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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Inside the Mind of Keegan O'Toole

    Two-time NCAA champion Keegan O'Toole (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    In front of a record-setting Hearnes crowd, senior Jarrett Jacques got his hand raised in a close 2-0 decision win. That clinched the dual win upset for #10 Missouri over #3 Iowa State. Despite this, no fan of either school was heading for the doors. There was just one match remaining; one that everyone had circled since the start of the season. Returning champ Keegan O'Toole was taking on 2021 champion David Carr.

    The match had been discussed since Carr first announced the move to 165 pounds. Not only had both wrestlers won national titles, but they were also both U20 World Champions at 74kg. Carr won in 2019 while O'Toole won in 2021. Both wrestlers even competed at the revived NWCA All-Star Classic where Carr beat Quincy Monday and O'Toole beat Dean Hamiti.

    The style matchup was clear, could David Carr's explosive and dynamic offense overwhelm Keegan O'Toole's scrambling and flexibility? A 40-second scramble towards the end of the first period showed that Carr could scramble with O'Toole and more, as he scored a late takedown for a lead. Carr took bottom, which at the time felt like a chance for O'Toole to turn the tide with a tough ride. Carr was out quickly, however, and suddenly O'Toole was down 3-0.

    O'Toole managed to score a takedown of his own, followed by another quick escape from Carr. Again late in the period, Carr won a scramble to score another takedown. Carr then showed off a facet of his game that had not been highlighted against someone of O'Toole's caliber yet, his top game. Carr rode him out the entire third period for a dominant 7-2 win.

    It was the first loss for O'Toole since the 2021 NCAA quarterfinals and broke a 41-match winning streak. "I'd never seen Keegan get ridden like that before." Mizzou coach Brian Smith stated. "He left the game plan and never got back with it."

    The loss didn't keep O'Toole down for long, as the no longer undefeated wrestler was in the room early the next morning drilling with Kendric Maple. The team had two weeks to prepare for Big 12's and everyone expected another finals matchup between O'Toole and Carr. Much of the preparation was spent with Jarrett Jacques and true freshman Cam Steed.

    The anticipated rematch happened, this time with a much closer score. This time however O'Toole was able to get out, and there were multiple reviews that could have gone either way. Carr scored a late takedown for the lead, but an O'Toole escape and stall point tied it. In overtime, Carr again successfully got to a leg, and similar to the first match patiently worked his way up. O'Toole was looking to hook a leg, and Carr took advantage by locking up a cradle and pinning O'Toole in a shocking finish.

    "I remember standing in the tunnel and they [O'Toole and Maple] were immediately back to working," said Coach Smith. The work continued with NCAA's finally coming up, and the two were once again on a crash course to the finals as the top two seeds. Despite some close matches, both navigated their way to the finals for their final match of the season.

    After two losses, surely there must be some hesitation for your athlete, teammate, or friend right? "Never felt more confident going into a finals match." per Coach Smith. Jarrett Jacques, his teammate and warmup partner before the finals, said O'Toole was amazing.

    A part of the game plan for the Tiger wrestler had always been to get a first-period takedown. He had come close, but it didn't occur until this match, when a late takedown and rideout gave O'Toole an early lead. The match stayed close going into the third period, with O'Toole up by one.

    Again he was able to score an escape, a major difference from the first match. From there he scored another takedown, and broke the match open with two nearfall and locked up riding time for an 8-2 win and his second national title.

    Keegan O'Toole and David Carr after the 2023 NCAA finals (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    "I was exposed to a really high-level wrestler there and I needed to address some things," O'Toole said. "I'm still carrying that into every match." For O'Toole, the adjustments can begin before a match even ends.

    Recently he took on Jason Nolf in the US Open semifinals. Nolf took an early 9-0 lead after the first period. In the second period, O'Toole had made clear adjustments, scoring a takedown of his own but also keeping Nolf from scoring. Then immediately after the match, he was texting Coach Smith about things he wanted to work on. After his 2022 title, Jacques said he was in the hotel room watching his finals match multiple times and focusing on things he could improve on.

    One of the biggest things O'Toole has that makes him a successful wrestler? A growth mindset. "He has one of the greatest growth mindsets of any athlete I've ever coached," Smith said. "What you believe is how you're going to respond, and he responds in the right ways."

    That showed almost immediately in talking with O'Toole, who said it was "good that he got his butt kicked" after the first match. Maple calls him different, and can be a difficult wrestler to find critiques for after matches. The two often spend time trading ideas and coming up with plans for his evolution.

    While O'Toole tried his hand at the Senior level this offseason, Carr has said that he is putting the rest of his time into folkstyle in his final year in college. Both are expected to be at 165 again, a weight that also returns seven of the eight 2023 All-Americans.

    "I think it's going to be one of those great rivalries that people look forward to," Smith said. "They're going to continue to bring out the best in each other and I know they're up there working and we'll be working."

    "I'm expecting some battles." Said O'Toole when asked about his expectations for their future matches. "I don't expect them to be easy, nor do I want them to be." The two are likely to meet up multiple times again with the dual, conferences, and potentially NCAA's. Not only that, but there's a good chance they could match up on the Senior level someday as well. After an incredible back and forth in the 2023 season, this could be one of the most anticipated rivalries in years in 2024.

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