LAKELAND, Fla. – The 2021 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) season proved to be a historic one for the wrestling program at Southeastern University (SEU). The university won their first two individual national titles in school history, both by unseeded wrestlers.
Sophomore Andreus Bond brought home the 149-pound title while senior Kyle Kirkham won the 165-pound championship. Along the way, both wrestlers had to defeat opponents they lost to previously in their careers.
“These guys put in a ton of work in the wrestling room,” said Jameel Bryant, former assistant wrestling coach at SEU. “Once we saw both guys wrestling at the national tournament we realized both guys peaked at the right time. After that is when they reached their goals.”
This year was Kirkham’s third appearance in the national tournament. He only had one tournament win in his two previous trips to nationals. This time around, Kirkham believed that his overall experience is what changed the outcome.
“The biggest difference for me this year was I did not feel any pressure at the national tournament,” said Kirkham. “I had nothing to lose. I had wrestled in the tournament two times before. It was my last chance to wrestle so I went out there and had fun. It worked out for me.”
Unlike his teammate Kirkham, Andreus Bond was only a sophomore. He wrestled in his first national tournament a year prior and came up short of placing. Bond also looked to take the pressure of winning a national championship out of his mind and just enjoy wrestling.
“I was just thinking one match at a time,” said Bond. “I just wanted to have fun. I didn’t really
care what the outcome was. I knew what I was capable of doing in the tournament.”
Both wrestlers going into nationals were unseeded. This did not come as a surprise to either wrestler. They saw it as a chance to go under the radar and did not give much thought to where they were placed.
In the 149-pound weight class, Bond had to beat the No. 2, No. 10, No. 6, and No.5 seeded wrestlers en route to his first national championship. In the 165-pound weight class, Kirkham had to beat the No. 10, No. 7, No. 3, and No. 8 seeded wrestlers to be able to win his first individual national championship.
There was uncertainty going into this season that the NAIA National Championship was going to happen due to complications from COVID-19. This did not stop the SEU wrestling program from preparing to compete. “No one thought we were going to be able to wrestle at the national tournament,” said Bryant. “We just adapted. We had our smaller groups and just kept training. Once the NAIA saw that cases were going down they let us proceed to the national tournament. We just kept training hard and pushing forward.”
Both wrestlers had to overcome opponents who beat them earlier in their seasons and careers. Bond beat Life University’s Devin Stonecheck in his championship match, two weeks after Stonecheck had pinned him in the first period. “I didn’t really think about it and I knew all the pressure was on him,” said Bond when reflecting on his championship match. “If I got the momentum I knew he would have the pressure. I knew I had to get up early on him and not wrestle from behind.”
Kirkham in his semi-final match beat a familiar foe, Elias Vaofi from Missouri Valley. Vaofi had beaten Kirkham twice before both times in the national tournament. Their match went to overtime where Kirkham was able to secure a takedown to win in sudden victory.
“I knew I could beat him,” said Kirkham. “That was my third time wrestling him. I think wrestling him twice gave me motivation but it was more like clarity.”
The semi-final match was not the only dramatic moment for Kirkham in the tournament. In his championship match, Kirkham landed a takedown with only two seconds left on the clock to secure his national title.
Bond was the first to win the title. Kirkham found hearing that his teammate won the National Championship inspiring.
“Bond winning gave me a sense of happiness,” said Kirkham. “It was weird because you hear your teammate won and you want to go celebrate with him but I had to wrestle in five minutes. It did help me because I knew I did what Bond did every day…”
Kirkham plans to graduate this spring. He wants to keep the sport in his life even after his career comes to an end. Bond has three years of eligibility left in his career. He is looking to make the most of the time he has left and believes that there may be more of a target on his back come next year.
“The goal is to be a four-time national champ. Said Bond. “I want to take it one year at a time. One match at a time. This sounds weird but I don’t even really care about the titles. It’s more about getting better. That has always been the goal.”
The SEU wrestling team looks to keep its momentum alive in 2022, with the hiring of a new head coach, Travis Patrick. After coaching at Arizona Christain University, he will be inheriting a team with a defending national champion and several All-Americans.