When Nathan Pike wrestled at Mt. San Antonio College in California, he figured his career would be over once he enrolled in a four-year school. Instead, he became the first NCAA wrestling champion in NYU history.
The NYU Decision
“I expected to end my wrestling career because I planned to go to a UC (University of California system) and UC’s don’t have wrestling programs,” Pike commented. “Luckily for me, (Senior Assistant) Coach (Corey) Luce came out to my state tournament and told me about the opportunity to wrestle at NYU. I always knew I wanted to live in New York City and this was the perfect opportunity — go to a top school, live in the city, and still wrestle.”
“When I went out there when Nathan was competing, I wasn’t going to see him. We were recruiting a 125-pounder,” Luce recalled. “Nathan didn’t win his regional tournament and was flying under the radar, but he caught my attention in the championship match. The referee made a really bad call against him with 15 seconds left, but he just went right back after his opponent and got the takedown with about five second left. I immediately thought, ‘I don’t know what he wants to do after junior college, but there is no shot I am not talking to him before I leave. I ended up having a great talk with him and his father Ian for over an hour. The more I got to talk to Nathan, the more special I knew he was.”
“I met the team on my recruiting trip and I noticed how driven the guys were and those were the people I wanted to be around,” Pike remembered. “Aside from that, I didn't know too much about the coaches other than first impressions, but in hindsight they are definitely a reason why I would choose NYU. They are coaches who are very understanding and will go to hell and back to support you.”
“I remember telling Nathan that I thought he could come to NYU and win a national title, but it would be an adjustment. Economics is a tough major,” said Luce, who laughs about one decision he made on Pike’s recruiting trip. “I had him room with Brandon Jones, who was already in economics. They are complete opposites.”
Pike was also attracted to the opportunity to study business at NYU and work in the business capital of the United States, but he actually started trying to recruit for a summer internship earlier than he needed to. “That caused some time conflicts during the first part of the season, but the coaches were very understanding,” remarked Pike, who was adjusting to the culture of the team and Division III wrestling. “I was eventually able to adapt and set a goal to become an All-American. From that first year on, the one thing I had to do in order to be an All-American was to control my nerves in high-pressure matches and wrestle my best.”
If Pike was nervous at any point during his career, he wasn’t showing it. “We have recruited a lot of kids from California and we know how laid back they can be,” Luce laughed. “Nathan takes California laid back to another level.”
Luce and Head Coach Bruce Haberli marveled at how Pike would come to practice eating sushi. “Nathan is probably one of the most unusual student-athletes I have ever coached,” Haberli stated. “He will work as hard as anybody — he may just start five minutes late. He does everything his own way. There is a special way that he does things.”
Pike’s laid-back style was a polar opposite to Luce and Haberli’s personalities. “Sometimes he would say to me, ‘Coach, why are you getting so worked up? You are going to give yourself a heart attack,’” Haberli laughed. “Nathan changed my coaching for the better. You can’t always conform everyone to wrestle to the same style,” Luce said. “He is not an Iowa style wrestler. We may never coach someone like him again. I had to change my approach and see that not everyone thinks the same or wrestles the same.”
Indeed, Pike did not always practice the same way as most wrestlers. “After we were on the mat, the guys would go work out, but Nathan would be doing yoga,” Haberli recalled. “He works very hard in spurts and then shuts down. He is all about the mental edge. It was important to him to feel 100 percent.”
"Pike is extremely unconventional in just about every way and I would label myself as pretty old-fashioned when it comes to training," said senior John Messinger, a two-time NCAA qualifier, three-time UAA All-Association honoree, and 2016 UAA Most Outstanding Wrestler. "Spending three years on the team with him has taught me a lot about wrestling and a lot about myself as well. Pike taught me how to approach things in new ways, ways that you would normally never even consider. He worked at his own pace, but worked harder than anybody I've ever seen."
"We both moved from California and joined the team at the same time so right away we kind of clicked," said junior Jacob Donato, a two-time NCAA qualifier who became the first NYU freshman to qualify for nationals in 2015. "He's a great practice partner in the room and a good friend off the mat. I don't think I'll meet anyone like him. He made history and accomplished his goals in his own fashion. From his weird pre-match rituals (juggling a hacky sack), to his diet and metabolism (he always eats sushi before practice), to how he speaks to people and approaches every aspect of his life, everything Kenji does is unique, but methodical and with a purpose."
In that first season, Pike earned the first of his three All-Association honors at 133 pounds and finished sixth at the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships to garner All-America accolades.
