TOLEDO — When Fairview graduate Kaden Blair’s wrestling career wound down in Black and Gold, even an eighth-place state finish as a senior seemed like an achievement as he contemplated his future path.
Once he headed to the University of Toledo to pursue a degree in physical therapy, the former Apache turned his focus to academics but still had a twinge in his heart for the mats as he helped train and coach Fairview’s 2021-22 wrestling team with head coach Josh Neilson.
That return home sparked a fire for Blair that has taken the Rocket sophomore all the way to the top as Blair battled his way from tryouts to top dog as a National Collegiate Wrestling Association national champion on Saturday, March 11.
“After my senior year, that fall (of 2021), I was coaching at the high school and wrestling with the guys and I thought, ‘hey maybe I want to keep doing this,’” explained Blair, who was 125-40 in his mat career for Fairview. “That January, I reached out to (Toledo coach Bryan) Knepper, and he told me to check out their practices and one thing led to another and I decided to join the team.”
The switch from prep wrestling to the college level was an admitted adjustment for Blair.
“I had a wake-up call my first tournament (as a freshman),” said Blair, who was 11-8 as a freshman, finishing second at the Great Lakes Conference tournament at 141 before earning a pair of wins in a 2-2 showing at the national championships, including a 3-1 loss to the eventual national champion, and winning the Most Outstanding Freshman Award for Toledo. “Guys are a lot better at the college level. I had to continue to stick with it and adapt to that style. Everyone’s faster and stronger, everyone’s there to beat you up.
“I definitely looked at my freshman year as motivation. When I got knocked out, I knew I wanted to hit it harder this year, place and be an All-American.”
Competing at 133 in his second season wrestling with the Rockets, Blair found his stride as a sophomore, rattling off 27 wins in 28 matches at 133 and a 30-4 overall record before a postseason journey that brought the former Apache standout to the NCWA National Championships at the Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
There, Blair made his No. 8 athlete point ranking stand up, navigating his way through the brackets as the No. 2 seed at 133. That trek led Blair to a matchup with Dillon Messick of Apprentice School (Va.), the No. 1 ranked NCWA wrestler at 133 during the season.
Blair took it to the top-rated Messick with a 3-1 triumph in sudden victory to become the first national champion wrestler for the Rockets since 2018 and achieve his goal of becoming an All-American.
“I had a coming-to moment in my second match at nationals,” admitted Blair, who fell behind 5-3 against Big Bend Community College’s Elijah Acevedo before rallying in the final 30 seconds for a tying takedown and an eventual pin. “That was a tone-setter for me, it really put my goals in perspective. After that match it was all gas. I didn’t let up in a single match, I didn’t want to leave that opportunity with any regrets.”
For Blair, his two seasons alone have led to an indelible mark on a proud Toledo wrestling program that dates back to the 1950s. The school dropped the program as a Division I NCAA unit due to Title IX concerns in 1994 before the program returned in 1997.
Through the Toledo Wrestling Foundation, some wrestlers on the team receive athletic scholarships. Through the NCWA, Toledo competed at the national tournament amid schools like Bellarmine, Liberty University, Central Florida, Grand Valley State and Slippery Rock and against club teams from schools like Ohio State, Fresno State and Rutgers.
Through his first two seasons, Blair’s 41 wins are already 12th all-time in the NCWA era with his 77.4 winning percentage fifth-best overall. Blair tallied 33 takedowns and eight pins with 142 total points scored this past season winning championships at the Fall Brawl (Mott Community College, Flint, Mich.), Ohio Intercollegiate Open (Case Western), Hawks Invite (Henry Ford College, Dearborn, Mich.) and Jayhawk Open (Muskegon CC, Muskegon, Mich.).
Blair isn’t the only local wrestler looking to make a mark in a shift to Blue and Gold. Former Liberty Center standouts Camren Foster and Owen Johnson are freshmen wrestlers for the Rockets, joined by NWOAL classmates Rylee Hanefeld of Delta and Dylan Cook of Seanton with Delta’s Evan Hanefeld and Wauseon’s Zaiden Kessler committed to the program next season.
With his perspective, Blair is just getting started, however.
“Working with some of the guys at Fairview still, I’ve been working with them, motivating them and showing them where they can go,” said the former Apache. “You keep putting in the work, you can achieve whatever you set your goals to be.
“At the end of the national tournament last year, I told myself I was going to be a national champion and I thought that basically every day until this past weekend and I turned it into a reality.”
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