By Matt Krumrie
It’s no secret wrestlers are tough, hardworking, and resilient.
Kevin Ahern was all of those and more as a student-athlete, wrestler, and football player at Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights in the late 1980s. After high school, Ahern went on to become an All-American wrestler at the University of St. Thomas, and for these accomplishments, and more, he is being inducted into the Simley High School Hall of Fame Friday, September 13 at halftime of the Simley football game against North Saint Paul.
Ahern – the 1988 Simley High School Male Athlete of the Year, finished in the top 10 in his class, was a three-time state qualifier, two-time state placewinner, 1988 state runner-up, and key member of Simley’s 1987 and 1988 state championship wrestling teams – the first in school history. He also earned Academic All-State honors in wrestling and finished his career with a record of 102-28-2.
“It was a great experience to be a part of Simley wrestling, and on the teams that won the first state titles in school history,” said Ahern. “What I remember is, we wanted to win, not just for the wrestling team, but for the school, and our families. We all rooted for each other individually, and really came together as a team.”
Simley wrestling: A look back
The Simley wrestling program has won 12 state championships, is consistently ranked among the top high school programs in the country, and year-after-year, turns out some of the best wrestlers in the state.
But back in 1987, when Ahern was a junior, he and fellow Spartan wrestlers, led by now Hall of Fame coach Jim Short, were trying to win the school’s first state championship in any sport. Simley was not yet the traditional wrestling powerhouse that it is now – but it at all came together in March of 1987 at the St. Paul Civic Center.
The Spartans sent nine wrestlers to the state individual tournament that year and had two state champions – Derek Jones at 138 and Chris Short at 185. Dan Harrison finished third at 145 and Ahern fourth at 155. In the team portion of the tournament, Simley defeated Grand Rapids 30-17 in the state finals to win the Class AA state title. Back then there were only two classes and Class AA was home to the state’s bigger schools.
In 1988, seven Spartans qualified for the individual state tournament, including Kevin’s younger brother Michael Ahern, then a sophomore 98-pounder. Will Short (138) and Dan Harrison (155) won state titles, Kevin Ahern (145) was a runner-up, and Brady Harrison (167) placed fourth.
In the team portion, the Spartans were ranked No. 1 in the state the entire season, and defeated Apple Valley 31-14 in the Class AA finals to win the school’s second straight state title. In that championship match against Apple Valley, the Spartans trailed 12-6 early. But a Will Short pin at 138 tied the match at 12-12, and Ahern’s 10-0 decision over Bobby Green put the Spartans up 16-12 – and gave them a lead they would never relinquish. Simley would go on to win the state title again in 1989 to make it a three-peat.
Mark Madigan has been an assistant coach with the Simley wrestling program for over 30 years. He’s been a part of all 12 state championships and has fond memories of every state championship team – including those in 1987 and 1988.
“Every team is different, every kid is different, every road to a state championship is different, that’s what makes each one so special,” said Madigan. “There were some really good kids in that room back on those teams. I think they fed off of each other and just wanted to compete.”
That’s what drove Ahern, said Madigan – he would compete against anyone, he always wanted to get better, and would take on any challenge if it meant he could improve.
“He was just such a hard worker,” said Madigan. “He kept working and improving all the time. He was in excellent shape and would always finish matches strong. He won a lot of matches because of his conditioning and the fact he was just mentally tough.”
Will Short, current Simley head coach, was a two-time state champion for the Spartans (1988 and 1989) and spent countless hours drilling with Ahern in the Simley wrestling room.
“Kevin was a wrestler that just wore you down over the course of a match,” said Short. “He would grind out takedowns and score a bunch of points late in matches. Kevin was an extremely hard worker throughout his career. His work ethic was his strength through high school and college. Kevin was a role model to me. He was a person who made every day and every practice an opportunity to improve his skills. That made an impact on me in wrestling and in life.”
Ahern was also a state qualifier as a sophomore in 1986 at 138. In 1987 Ahern opened the 155 pound Class AA state tournament with a 7-1 win over Chad Propyl of Monticello. He then defeated Dan Swanson of Little Falls 9-2, before losing to eventual state champion Tom Kirpach of Saint Francis, 6-4. Ahern then defeated Dave Wroblewski of Northfield 6-4 before losing to Troy Wondrasch of Winona 6-4 in the third place match.
In a Wednesday, March 2, 1988 Star Tribune article – where Ahern was named to the Star Tribune All-Metro wrestling team – Simley coach Jim Short talked about Kevin.