Two other things about Pike that stood out in the coaches’ minds were his knowledge of, and friendship with, his opponents. “Nathan always researched his opponent,” Luce relayed. “He wants to watch video and do his homework. That is Nathan, but he is also unorthodox. He is probably Facebook friends with everyone in his weight class. He said it relaxed him to be friends with his opponents.”
“He is one of the most respectful kids. He makes friends with everybody including his competitors,” Haberli added. “He hugged all his opponents after the match, win or lose. He is always upbeat.”
“I am a firm believer in researching your opponents,” confirmed Pike, who also paid close attention to the rankings. “My mentality with rankings was that if someone was lower than me, I would not let them win. If they are higher than me, I wanted to beat them and show them the rankings were wrong.”
Although Pike did not reach the goals he set for himself in 2015-16, he did make NYU history by becoming the first wrestler in program history to reach the NCAA championship match. “My junior year was the year I wanted to win nationals and I also wanted to win the award for the most tech (technical) falls in a season,” he recalled. “Unfortunately, I fell just short of both of those goals, but being the first finalist at NYU was a nice cushion to falling short of my goals.”
His All-America honor was the 13th for NYU since Haberli took over in 1995-96 and Pike became the third wrestler with multiple All-America recognition, joining two-time honoree Tyras Bookman (7th in 1999 and 2000), and Pike’s recruiting trip roommate Jones (5th in 2013, 3rd in 2014, 4th in 2015).
“The year was special to me in particular because I was now well-known in Division III wrestling and felt like I had something to prove,” Pike remarked. One of his favorite opponents in his junior campaign was Ryan O’Boyle. After winning a regular season meeting in a dual match, Pike fell to O’Boyle in the NCAA Division III East Regional final at 133 pounds. The two met again two weeks later in the semifinals of the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships.
“I always get nervous in my semifinal matches and that match against Ryan will always be one of my most memorable matches. I won a grinder against him in the semifinal,” stated Pike, who won the bout, 7-5.
Making the finals was a great accomplishment, but Pike also described it as a different sort of nerves. “I had never felt that way before and I weighed in at 128 pounds before the match because I had shed so much weight from the nerves,” he recalled. “My legs felt like noodles. Although I lost, I looked back on it as a positive because it provided the hunger/ambition to win it the next year. I remember the Messiah (head) coach (Bryan Brunk) coming up to me and telling me, ‘Hey Lucas (Malmberg) was in the finals two years in a row and then won it this year. Next year is your time. It will happen.’ It felt great to know I had the support from people even outside of my school.”
Things got off to a slow start in his final semester and run toward an NCAA title when Pike hyperextended his elbow. “The moment it happened, I was terrified because I heard the pop and my arm was extremely stiff,” he said. “Physically, I put myself in the care of (Athletic Trainer) Bryan (Costello) and trusted he would get me back as much as possible. Mentally, I was concerned because I had already missed the first half of the season and I wanted to come back and support the team.”
“His season really started midway through the second semester. He got a real late start,” Haberli said. “I was glad his elbow injury was early on,” Luce added. “He continued to have a positive perspective.”
Once Pike returned from the injury, he only wrestled nine matches. Among the meets he missed was the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) Multi-Divisional National Duals. “Not wrestling at national duals was something I did not enjoy at all,” Pike remarked. “Even though the injury was out of my control, I felt like I let the team down. At the same time, I knew I didn’t have a long season left so I wanted to make sure my injury was fully healed before I competed again. I did not want to wrestle without confidence in my arm because then I would risk a potentially season-ending injury.”
Entering the NCAA Division III East Regional, Pike wrestled only nine matches, eight of which were victories. His one loss was to Troy Stanich of Stevens Institute of Technology, who finished the season with a 45-1 record. The two met again in the regional final with Stanich coming out on top, marking the third consecutive regional runner-up finish for Pike.
“I think after my first match against Stanich, I knew I was locked in and prepared for the title run,” Pike recalled. “He was undefeated at the time and ranked #1. Although I was pinned in that match I was up 2-0 with around two minutes of riding time before he reversed me and caught me in a pancake in the first period. Even though I was disappointed because I hadn't been pinned in four or five years, I was amped for the next time I wrestled him and I knew I could hang with the best. I also started to go back to some old grips and back workouts I used to do at my old college when I was at my strongest. I was both physically and mentally sound at this point. “
The coaches were not worried about his defeats. “He was actually ahead in both matches and got caught on his back,” Haberli stated. “In his mind, he wrestled sloppy. I believed he was going to win the (NCAA) championship. Everything before was just what happened earlier in the year.”
