DURHAM, N.C. – Jacob Kasper has never backed down from an opponent on the wrestling mat. In less than two months, the Lexington graduate may take on the biggest challenge of his life.
That’s when the Duke University redshirt junior may take on Ohio State junior heavyweight Kyle Snyder – only the defending NCAA champion, world champion and the youngest Olympic wrestling Gold medalist in U.S. history.
The clash would come at the NCAA Division I national tournament at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on March 16 to 18.
Kasper, now the nation’s 3rd-ranked heavyweight, is not intimidated by the thought of fighting Snyder. In fact, the 6-4, 230-pound Kasper can’t wait for the chance to dance with the Maryland native.
“I have seen (Snyder) wrestle a lot. He is the poster boy for USA wrestling right now and is kind of considered untouchable,” said Kasper, 24-1 this season with 18 consecutive wins.
“That’s what I want. I have been an underdog my whole life. If I stick to my game plan, I think I can be a legend killer.
“I want to punch him in the mouth and see what he’s got.”
LIFETIME PREPARATION: A win against Snyder, who just won the gold medal at the prestigious Yarygin Grand Prix international open tournament in Siberia, would certainly shock the world.
But Kasper always takes the mat expecting to win – regardless of the foe.
It stems from a lifetime of work preparing for it, including his career at Lexington, where he posted a 143-42 career record. That includes a 13-10 record as a freshman, which he improved to 52-2 as a senior.
“The one thing I can say about Jacob is he makes every sacrifice to be successful,” said former Lexington coach Brent Rastetter, who now leads the Otterbein University program and coaches Kasper’s younger brother, Drew.
“Jacob is a tireless worker and does it the right way – keeping his nose clean and no partying of any kind.
“He is a great role model for any kid lacing up wrestling shoes right now,” Rastetter said. “I think back to the skinny 125-pounder I had as a freshman and the man he has grown into … talk about before and after pictures,” Rastetter said with a laugh.
The battles the Kasper brothers had growing up had to be legendary. Drew, a freshman at Otterbein, won a state title at Lexington High School and has a 21-4 record at 197 pounds for the Cardinals this season. Drew is now ranked 10th in the nation in Division III.
Jacob Kasper, unbeaten in six matches this year against Division I top 20 opponents, has seen the same improvement pattern at Duke, where he is also an all-ACC academic performer majoring in sociology and evolutionary anthropology. He was 15-16 as freshman at 184 pounds and 24-12 as a sophomore in the same class, qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
“It’s pretty unique,” Kasper said this week. “I don’t know a lot of wrestlers who have experienced that kind of growth at both levels. It’s pretty cool.”
In December 2015, Kasper placed seventh at the U.S. Open and qualified for the Olympic trials in the 215-pound class. He packed his car and drove 22 hours to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
“I didn’t know where I was going to stay, when practices were, what I was going to eat or anything else. I was out there to train – that’s it,” Kasper said.
Kasper found a basement room without running water or a working kitchen. But he never slowed down -- until a flare up of his Crohn’s disease slowed his ability to compete and sent him to a doctor.
The disease impacts the gastrointestinal tract, causing abdominal pain and weight loss, neither of which is good for a wrestler.
“I tried to be on the mats as much as I could,” he said. “Even when I couldn’t, I tried to pick everyone’s brains on techniques.”
Despite the illness, Kasper finished fifth at the Olympic Trials in Iowa City. He didn’t earn a spot on the U.S. team for the games in Rio, but he sent a clear competitive statement.
LESSONS LEARNED: Kasper took the techniques and lessons learned and decided to bump up to heavyweight (285 pounds) this season at Duke, a move making another illness flare-up less likely.
He sent another clear competitive statement last weekend when he pounded then-3rd ranked Ty Walz from Virginia Tech by majority decision, 15-7, a one-sided victory that sent shockwaves through the wrestling community.
Kasper scored with three takedowns, two escapes and then closed the third period with four nearfall points. The win was the second of the week for Kasper, earning him his second ACC Wrestler of the Week award this season.
“I felt (Walz) broke in the third period,” Kasper said. “He didn’t really want to win anymore.
“My coach says these heavyweights haven’t felt anyone like me. I can attack low. I can attack high. I think I am super dangerous. And if it comes down to who wants it more, I think I am in good shape,” he said.
Kasper has also continued his torrid training pace this season, spending nine to 12 hours a day wrestling, lifting weights and more.
“I joke and tell people when I go to the mats that I am going to the lab,” he said. “I want to be like a scientist … always learning new things. I probably have more clothes in my (gym) locker than I do in my room.
“But you can’t complain about having a full plate when your goal is to be a success in everything you do,” Kasper said.
It helps Kasper has former high school teammates Jake Faust and Brandon Leynaud as Duke teammates.
“It definitely makes it more like family,” Kasper said. “I have wrestled with them for like eight years. When I am having a hard time, I can reach out to them and they can do the same with me.”
ULTIMATE GOALS: Kasper said he wants to win a national title and qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But he is also looking for other accomplishments.
“At the end of the day, if I can motivate and inspire some 15 or 16-year-old that he can do anything he wants to do if he is willing to work hard, that would be the best thing,” Kasper said.
Just don’t look for Kasper in the UFC octagon when he is done wrestling for the Blue Devils.
“I don’t think so. I have friends who want to do it. I don’t know what the future holds. I have put a lot of time and money into getting this education. I will have a lot of avenues open.”