“His greatest strength is his intelligence on the mat,” Jim Short said. “He knows where he is at all times and doesn’t get out of position. He just doesn’t make many mistakes.”
Ahern entered the 1988 state tournament with a record of 29-1-1. He earned a 9-1 win over Todd Musterteiger of Buffalo, and then pinned Leif Simonson of Blake/Breck. In the semi-finals, Ahern defeated Stacey Nelson of St. Francis 6-2, before losing to Jones – who went back to Minneapolis Roosevelt after competing at Simley in 1987, 14-8 in the state finals.
Ahern said defeating Nelson to make it to the state finals was one of the best moments of his wrestling career – not because he made it to the state finals, but because his older brother Patrick Ahern, then an assistant coach with the Spartans, was in his corner during that match.
“To have my brother on the mat coaching me when I made it to the state finals my senior year is something I will never forget,” said Ahern.
Chris Boys, a 1991 Simley graduate, was a three-time state placewinner (6th, 4th, 4th) and member of three Simley state championship teams (1987, 1988, 1989), a 4th place team (1990) and a second place team (1991). He went on to wrestle at St. John’s University where he was a four-time MIAC All-Conference selection and NCAA Academic All-American.
Boys vividly remembers being a wide-eyed eighth-grader when he stepped into that Simley wrestling room, looking up to guys like Kevin Ahern, Dan Harrison, Will Short, Chris Short, and the many others who are now legends in the Simley wrestling family.
“I was an eighth-grader in 1987 when Simley wrestling really came to life,” said Boys. “As a middle-school student at the time, I can remember having a sense that what we were doing was important and that attitude was directed by Kevin and the upperclassmen. It was clear that those guys, driven by Mr. Short, had goals, and we younger guys did not want to let them down. I truly believe that they were the foundation for the winning that Simley wrestling has experienced over the years. I can recall wanting to always practice hard and not mess around so as to not let the older wrestlers down. Whether it was at a practice midway through the season or morning runs before school as we prepared for the state tournament, I always wanted to go hard. That legacy allowed us to win two more consecutive state titles after Kevin graduated, plus a 4th place and 2nd place finish. I was fortunate enough to go on to wrestle in college and was in the same conference as Kevin. I can recall him approaching me at tournaments and still giving me guidance and encouragement, even when our schools were competing directly against each other. He truly never stopped caring and taught me a lot about life without even maybe realizing it.”
The College Years: St. Thomas
After high school, Ahern went on to find success at the University of St. Thomas. He originally wrestled for Coach Dan Chandler and finished his career competing for head coach Joe Gribben, becoming an All-American at 158, finishing third his senior year in 1991.
“Kevin was so coachable, he understood good positioning, and he was so mentally tough in the tight matches,” said Gribben. “He wouldn’t panic. I would say he is the best third-period wrestler that I have ever coached. When the match came down to who could deal with the pain of being tired, I would put a lot of money on Kevin. He was just a grinder.”
In 1991, St. Thomas finished third at the NCAA Division III national tournament. What’s remarkable about that season is the Tommies did it with only three wrestlers – Ahern, Jason O’Brien (Waseca) and Rich Elliott (Forest Lake). One of the Tommies’ key wrestlers – and close friend to all – Todd English, ended up in the hospital with a collapsed lung the day before the NCAA qualifier. He was expected to compete for All-American honors that year, so it was a tough blow for the team.
“The 1991 season, and in particular the national tournament, was by far the most rewarding thing in my career as an athlete or a coach,” said Gribben. “We had three wrestlers in that tournament. Jason O’Brien was the champ at 118, Rich Elliott was 2nd at 134, and Kevin was 3rd at 158. It was an amazing run that those three had. Kevin lost his first match and then went on to beat several returning All Americans on his way to third. Of course, he just wore them out and won the matches in the third period. I think those three were 13-2 for the tournament.”
O’Brien said two words come to mind when looking back at Ahern on the mat: Relentless and consistent.
“Kevin’s MO was constant pressure,” said O’Brien. “He never stopped wrestling and was always moving forward, always trying to score points. He won a lot of matches on pure will as his opponents couldn’t keep up with that pace. He was also very consistent. For the most part you knew exactly what you were going to get when he went out there. He didn’t have the letdowns most wrestlers suffer during the course of a long season. I was always impressed by that – both from a physical and mental perspective.”
