UB wrestler Kyle Akins rebounds from shoulder surgery, becomes nationally-ranked competitor
Head coach John Stutzman remembers the “dark age” of UB wrestling.
It was a time when the Bulls won one Mid-American Conference matchup in three seasons. The program wasn’t getting many standout wrestlers out of high school, while competing in a conference that is one of the best in the nation.
Stutzman and the Bulls (10-8, 2-5 Mid-American Conference) are hoping recent and incoming recruits – wrestlers who’ve won state championship at the high school level – can continue the program’s climb out of its “dark age.”
No one wrestler embodies that more than Kyle Akins.
Akins is a 125-pound freshman who fits the mold for everything Stutzman is trying to build. Akins had his first action as a Bull just a few months ago but he may be the wrestler to transition Buffalo into a new era as national contenders.
“He’s the type of kid that you’re going to build the program around,” Stutzman said.
Akins is less than two years removed from major right shoulder surgery that forced him to miss all of his true freshman season last year. Now, he’s ranked No. 33 in the nation at the 125-pound weight class and is the seventh best freshman in the country at his weight.
His most recent victory was a decisive win against Northern Illinois. Akins took down opponent Alijah Jeffery in the sudden victory period to help Buffalo clinch its first 10-win season since 2003-04.
“It’s good to see progression throughout the season and beat those kids that I was losing to earlier in the season,” Akins said.
His shoulder injury wasn’t the result of just one incident. It was more wear and tear as each practice went on. Once he began training at UB during the 2014-15 offseason, Akins started to feel discomfort in his right shoulder. He realized it was “sliding around” in his socket.
He needed surgery and had to miss his entire true freshman year.
He was devastated about the news, but the slow recovery was more grueling.
“One of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Akins said about his six-month recovery. “It was super slow, but it got that itch going.”
After rehabilitation, Akins is confident his shoulder won’t be an issue any longer. And so far, his prediction has held true.
“Shoulder’s been great,” Akins said. “I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s in the back of my head. I try not to think about it at all. No pain.”
And he couldn’t wait to get back onto the mat. Before this season, the last match he had wrestled was in the Illinois State Championships as a high school wrestler.
He was a state champion in the 125-pound weight division his junior year and was the runner-up in states his senior year. He was a top-100 recruit in the nation at his weight and a two-time freestyle All-American.
Stutzman jumped on the opportunity.
When Stutzman was still an assistant at Northern Illinois, one of his wrestlers ended up being Akins’ high school coach. Stutzman rekindled his relationship with his former wrestler, which helped him set up a visit for Akins to see UB.
Akins committed the next day. And Stutzman knew he had his next superstar to follow up in the 125-pound weight class.
Max Soria, a graduated 125-pound wrestler, was one of the most decorated wrestlers to ever represent Buffalo. He was a mainstay during Buffalo’s “dark ages,” as he accumulated 81 career victories and still holds the UB record for most escapes in program history (85).
He reached the NCAA Tournament twice, but he never won the national stage.
Stutzman expects Akins to.
“[Max Soria] did well for us,” Stutzman said. “But I expect Kyle to surpass that and get on the podium a few times and compete for a national title.”
And through all adversity, Stutzman said Akins is only one of the many wrestlers that will help turn the program around. Buffalo’s has reached the 10-win plateau and secured two MAC victories this season after going winless in the conference during Stutzman’s first two seasons.
But he wants more from his prodigy. Of course, a national ranking is coveted, but Stutzman is thinking bigger for his up-and-coming star.
“It’s not where we want to be. We want to be No. 1,” Stutzman said. “He’s the forgotten guy at 125. He’s taken some tough losses but he’s an unbelievable kid that rebounds well.”
And it’s possible Stutzman and the Bulls may have that national winner sooner than later. Stutzman said by next year, there might be close to 13-14 wrestlers that have individual state rings.
“We’re getting talent,” Stutzman said. “We will have more state champions on this team than we ever had before.”