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Bucknell best fit for Lower Burrell wrestler Zach Kelly

| Thursday, July 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Lower Burrell native Zach Kelly, a rising junior at The Kiski School, committed to wrestle at Bucknell in mid-May.
Lower Burrell native Zach Kelly, a rising junior at The Kiski School, committed to wrestle at Bucknell in mid-May.

Until he began to attend The Kiski School two years ago, Zach Kelly rarely embraced his studious side. He worried about wrestling, the sport in which he excelled at Burrell as a freshman in 2010-11.

Kelly, a Lower Burrell native, approved of the way the boarding school squeezed not only athletic but academic potential out of him.

Though he still has two years left at Kiski School, Kelly recently seized the chance to tie his future to a college he believes will steer him in the same manner as his current institution. In mid-May, he verbally committed to Bucknell, which reinstituted its Division I wrestling program for the 2006-07 season.

“It really reminded me of Kiski Prep,” said Kelly, who visited the university located in Lewisburg, Pa., just after the school year ended. He committed two weeks later. “The opportunity was there, and when I went to Bucknell it just felt perfect for me. I thought there was no reason to not (commit). It takes the pressure off me for the next two years. I can just go out and concentrate on wrestling.”

No school offered Kelly prior to Bucknell. He also considered North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Stanford and Columbia as preferable destinations but chose not to wait for additional suitors.

His stock is likely to rise during the next two seasons. Flowrestling, one of the country's top websites for the sport, ranks him No. 4 among all high school wrestlers in the 152-pound weight class. Yet he insists he'll stand by Bucknell even if other schools subtly try to change his mind.

“If anything, (other recruiters) will just make me feel better about myself, and I'm sure it'll make Bucknell feel better if one of their guys is getting recruited by more schools but stays happy with Bucknell,” he said.

When Kelly makes decisions, he tends to stand by them even in the face of temptation to change his mind. He has not regretted his transfer from Burrell, which continued to thrive without him.

In his only season with the Bucs, Kelly won a WPIAL title and qualified for the PIAA championships at 112, and the Bucs won a WPIAL team title.

“At Burrell, it was more wrestle, wrestle, wrestle,” he said. “My grades weren't where they could've been. I was a smart kid, but I didn't always put in the effort. My parents saw that. A lot of my teachers at Burrell even saw that.

“(At Kiski School), you're pretty much on your own. You have to grow up or you're not going to make it.”

He became a straight-A student in short order at his new school. And his performances on the mat improved, too.

Reclassified as a freshman at Kiski School, he placed third in the Westmoreland County Coaches Association tournament and fourth at the National Prep championships as a 132-pounder.

Last season, he took second in the National Prep championships and fifth in the prestigious Beast of the East tournament in Delaware at 152.

“Probably the only person who thought he was under the radar as far as his talent was Zach himself,” Kiski School coach Joe Ross said.

Kelly adopted a more aggressive wrestling style. He worried less about cutting weight and focused on maintaining a healthy routine. He matured on the mat and off it.

He misses his Burrell teammates, most of whom were there when he started wrestling at 5 years old. He still practices with them during the offseason. There's temptation to return, but he understands the importance of Kiski School's structured setting. He must continue to become the kind of person that caught the eye of Bucknell.

“It was really cool to see that,” he said of his 3.8 grade-point average. “And to know that I had that in me.”

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