March 27, 2014

Dalton High wrestling coach headed to UTC Hall of Fame

Michael Keefe didn’t begin his wrestling career until what he considers a late age.

Now, he is surprised at how early he is being honored with a spot in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Athletics Hall of Fame.

Keefe, Dalton High School’s head wrestling coach since 2012, will be part of the five-person Class of 2014 inducted tonight at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club.

A 10-member committee votes on nominees for the Hall of Fame. Keefe, a 2007 UTC graduate who will be the 22nd Mocs wrestler in the Hall of Fame, is the all-time wins leader in program history after finishing with a 134-40 record. He came a long way in a short time considering he began wrestling as a ninth-grader at Ringgold High School, where he won two state titles.

“It’s a great honor,” said the 30-year-old Keefe, who wrestled in the 141-pound weight class at UTC. “I started wrestling really late, and it’s just a miracle. I had the best coaches in high school and the best in college.

“The practice room was great. Our practice partners were great. It was just a great situation to be in.”

He said receiving the call a month ago was a shock because it hasn’t been a decade since he took off his UTC wrestling uniform for the last time.

“I was kind of taken off guard,” said Keefe, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at UTC and later earned a master’s degree in education from Valdosta State University. “I thought this stuff happened later in life.”

But it probably shouldn’t be a surprise he’s making the prestigious list of UTC Hall of Fame athletes. Keefe was a four-year starter, two-time Southern Conference champion and an NCAA Division I national tournament qualifier each season with the Mocs, whom he helped lead to three straight Southern Conference titles from 2005 to 2007. He was a two-time Southern Conference champion and was honored as an All-Southern Conference wrestler three times.

His highest honor came as a sophomore, when he earned All-American status, which is given to the top eight finishers nationally in each weight class. Keefe was fifth that season at the NCAA championships.

Keefe tallied 36 wins as a junior and 35 as a sophomore, which rank No. 4 and 5 on UTC’s single-season wins list. His .814 winning percentage in 2005 is ninth all-time at UTC.

He believes a great advantage leading to his success was having a twin brother, Josh, who was also involved in wrestling and along for the ride at UTC.

“It was like God built in a wrestling partner for you at the weight class right below,” Michael Keefe said, noting his brother qualified for the NCAA championships twice and won a Southern Confer-ence title as a 133-pounder. “It’s kind of bittersweet. I’m honored, but I feel me and my brother should go in together.”

Josh is an assistant on Michael’s staff at Dalton, where they hope to have groomed a future All-American in Sidney Wheeler.

The Catamounts senior won the Georgia High School Association’s 182-pound state title for Class 3A as a sophomore and Class 4A this year. Despite his weight advantage over his head coach, Wheeler never found Keefe an easy test in practice.

“At the beginning of the season, I couldn’t do anything against him,” Wheeler said. “After I wrestled him more, I was able to start doing some things, but it’s still pretty even. ... When it comes to wrestling, as a coach, you can’t beat him.”

Even with his college accomplishments, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame member has a “what if.”

He had dreams of wrestling at the Olympic level, but a back injury suffered during the summer of 2006 at the Olympic Training Center derailed those hopes. He wrestled his senior season in pain, then called it a career.

“I wanted to wrestle in the Olympics,” he said. “I had to quit it. Against my will, I had to back out.

“I think about it a lot. It’s one of those things where I never won a national tournament. It’s something I think about a lot. I wonder if I could’ve made the Olympic national team, what would’ve happened.”

Tonight’s ceremony is open to the public and begins at 6 p.m. with a VIP reception. Seats are $30 and include a dinner at 7 p.m. For more information or to reserve a seat, call the UTC alumni office at (423) 425-4785.

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