Kevin lost his first match in the 1991 NCAA tournament – which can quickly lead to an early exit for any wrestler with just one more loss. Not Kevin.
“Kevin lost his first match which would set up one of the most incredible run of wins I had ever witnessed,” recalled O’Brien. “In Kevin’s second wrestleback match I remember him getting caught in a funky position and going down 5-0 to a pretty tough wrestler. True to form he kept battling, putting the guy to his back in the next period and going on to win 8-6. In all, he would win five matches in a row coming from behind in at least two of them and pinning a three-time finalist and defending champ in the 3rd place match with one second left on the clock.”
Just like in high school, Ahern motivated his college teammates by actions, not words.
“If you know him at all, you are well aware that half time speeches are not his thing,” said O’Brien. “Kevin’s wrestling partner on most days was Gordy Morgan (who in 1990 was a member of the USA World Team and was a 1996 Olympian). If you needed a little motivation all you had to do was look to that end of the room and see him butting heads with Gordy; his shirt soaked through in sweat, of course. There were days I felt bad for him, but he never stopped competing.”
While not one to speak loudly, Ahern was one many could count on to speak with, when needed.
“Early on in that 1990-91 season was tough for me as I struggled with balancing school, job interviews, and wrestling,” said O’Brien – then a senior. “The team struggled early as well. I remember conversations with a lot of my teammates and coaches on how to right the ship. Kevin was always a participant in these conversations. He was as solid as they come, always in your corner in good times and in bad.”
The family behind it all
When told he was selected to the Simley Hall of Fame, Ahern was honored, humble, but quickly thought of others and their accomplishments, including his younger brother, Michael Ahern – Simley’s 1990 Male Athlete of the Year. In addition to being a member of Simley’s 1988 state championship team, Michael Ahern finished 6th in state in the Class AA 125 pound weight class in 1990, was also a standout cross country runner, competed in track and field, and went on to compete in rugby and boxing while graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Finance.
“Having my brother on the team meant we had another person that was dedicated and driven,” said Ahern. “And then to have another brother as a coach, that combination is about as good as it gets.”
Kevin also has three sisters (Shawn, Shannon, Erin) and grew up in a house that emphasized academics and faith before athletics. Parents Walter “Jay” Ahern and Patricia Ahern were supportive and encouraging when it came to athletics, but academics and doing things the right way always came first.
“One of the reasons I believe I had a successful career in wrestling was because of how great my mother and father were,” said Kevin. “They taught me the value of hard work and respect.”
Ahern was also a two-time letter winner and 1987 All-Conference honorable mention selection as a linebacker for the Spartans football team. He also earned Academic All-State Football honors (1987) and was named the 1988 Steichen’s Scholarship Award winner as the Twin Cities Outstanding Male Student-Athlete.
He also earned a Master’s degree in Education from St. Mary’s University and went on to partner with his dad in the family business and eventually take over as his own company, St. Paul Plastic. A dedicated volunteer, Ahern has also volunteered more than 1,000 hours at Feed My Starving Children in Eagan.
“The same discipline and work ethic that Kevin had in wrestling, he had in other areas of life,” said Gribben. “They do go hand in hand. You have to give that credit to Mr. and Mrs. Ahern. They are a close, supporting family and Kevin’s work ethic was learned long before he stepped foot on campus.”
That’s what stands out most to Gribben.
“I’m just glad he was at St. Thomas when I was there because I got the honor of coaching him, to call him my friend and to get to know the Ahern family,” said Gribben.
O’Brien shared the same experience.
“He is a true friend, as loyal as they come,” said O’Brien. “He is the type of friend that is there when you need him and cares enough to tell you when you’re wrong or out of line. He is generous and spends a lot of his time giving back to others. I was fortunate to have worked with Jay, Kevin, and Michael for a while when I graduated from college. The lessons I learned at the company and hanging around the Ahern family are lessons I’ve carried with me and passed down to my kids. Kevin is representative of them all; smart, hardworking, fair, and caring. No doubt he and the rest of the family deserve this honor.”
Madigan said the same. Over the years he and Kevin’s brother Patrick have remained close friends.
“His family was the first to take me in and welcome me when I came to Simley,” said Madigan. “He comes from a great family. And more so than anything he did on the mat or football field, he’s just an awesome person, and I am lucky to have the opportunity to coach him and be a part of his life.”
Matt Krumrie is an Inver Grove Heights-based freelance writer and contributor to The Guillotine, USA Wrestling, and MatBoss. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org