UPPER DARBY >> Brian Kennerly was just another wrestler before typing “Greensboro Coliseum” into his GPS and blowing up four nationally ranked opponents, including the defending PIAA state champ, to win the Super 32 Challenge at 220 pounds.
The gold medal last fall sent his confidence skyrocketing, put him prominently on the wrestling map and shortened the almost eight-hour ride home with Colin Cronin, his Upper Darby teammate, and the rest of the traveling party.
“I knew what I could do,” Kennerly said. “And my coaches and my friends knew what I could do. But doing it on a national level and showing everyone that I know what I can do, it really put me out there. I guess no one really knew about me before that.”
Kennerly’s encore was off the charts. The 18-year-old Upper Darby honors student rolled to a 38-0 record and the PIAA Class 3A state title at 220 pounds in Hershey.
Kennerly is just the fourth Delaware County wrestler to go undefeated and win a state title, per newspaper records. He’s the Daily Times Wrestler of the Year — by fall.
Speaking of which, there were a lot bumps in the road for Kennerly.
“The most important thing wrestling teaches you is perseverance,” Kennerly said. “It’s one of those sports that is going to beat you up regardless of how good you are. There’s always going to be somebody who’s going to beat you up really bad. But it teaches you about coming back. It shows you that if you can take a beating, you can come back and be successful in wrestling … or in life.”
Kennerly, his reputation preceding him after the Super 32, seemed to enjoy each and every challenge. One of his memorable matches was a decision over Joe Doyle of Council Rock South in the featured bout at the Class 3A Southeast regions.
Trailing, Kennerly uncorked a freight train double-leg takedown so sudden and gut-wrenching the runner-up threw the second-place medal in the trash.
A few weeks later Kennerly stood tall on the podium in Hershey above his last two opponents, who were penalized for stalling.
Kennerly is just the eighth Delaware County wrestler to win it all at states, and the first to do so since Joel Edwards of Upper Darby prevailed at 189 pounds in 2001. Three of the last four gold medalists from Delco hail from Upper Darby. That was part of the late-night hotel conversation among the UD contingent at states which included Cronin and teammate Max Livingston, and coach Bob Martin and his staff.
“We stayed up all night,” Kennerly said. “You think you’d be real tired after a few days of wrestling but you stay up for the memories.”
Kennerly completed his epic high school career with a 102-23 record. After the season he earned All-American status in a Flo-National competition.
“I felt like I arrived at the end of my journey as a high school wrestler and in what I failed to accomplish a few years ago,” said Kennerly, who was eliminated at states in 2016 in the knockout round. “I felt satisfied, content at how it ended. But it really flew by this year. I already miss it. I already miss just being with the boys and practicing and messing around a little. It happens like quick, bang.”
Kennerly has a ton of memories to take to the University of Virginia, where he’s on scholarship to wrestle and major in economics.
Kennerly became a wrestler only after he was cut trying out for basketball in seventh and eighth grades.
It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Martin and his coaching staff of Dennis Mejias, Luke Bileyu, Steve Bell, Billy Petransky, Joe Carney, Matt Lewis and Gary Pflieger.
“The first day of practice my freshman year I thought he was crazy,” Kennerly said of Martin. “He was giving us the preseason speech, how it’s going to be real hard, not easy and I was thinking, ‘Man, this is going to be a lot of work.’ But it ended up for the better. And he’s not like that at all. He’s a sweet guy.”
Kennerly’s dry sense of humor and penchant for pranks (his old hide-your-clothes-when-you’re-in-the-shower trick has become legend) is exceeded only by his work ethic. His offseason is as laborious as in-season training.
A typical offseason day for Kennerly would be seven hours of school ending near 3 p.m., homework, and around 6 p.m. a lift, a run and practice, the latter to work on technique. Four days a week, more often than three.
There’s also extra work with Lewis Baker at Contender Elite in Telford. Baker wrestled at Drexel and Upper Merion and worked at the U.S. Olympic training center in Greco-Roman styling wrestling.
“The very first freestyle tournament that we took him to, Brian did not want to wrestle Greco-Roman, which is all upper body,” Baker said. “He was saying he really didn’t want to do this, he wasn’t really sure of what to do. And his very first match he throws this kid over his head for five points and I mean, you just don’t see that kind of athleticism, that kind of explosion. And I turned to Dennis (Mejias), he was standing next to me and I was like, ‘Holy crap, where did you find this kid?’ You could just see the potential there. And he just put in all of the work to polish all of his assets.”
All of Kennerly’s work paid off in Hershey. Time stood still for what seemed an eternity while Kennerly, his family and friends in front of him, stood on the top rung of the podium wearing gold.
“When I was a freshman and JV for most of that year, the same people that were there at states were the same people there when I was JV,” Kennerly said. “They cared the same amount as if I won the state championship or I beat a JV kid, 3-2. Family means a lot. I went over to them right after the match because I love them. I love my coaches, I love my friends. At the end of the day they were going to be there whether I won that match or lost that match.”
Kennerly’s cell phone blew up after winning the state championship. Texts and emails from Upper Darby alums kept him busy the next week. State representative Jamie Santora (R-163, Upper Darby) will honor Kennerly in Harrisburg.
Kennerly plans to spend another summer working as a lifeguard at a pool in Clifton Heights before putting his mathematics and people skills to work at Virginia.
The epic wrestling season won’t be far away, either. Call it a working reunion of Cronin, Livingston and Martin, their boss.
“I’m going to keep training this summer and hopefully win a national title,” Kennerly said. “No one expected me to win a state title. I didn’t expect it. So if I just keep the work ethic and keep training, hopefully All-American, I might be that some day. I just want to be on the top of any peak that stands in front of me, on any level.”
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