By Pat Dailey (For OzarkSportsZone.com)
Citing his half-Japanese background, Kickapoo junior Tai Koyama relates his last name in Japanese, “means little mountain.”
Koyama climbed what had been a monumental mountain personally for him by beating Republic’s Connor Sandridge in the Class 4 District 5 170-pound championship match this past weekend.
Koyama, who upped his record to 28-4, won by fall in 4:12 to get the best of Sandridge for the first time dating back to their matchups in youth wrestling when they were in middle school.
“I did it because I imagined it,” Koyama said. “I think I’m one of the better wrestlers in the area and I believed that and showed that. Beating him boosts my confidence. It shows me where I’m at. It’s not like there is a huge gap between me and other wrestlers. I know I can beat anyone in the state.”
“Stepping up in big matches had been a bit of a bump for Tai the last couple of years,” Kickapoo coach Billy Buckley said. “It was nice to see him come out on the right side against Sandridge. That was a big win for him. A lot of emotions came out from him because of the history between those two.”
The next hurdle for Koyama will be qualifying for State for the first time. He was eliminated in the third round of wrestlebacks at Districts a year ago.
Koyama will be looking to become Kickapoo’s first State qualifier since Jason Norman two years ago.
By winning 20 of his last 21 matches and being a District champ, Koyoma put the Chiefs’ wrestling program in the kind of spotlight usually associated with Kickapoo’s elite basketball programs.
“I love proving Kickapoo isn’t a one-trick pony,” Koyama said. “Kickapoo produces higher-level athletes, not just higher-level basketball players.”
Koyama’s athleticism is what stood out when Buckley first met him four years ago. Koyama was in the seventh grade when he first got on a mat.
“When he was in our youth club at Cherokee (Middle School), I got to know him,” Buckley said. “When kids first start wrestling, they’re all a little clumsy. But he had some athletic ability.”
Once Koyama got his initial taste of wrestling, he was all-in. Ever since, he’s wrestled during school and club seasons.
“I started relatively late. But I’ve put in extra work so I can beat higher-level kids and wrestle for a full six minutes,” Koyama said. “My family calls kids who wrestle just during the high school season part-time wrestlers. Full-time wrestlers like me are going year-round non-stop. Full-time wrestlers go out and smoke kids who only wrestle three months out of the year. I’m wrestling four times that long every year.”
“The thing that has made him what he is has been his dedication to the sport and the work he puts in,” Buckley said. “This is his only sport, so it’s what he focuses on. He eats and breathes wrestling.”
Koyama had recorded two near-falls and was leading 19-4 when he pinned Sandridge. It was quite a turnaround. In their most recent meeting at Parkview’s Kinloch Classic in late December, Sandridge won 14-6.
“Some kids Tai wrestles, he just overpowers them. Wrestling a kid like Sandridge who is just as strong as Tai, if not stronger, Tai got back to the basics,” Buckley said. “Things turned out well for him. He wrestled smart, which was the key. He kind of got back to the basics and fundamentals. When he does that, he’s a tough kid to beat.”
Koyama and Sandridge (28-1) will be on opposite sides of a loaded bracket at Sectionals at Ozark on Feb. 27. Other top contenders in the 170 field will be Jefferson City’s William Berendzen (37-2), Lee’s Summit’s Jimmy McGovern (32-11) and Ozark’s Thomas Rushing (36-11).
With MSHSAA adding a Sectionals round to the post-season this year due to COVID-19, the top three finishers in each weight class at Sectionals will move on to State. Third-place matches will never be so important.
“From here on out, nothing is going to be easy,” Buckley said. “You have to come prepared to wrestle one match at a time.”
Ideally, Koyama hopes he and Sandridge make their way through their half of the bracket and meet in a final again.
“I love the competition with him. He’s a great wrestler,” Koyama said. “I love meeting him in the finals every time we wrestle.”