Patrick McKee (center) cheering on Minnesota teammates during their dual with Michigan (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
The year is 2002 and the Ann Arbor Pioneer Pioneers were in a close dual meet against conference rival, the Hornets of Saline. The two teams had battled once earlier in the year as well, with Ann Arbor Pioneer getting the win. That didn't matter today though. This was the District finals, so throw the records out the window. This was the only one that mattered. This dual was back and forth, headed into 215 pounds, where the Pioneers sent out first-year wrestler J.D. German. J.D. was a senior who made up for any lack of experience with the ferocity of a barracuda. He knew a couple of moves, but the only one of any consequence was his headlock. Saline had a state finalist heavyweight, so we knew that for all intents and purposes, we needed to win at 215 to capture the district championship. I don't recall J.D. being an impatient man, but that night, he didn't display any level of patience. He went right out there, pummeled for maybe 10 seconds, before throwing out a huge headlock, ending with a pin which cemented the dual meet championship for the Pioneer Pioneers (the world's most redundant school name). I know this story, because I was there. I was lucky enough to be on that team, and together we celebrated the first District title that Ann Arbor Pioneer wrestling had won in years.
Little things stick out to me about that year. It had finally occurred to me how the little things make such a dramatic impact on the results of a dual. You always did your best to win, but on occasion, the best thing you could do was to lose by less. 6 is greater than 5, which is greater than 4, which is greater than 3. I used to be good at math, so this logic tracks with me. All at once, it became about trying to win a match, but also trying to win a dual meet. With my limited ability at that time, I knew that I could have an impact on the result of the team's success. This mentality is something I've always valued and appreciated in college wrestling, but not something that you really see as often.
That's why it was so awesome to see Patrick McKee cheering on his teammate as he competed on the backside of the bracket at NCAA's. I was down on the floor watching the quarterfinals and happened to be sitting across the aisle from McKee. He didn't know I was there. I mean he was aware of people around him, of course, but who any of them were, was of no consequence. All he cared about was that Michael Blockhus was either going to win his match, or his tournament was over. The enthusiasm and passion that he put into his voice as he cheered on Blockhus brought me back to 2002, and the team element of this sport. That's why I wanted to talk with Patrick about teamwork, leadership, and the future of Minnesota Golden Gopher wrestling.
Patrick McKee (left) with volunteer assistant Zach Sanders (photos courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Kevin Claunch: Watching you cheer on Blockhus at NCAAs left such a lasting and encouraging feeling about the team aspect of college wrestling. Is this how you've always been as a teammate, or did this develop in you at some point?
Patrick McKee: I was naturally always like this. The match and setting are a big part of it, though. We spend so much time focusing on ourselves during the week, and preparing for competition is a self-motivated piece, but duals or tournaments, I'm really into it. Zach Sanders has had to tell me to calm down or not to waste my energy at times when they start the dual at a weight other than 125. Sometimes I have to walk away. I think I get a lot of this from dual teams I've been on that traveled. You get into it and support your teammates. It also helps that I often go first and notice people cheering me on. Guys like Michael Blockhus and Brayton Lee are just as enthusiastic, so I am happy to cheer for the rest of the guys.
Do you think you were that enthusiastic and tenacious due to your knowledge of what it takes to survive and advance on the backside of the bracket?
Definitely! It's tough. I wish I could give them some of my energy. If I could at that moment, I would. Owen Webster last year, I remember watching when he lost and how tough that was. He worked so hard to get to that point, and it was tough to see him go out. I wanted anything for those wins.
Where did you develop the mentality that it takes to battle that hard on the backside?
I've been in situations earlier in my career going 0-2 in tournaments, or 0-4 in some national tournaments even. It's rough to be in that situation and you remember that feeling. Even seeing friends or my brother place and for me to not place, it's just something you develop where you say to yourself, â€œit's not happening again."
Wasn't there a story after your loss in the first round of NCAAs where you said to your brother, â€œI guess I'm taking thirdâ€?
Yeah, something like that. I know he had said to me â€œAlways get the next best thing.â€ After each match, he'd tell me, â€œit's not enough, keep going. You have one job to do and that's to get 3rd.â€
I wanted to ask about the â€œPost Gableâ€ era at Minnesota. Obviously having someone that talented and with so much attention is generally a positive for the team, but having him leave I'm sure has an impact on the program. This is a two-part question. Part one, what did you learn from him as a teammate? Part two, What do you want to impart as one of the leaders of the Golden Gophers moving forward?
The main thing I've learned from him, as a competitor, is the mentality to never let up. Try to beat these guys as badly as possible. He can score from anywhere, and at times earlier in his career, mostly when he was a freshman, he wouldn't. Then his sophomore year, he went out there and didn't care and just beat people as bad as he could. I know I can do it also, and just to remind myself â€œwhy can't I keep scoringâ€ and have that mentality to break people and destroy their dreams - respectfully. He also stepped up as a vocal leader and expected greatness in all of us. I would think to myself that I need to do better because Gable and our teammates expect greatness. I remember hearing stories about the 10 All American team (2001) that won a national title, and how they held each other accountable and pushed each other to expect greatness. That's what I would like to bring.
Yeah, so elaborate on that. How do you think you could have the best impact on this team as a leader next season and moving forward?
I would like to be more of a vocal leader. Everyone knows the work that needs to be done, but it's important to call people out when they need to improve. The accountability that is instilled into each other. Continuing to be a vocal leader and push for those results is what I want to do, and what you can look for from me.
Teams don't have success without leaders. Leaders that focus on the team's success. It's completely reasonable in a sport like wrestling to have a mindset that focuses on individual success, and that your success will feed into the teams. It makes logical sense, but I just don't believe that it leads to team success. Iron sharpens iron, I don't disagree with that, and competition brings out the best in people. That's undeniable. However, you'll never convince me that the adrenaline dump you get when your team is on their feet and cheering you on in a pivotal moment of a big dual isn't significant. A wrestling match can take a lot out of you physically and mentally, and sometimes it takes an individual who has been in the trenches with you to pull you out. Patrick is one of those guys you want to have in the trenches. He'll be right there beside you and holding you accountable to reach your full potential. Trust me, I saw it happen.