In the not-too-recent past, Nicolet wrestling coach Gus Kaufmann would have turned cartwheels over the three athletes he qualified for state out of the WIAA individual sectional at Milwaukee Lutheran on Feb. 16.

Heck, for most years, he would have been grateful for a single advancer, because Nicolet was usually an afterthought in the Wisconsin prep wrestling world, struggling to keep a viable youth program going, struggling to fill all 14 weight classes.

But times have changed, the Knights are afterthoughts no more.

Parker Keckeisen won the 170-pound WIAA state title last year and is back to try and seize the 182-pound crown this time around. Further, Jeremie Ott, whose freshman son Braeden won a wrestleback at 126 pounds to claim a state berth of his own, is running  the high-powered Junior Knights Wrestling youth program with around 50-60 young and hungry wrestlers anxious to continue Nicolet’s rise.

“These kids are starting to realize what’s out there for them,” said Ott. “They’ve seen the big show (with Keckeisen winning state) and now we’ve got a bunch of eighth graders working towards that same goal.”

On top of that, Nicolet was emboldened when it fell in a tough 39-33 WIAA team sectional dual to powerful Arrowhead on Feb. 14. It was a near-miss that left the Knights just short of a coveted, almost impossible to conceive of first WIAA state team tournament berth.

“We’re building,” said Kaufmann. “We hit February on a good note with a strong third place finish at (North Shore) conference. We finished behind Slinger (a state team tournament qualifier) and West Bend East, which we could live with and then we stepped into the regional (on Feb. 9) and turned in our best regional showing ever.

“Seven champions and a team title, a great effort, so we came into today (individual sectional) with our highest expectations. We were thinking five, six, maybe even seven (state qualifiers) but it didn’t quite happen.”

So the Knights will have to settle for three athletes, two of the present, one for the future, as they head to the Kohl Center in Madison for the WIAA individual state tournament Feb. 21-23.

They have their hammer, their leader in the practice room, defending state 170-pound champion Parker Keckeisen, who cruised to his fourth straight state tournament berth and will look to earn a second state title in the very challenging 182-pound class.

Coming along with him will be the freshman Ott and fellow senior, 132-pounder Ryan Kuesel, who put behind years of frustration at sectional to earn a runner-up spot and a state berth.

“I was nervous today,” said Kuesel, “but it felt good. I’ve been wrestling since since third grade so it was great to get this kind of load off my shoulders.”

The near-misses came at 113 and 120, both with freshmen learning some tough lessons that they will hopefully apply in the future. At 113, Matt Kuesel, Ryan’s little brother, lost a 4-3 wrestleback to Menomonee Falls Casey Reigstad for a state berth while at 120, Luke Lewandowski fell in a wrestleback of his own, 6-5, to Marquette’s Ryan Dineen.

Three other Knights, senior Robert Lagerman at 152, senior Nick Noble at 160, and junior Will Deitrich at 170, all took fourth.

Meanwhile, Keckeisen keeps cruising along. The Northern Iowa recruit is feeling comfortable and healthy. He tried staying at 170 earlier this season but found it more natural to go up to 182 (he weighed in at 180 for sectional, even having eaten breakfast).

He is delighted with the direction of his team even as he prepares for his last prep meet and Kaufmann is equally delighted with the leadership his hammer, his practice-room engine, has shown.

“Oh year, he is the motor behind the whole thing,” said Kaufmann of Keckeisen. “He doesn’t take a day off, a moment off. If the other kids are dogging it a little, he’s the one pushing them forward.

“He’s just a driven kid who truly enjoys his work and the other kids see that, look up to him and respect him for it.”

For Keckeisen, it’s just a great moment to be a Nicolet wrestler.

“I feel good, feel fresh,” he said. “I’m really ready to get after it. …Number two (state title), that’s the goal. I’m just going to continue to wrestle as I have been and give it everything I’ve got.

“These last few weeks have been a blast. That loss (to Arrowhead) was tough, but it was a learning experience, and I hope improving on that becomes a standard for everyone here after I’m gone. That we expect to be there (team state).

“We have tough young guys out there and I hope they do look at me as a role model, as an example of how hard work does pay off.”