“He is able to turn the page so quickly,” Luce contributed. “With his mindset, he knows he can do anything. He is somebody who everyone likes and everyone roots for. He takes losing so graciously and is so modest. Those same qualities will make him excel in life.”
Pike took finishing second in the East Regional in stride. “I found myself handling second place very well,” he commented. “It was my third year in a row getting second at regionals and probably the only year I wasn’t upset about it. My match with Stanich was close and lasted all three rounds, rekindling a competitive fire inside of me. I was determined to beat the one guy who beat me. It also relieved me of the pressure at nationals because I was now considered the underdog.”
“I only met Stanich this year and I respect the guy so much and it’s always easier to deal with a loss when it’s to someone like that. I was so pumped up and happy after our match and I remember telling him as we were shaking hands after the match, ‘Hey man, that match was awesome. Let’s do it again in the finals at nationals.’ I try to find the positives in both winning and losing and I found a lot of positives in my loss.”
Two decisive victories in the opening rounds of the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships sent Pike back to the national semifinals. “Preparing for nationals, I kept telling myself and the coaches ‘I am not going to backtrack.’ In other words, I am not going to do worse than I did the year before. I will not regress. No matter what I have to at least make it to the finals and from there I have to rely on the prior years' experience to pull out a championship,” Pike remarked.
The semifinals pitted Pike and undefeated Chris Williams of Millikin University, who earned All-America honors the previous year at 141 pounds. “The semifinal is where I always feel the most pressure,” Pike admitted. “I dread the idea of putting in all the work to be in the top four of the championship bracket, and then losing and invite the possibility of getting sixth. My opponent was a very tough one and I knew the match would be a grinder.”
The bout was a tight one from start to finish with Pike coming out on top, 8-6. “Although I felt this was my most strategic match of the tournament, my plan was the same as always — get on top to score as many points as fast as possible and create a lead,” he said. “Because of my research, I knew my opponent shot a very fast low single to my left leg. For this reason, I bluntly and purposely left my left leg out there to bait him, hoping that it would cause him to hesitate and second-guess his shot because he knew I was expecting it. This worked out and I was able to counter the shot and score a takedown at some point in the match.”
For the second consecutive year, Pike had reached the finals of the NCAA championship. However, he did not get the rematch with Stavich as fifth-seeded Jay Albis of Johnson & Wales University upset the top seed, 7-6, in the other semifinal.
In the interim between the semifinal match during the day and the championship final at night, Pike appeared to be the one person who was not nervous. “His dad and I were a mess,” laughed Luce. “I felt his confidence, but as a coach, I was a little more apprehensive,” Haberli remarked. “We can’t go out on the mat ourselves."
Pike prepared for the championship match with friends and family, remaining calm by playing pool. “I love playing pool and when my friend pointed out the pool table, I was so happy because it was something I could distract myself with that I truly enjoy.”
When it was time to return to the venue, Pike and Assistant Coach Gene Kobilansky went through the same routine they had done before every match that weekend. However, he did forget one crucial part of his pre-match warm-up, to eat some food. “I was definitely concerned about that,” he recalled. “Luckily, Gene grabbed me an apple and some bananas so I could have something in my stomach. The bright side was that I had been pounding water all day, so I was definitely hydrated. Finally, I made sure not to think about how this was my last match. I knew this would only add pressure and all I told myself was, ‘Nathan, you were here last year. You have experience. Your opponent does not have this experience.'”
Two things that Haberli did also aided in Pike’s mental preparation. “Going into the championship match, I felt prepared and surprisingly calm,” Pike recollected. “Coach Haberli had a few words with me prior to the match that were nice to hear and he agreed to let me use a different singlet for the finals match, which is something I have always been a fan of and did when I won my junior college state championship in California.”
Albis took Pike down off a counter shot, but Pike stood up immediately so his deficit was only 2-1 after the first period. “I knew it was time to try something in the second period because I did not want the score close in the third period,” Pike related. “A lot goes through my head during a match. Since I figured (from an attempt in the first period) he knew my arm drag was coming, I decided to use my other other favorite takedown (duck) because I hadn’t used it the entire tournament and I banked on him not knowing it was coming.”
