LHU’s Alex Klucker prepares for nationals

(LHU SPORTS) LHU's Alex Klucker wrestles in an NCAA wrestling match. Klucker is one of six Bald Eagles to compete at nationals this weekend.

By MITCH RUPERT

For The Express

LOCK HAVEN – There was no backup plan for Alex Klucker. Lock Haven was the only school he applied to. It was about the only offer he had to wrestle in college, so he went with it.

He was a one-time state qualifier at District 3’s East Pennsboro High School whose only other college wrestling interest was a Facebook message from a local Division III school. Klucker wasn’t even sure as he finished his high school senior season if he wanted to wrestle in college at all.

Then Lock Haven assistant coach Steve Fittery even told Klucker during a preseason clinic if he was unsure if he wanted to wrestle in college, joining a Division I program probably wasn’t in his best interest. But here Klucker is some four years later preparing to participate in his second consecutive NCAA Tournament with Lock Haven.

The formula to get from the point of not knowing if he wanted to wrestle in college to being a multi-time national qualifier isn’t complicated. He’s worked his butt off and didn’t let something as pesky as a torn ACL two years ago slow him down.

Klucker will be one of six Lock Haven wrestlers competing at nationals next weekend in Pittsburgh, joining D.J. Fehlman, Kyle Shoop, Chance Marsteller, Corey Hazel and Thomas Haines. It’s the second consecutive year the Bald Eagles are sending six to the national tournament.

“I think my freshman year I had a chip on my shoulder because I wasn’t as accomplished as some of the other guys,” Klucker said. “But I believed in myself. Over time, that made me work hard. I spent a lot of time in the room and a lot of time in the weight room and going to extra practices. It’s paid off.”

Klucker didn’t qualify for the PIAA tournament until his senior year when he eventually finished eighth. All eight placewinners in that 145-pound bracket has gone on to wrestle Division I in college. Michael Kemerer (Iowa) and Hayden Hidlay (N.C. State) are both All-Americans. Patrick Duggan (West Virginia/Lock Haven/Iowa/Shippensburg), Jarod Verkleeren (Penn State), Jonathan Ross (Lock Haven), Chase Galik (Lehigh) and Jimmy Saylor (Army) have all competed at the Division I level since that 2015 state tournament.

But probably each of those wrestlers had a better high school resume than Klucker’s, who didn’t even win 100 matches in high school. But when he had a strong region tournament, placing fourth, Fittery offered Klucker an opportunity to join the Bald Eagles. His scholarship offer was only $500, but when he got his acceptance letter, he took the only real offer he had.

Klucker went 15-15 that first season at Lock Haven, wrestling unattached. The torn ACL robbed him of his redshirt-freshman season, but it also allowed Klucker to learn from the sidelines about the areas he needed to improve.

When he was able to return, he went hard every day in the practice room. He took the opportunity for extra workouts with coaches and enhanced his natural strength with regular trips to the weight room. It all led to an Eastern Wrestling League championship last season and his first berth into the NCAA tournament.

“He didn’t take many shortcuts in the summer,” Lock Haven coach Scott Moore said. “He’s trained with guys that have been at that level that push him every day. I think when you’re around people that win, you sort of establish the mindset that you belong in that group. He pulled himself up to that level.”

“It’s just development,” Klucker said. “College is a lot different from high school. It’s continuous wrestling and you’re wrestling through every position just not stopping.”

It’s wrestlers like Klucker which are so vital to a small school like Lock Haven, which is not a fully-funded program like it’s neighbor in State College. So being able to get production from a wrestler like Klucker who was an under-the-radar pickup has been critical to the Bald Eagles’ emergence on the national stage.

He’s turned himself into a critical piece of the lineup which has posted wins over the likes of Rutgers and Arizona State in the last two years while cementing the Bald Eagles’ spot as a Top 25 team in the country.

“You rely on those guys,” Moore said. “Those are guys we can sell to recruits. When you have a situation where you’re not fully funded, you need guys who don’t come in on as much scholarship to rise to the occasion.”

With the improvement, Klucker’s expectations have changed. Last year, just getting to the national tournament was good enough to make his season a success. But he left Cleveland after going 0-2 thinking he was more than capable of competing at the tournament.

So this year, when he won the EWL title for the second consecutive season, it didn’t put him on as much of a high as it did a year ago. Truth be told, it was just another step in his season to reach his goal of being an All-American as one of the Top 8 finishers at 157 pounds next weekend.

Of course, that won’t be an easy task to achieve. Klucker is seeded 32nd of the 33 wrestlers in the weight class and wrestles a pigtail match against Duke’s Ben Anderson in Thursday’s first session. His reward should he win? A matchup with two-time NCAA champion Jason Nolf of Penn State. Klucker understands the kind of mountain that is to climb, but hopes he gets the opportunity to test himself against the best 157-pounder in the country.

“To be able to be in his path as he’s potentially on his way to another national title, it’s a great way to see where I am,” Klucker said. “It’s my redshirt-junior year here, so I still have room to grow and improve. We’ll see what happens.”

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