in a nonconference meet.
“This is his first year in our lineup consistently and Kyle is doing a great job,” McFarland said. “His goal is to be an All-American and he can do that.
“He is just that good. I am sure he learned some things from Degain, and it was a good thing to have a guy like him fighting every day to get into the lineup. Now he is getting that chance. I”m happy for him.”
Getting the chance to shine is all Smith wanted.
“Sure, it was hard not wrestling at the varsity level but I”m just getting to where I have always wanted to be,” he said. “I”m always looking to improve and help our team make the national championships.”
McFarland knew he had landed a tough competitor when he signed the Butte, Mont. native four years ago, but he also knew he was raw.
“He was a tough kid from a tough town and he”s been behind some pretty good guys,” McFarland said. “I loved his intensity but the control just wasn”t there.”
While it was tough sitting back and watching early in his career, the thought of transferring never crossed Smith”s mind.
“I love it here. Our team is the best I have ever seen as far as being a close group,” he said.
And Smith has leapt into a leadership role on the team as rapidly as he leapt into the national rankings. “Kyle is a leader,” McFarland said. “He”s been in our program for a number of years and he knows how we do things here.”
For now, Smith just wants to keep concentrating on pulling his part of the load.
“I”m not satisfied with being ranked No. 11 in the nation even if it”s my first year on varsity,” Smith said. “I”m pushing myself real hard this year. You never forget that feeling when you”re not their in the starting lineup.”