With each grappler holding one of the other’s wrists, Pike faked a duck to the wrist he was grabbing and hit a duck on the other side, where Albis was grabbing his wrist. “I got in pretty deep with the move and was able to score a few back points as well,” Pike recalled. “At this point, the score was 5-2 and my heart began to race because I now created the gap.”
What happened next will go down in NYU wrestling lore. “I threw in my single leg ride and was ready to hit my move. I don’t know the name for this move or even how to explain it, but I am very comfortable with it and go for it in every match,” Pike remarked. “Once he was on his back and I was getting the four count, I felt relief. During the struggle, I hopped over to one side to continued to try and pin him. I don’t usually pin people from this move, but this time was different. I saw blood on his mouth and an animal-like instinct took over me and assured me, ‘Okay, this is it. You’re pinning this guy.’ I squeezed as hard as I could and when the whistle blew, I immediately screamed as loudly as I could. I had never felt this way before.”
Donato, who made an incredible run at regionals to advance to the NCAA championship, told Pike before the match to do a backflip when he won. “I didn’t plan on it because I was afraid I would mess it up. However, the emotions going through me right after the pin were so overwhelming that I didn’t care and I went for it. I kind of messed it up, but I did get a cool picture out of it,” laughed Pike.
At the same time Pike was celebrating, Donato, freshman All-American Blaise Benderoth, and Messinger hopped over the railing in the stands to join him on the mat. “I went to my coaches and trainer and gave them huge hugs,” Pike said. “I then saw my teammates on the floor and was so happy because I knew they weren’t supposed to be there. It was truly an incredible experience and the euphoria I felt was indescribable. I was so happy for my coaches, my teammates, my friends and family who came out to support me, and myself. I did this for all of us. The support I got from everyone is something I am truly grateful for and means a lot to me.”
"Mess (Messinger) and I were hyped during the parade of All-Americans. We were sitting front row in a sea of Augsburg fans screaming for Kenji and Blaise," Donato recalled. "I saw a huge smile on Pike's face and knew that was all he needed to make his nerves go away. After the parade, Blaise ran up and sat next to Mess and I to watch the finals. Right before Pike walked out of the tunnel, I told them that we should all jump the rail and rush the mat when Pike wins. It was over a 10-foot drop to the floor, but right when the ref slapped the mat and Pike hit his ninja gainer backflip, I was already on the floor running to the mat. We ran to the end of the tunnel, and our national champ came full speed and jumped and hugged all of us. That single moment made everything worth it. Pike's groundbreaking performance and impact on our program paved the way and inspired us all and it's up to us to keep that torch lit and continue making history."
“We had All-Americans in every spot from third place to eighth place in the past, but no one reached the final before,” Haberli commented. “Then he became the first one to make the final last year and won it this year. We got first place last.”
“I have probably replayed my match about 10 times since the tournament and it is always replaying in my head,” Pike said. “Not to sound cliché, but it does feel very surreal. I keep thinking of how I ended on perfect terms. For the rest of my life, I can know I left the mat with no regrets whatsoever. That's something every wrestler is taught and I truly feel blessed to feel that way. I also know how proud it made my family to get this done and that makes me proud as well.”
It is difficult for Haberli and Luce to think of next season without Pike. “There will be a noticeable difference without him, but not because of the national championship,” Haberli stated. “He brought so much. Nothing was dull when he was around. He made things lighter.”
“He is someone everyone likes and everyone roots for,” Luce added. “So many people were rooting for him at nationals. That’s just who he is.”
"I'm very fortunate to have had the opportunity to become close friends with Kenji during the past three years in this program," Donato remarked. "Going to nationals with Kenji was great on both occasions. We were the 'Cali Connection' three years ago and made a solid run as a team along with Jones and (2015 UAA Most Outstanding Wrestler Patrick) Sheehan. I was injured last season and missed Pike's finals appearance at nationals, but I had to make sure I qualified this year and was right there with him. We all knew he could do it and make history. His family, friends and NYU fans were all behind him and I couldn't have been more proud to see my boy get his hand raised on that stage."
"He is a student of the sport, and constantly thought of ways to improve, how to counter his next opponent, how to be one step ahead," Messinger added. "I will take a piece of Pike's mentality with me wherever I go for the rest of my life, and I'm sure I'll be happy with the results."
After the championship, Pike traveled to Europe and is enjoying his work in finance. Luce is confident there are many great things ahead for the program’s first national champion. “I told Nathan and his dad that this was a great chapter in his life, but it’s not the best chapter in his life,” Luce said. “You have this (championship) for the rest of your life, but it is not the best moment. Those are still ahead.”