Mike Kelly never really had to look very far to find his inspiration as a wrestler. The inspiration and motivation sat in the Kelly living room.
“Ever since I was little, my brother was the guy I looked up to,” said the St. Peter’s Prep junior wrestler, talking about his older brother, Alec. “He was the one who I wanted to be like. He was always pushing me to be a better wrestler.”
Alec Kelly, the school’s all-time leader in victories and the only four-time region champ, is now wrestling at Columbia University, after finishing third in the state in two different weight classes in each of the last two seasons.
The older Kelly’s graduation and departure left Mike to carry on the Kelly family tradition this season.
Mike Kelly was asked if the two ever grappled in the family household as kids.
“We did a few times, but that might have led to a fight, so we stopped,” Mike Kelly said. “Plus, he was always much bigger than me.”
Wrestling foes that were heavier and bigger would become a staple of what Mike Kelly was on the mat. When he joined his brother at the gym owned by former Hackensack High School state champion Chris Bitetto in Teterboro, Mike Kelly was only six years old and weighed about 50 pounds. There are bags of dog food and potatoes bigger in most supermarkets.
“I got used to it,” Kelly said of facing bigger opponents. “I realized that I was small. I know now that it motivated me more. I’m thankful for it now.”
There wasn’t any conversation between the brothers as to who was the better wrestler.
“There was always this unspoken thing, this little mystique about it,” Mike Kelly said. “It wasn’t really competition between us. But I always tried to be better. I used to let it affect me, but now I’ve turned it around and it’s only helped me. I know I have to be better. He took third in the state twice. It’s a good pressure.”
Last year, both Kelly brothers advanced to the NJSIAA state championships in Atlantic City. While Alec took third at 132 pounds, his little brother was sixth in the state at 106 pounds. Not bad for a sophomore.
But Mike Kelly – whose namesake uncle was the head basketball coach at the Prep for several years, leading the Marauders to four straight HCIAA titles from 2008 through 2011 – wasn’t about ready to settle for just sixth place.
In fact, Kelly wanted a slice of immortality.
“My goal is to become the first multiple state champ from Prep,” Mike Kelly said. “I don’t see the point of not going for my dream. My goal is something tough to achieve. I know that. But I won’t be satisfied until I get a state title.”
Last weekend, Kelly took his first step toward attaining that dream, when he captured the 120-pound championship at the new-fangled NJSIAA District 13 Tournament at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School.
Kelly earned the gold medal at the districts with a solid 1-0 victory over previously undefeated Sabri Murray of Rahway.
The third seed in the bracket, Kelly also defeated Maguire Pecci of Seton Hall Prep, 4-2, in the semifinals. Pecci also entered the District 13 tournament without a setback this season.
For defeating the top two seeds in the bracket and defeating two undefeated wrestlers in the process, Kelly was selected as the Most Outstanding Wrestler in District 13.
“I was really surprised with that,” Kelly said of the MOW distinction. “I knew that I had a tough draw in a tough bracket. I didn’t expect that.”
Right before the district tournament began last weekend, Kelly also earned a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Joseph Aragona of Pope John, a state medalist last year whose career record then stood at 49-2 after the loss.
And for his efforts, Kelly has also been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
No need for sibling competition on these pages, as Kelly now joins his brother as recipients of the Reporter’s Athlete of the Week honors. Alec Kelly was chosen as Athlete of the Week March 6 of last year. (The link to Alec Kelly’s feature story will appear at the bottom of this feature.)
St. Peter’s Prep head coach Brian Innis, who coached both brothers, never saw any sibling rivalry brewing in his practice room.
“I’ve coached a bunch of brothers here at Prep and it’s a tough call,” Innis said. “Sometimes, I see it and sometimes I don’t. When Alec is in the room, watching Mike, you can see Mike wanting to outdo his brother. But he’s such a focused kid that it really doesn’t matter.”
Innis was asked about Mike Kelly’s bodacious goal of winning two state titles. Innis knows how tough it is to win just one. His younger brother, Kevin, a former Hudson Reporter Male Athlete of the Year in 2009-2010, came so very close to winning just one state title, but lost in the state finals in overtime.
“The way Mike’s attitude is, it doesn’t surprise me,” Innis said. “He wants to make sure that he’s not selling himself short. But the way he’s wrestling right now, the way he’s come back from his injury, he’s going to be tough to beat. It’s very difficult to wrestle Mike, because he’s so strong down low in his legs.”
Mike Kelly broke his hand right before the wrestling season was set to begin and it took a while for him to get back on the mat and to compete at a high level. There were some unexpected losses at the Beast of the East tournament in Delaware in December, but none in New Jersey. Kelly takes a 17-2 record with him to the Region 3 tournament in West Orange this weekend.
Kelly said that it wasn’t hard to keep himself in shape in the offseason in order to wrestle at 120 pounds.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Kelly said. “I just didn’t eat certain things. I stayed away from some really bad things and had to be smart with it.”
But every so often, Kelly would treat himself to one “bad” thing.
“I can never turn down ice cream,” Kelly said. “I eat a lot of ice cream. It’s irresistible.”
Needless to say, this Kelly brother is a wrestler to watch over the next two weeks.
“He’s just so really focused,” Innis said. “He’s been wrestling at a high level since he was a little boy. He has so much experience, so much mat awareness. He knows how to adapt to the opponent, where to put pressure. His mat sense is so great and he’s made himself so strong. He’s also very confident. It’s a lot of fun watching Mike wrestle. The focus he has in wrestling, you can see it applied to everything. He’s going to make a lot of noise down there in Atlantic City.”
Kelly is certainly focused.
“I have my eyes on one thing,” Kelly said. “I’m winning a state title. I know I don’t want to look too far ahead. But anything short of a state title and I will be disappointed.”
Sounds like the young man knows what he wants – and it’s not just being better than his older brother. – Jim Hague
Here’s the link to the Alec Kelly Athlete of the Week feature that ran last year: http://www.hudsonreporter.com/view/full_story/27110435/article
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com