If anything exemplifies the high school athletic career of Creston’s Keaton Hulett, it’s his state wrestling championship match last winter.
Hulett and Centerville’s Riley Denny had battled in a scoreless tie for five minutes, 40 seconds. Hulett was being ridden in the third period by Denny, and the match seemed destined to go into overtime.
Suddenly, Hulett felt an opening, scored a two-point reversal with 18 seconds left, and hung on tightly as the clock ran out.
The Panther senior jumped up, screamed in exaltation in a memorable News Advertiser front-page photo, and joined teammate Jake Marlin on the top rung of the medal stand as the 195-pound champion.
One year earlier, he had fallen one step short, losing 3-2 to Adam Reth of West Delaware in the 195 finals.
Coach Darrell Frain said Hulett’s late heroics in a low-scoring match was par for the course for his steady senior, who went 105-4 over his final two seasons. Despite the gaudy record, Hulett rarely displayed the wide-open, technical fall scoring of Marlin, the school’s first four-time champ.
For Hulett, in any sport, it’s always been a workmanlike approach toward success.
“With Keaton, every match was close, but he never got out of his style,” wrestling coach Darrell Frain said. “He just shows up and keeps working. That’s what wrestling is. He just got better and better. He cut it a little close in that (final) match, but that’s classic Keaton.”
Hulett knew he didn’t have a flashy reputation, but he had learned how to control the pace of a match to suit his strengths. He had the stamina and strength to score decisive points late, obtained through tireless workouts in the CHS wrestling room with the likes of state champion teammate Collin Bevins last year, and assistant coach Cody Downing this year.
“People would say, the Hulett kid isn’t that good of a wrestler, that he just doesn’t get scored on,” Hulett said. “But that’s the thing. I perfected something, and if they can’t score, I don’t lose. If you stay patient, things will happen. I just kept wrestling, and got the reversal with 18 seconds left. You have to wrestle the compete match.”
No shortcuts. That’s been the philosophy for Hulett, one of three co-recipients of the CHS Outstanding Male Athlete Award. He’s taking that work ethic to perennial Division II football power Northwest Missouri State, where he was recruited as a defensive end.
Winning the athlete award wasn’t something he expected as a ninth-grader.
“I never really thought about it as a freshman or sophomore,” Hulett said. “I was kind of an average kid coming in. The weight room has been a big aspect for me, in getting stronger and quicker to help me succeed in these high school sports. It’s been a blast.”
Hulett said he was humbled upon hearing his name called in conjunction with Luke Neitzel and Briar Evans.
“It was kind of surprising, actually,” said the son of Chuck and Tami Hulett. “I had a good year, but I had a lot of classmates who really did well throughout high school. It feels good to share it with two teammates who are so deserving.”
Hulett was a 185-pound fullback as a sophomore, who remembers the thrill of bolting through the line for a 30-yard touchdown at home against Red Oak that season.
The next year, however, Morrison had a plan to bolster the offensive line with the likes of Bevins (former tight end) and Hulett. It wasn’t an easy sell at first.
“I didn’t see myself doing it, to be honest,” Hulett said. “But when the coaches see you at a position and fitting in for the team, that it will work out for the team, then I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Morrison recalls Hulett drawing attention from Northwest Missouri State coaches at the team camp there, shortly after the switch.
“His first day at guard, a coach from Northwest comes up to me and asks, ‘Who’s that kid?’ as he pointed to Keaton,” Morrison said. “He hadn’t even learned how to play the spot!”
Frain said the program reached a higher level with Hulett and Bevins in the offensive line. Morrison agrees.
“We would not have won the district championship if we had played them throughout their careers at fullback and tight end,” Morrison said. “When we had Collin blocking down at tackle and Hulett pulling at guard, we were pretty tough! Senior year, we moved Keaton to Collin’s tackle spot. He was excellent there, just as he was at defensive end, whether it was strong side or weak end.”
Hulett was emotional and demonstrative after a victory, but showed a quiet, steely determination before going into battle. There was no better example of that than when Harlan visited Creston for the Panthers’ homecoming game last fall.
Morrison saw how Hulett can send a message without saying a word.
“We were walking up to the field when Harlan was warming up,” Morrison said. “On the sidelines, they were doing their stretches and meeting each other in lines like they do, kind of an intimidation thing where they end with a big chant in the end zone.
“My first year as head coach, we just stayed away from it, because it can be intimidating,” Morrison explained. “But after we had beat them the year before, we decided we’d come in right behind them. I remember Hulett walking down our sideline, right through them, and he wouldn’t budge. He jogged out toward the goal post where we go to our stretching, and one of Harlan’s good players kind of bumped into him. Keaton just kept going, and did nothing to get out of his way. The kid looked at Keaton, and for the first time, I saw some fear in the eyes of a Harlan kid here. That’s Keaton, he just brings that workmanlike attitude every day, and he won’t be intimidated.”
The win at Harlan his junior year, followed by the 34-14 rout here last fall, were two of Hulett’s top high school memories.
“At their field, it was just a giant sigh of relief for the community,” Hulett said. “Our crowd was so big. It was a great feeling.”
The late Curt Olson, longtime CHS athletic director, had been a coach for Hulett’s eighth-grade team. He loved to goad his former players into a reaction, and did so again early last fall.
“I remember Oly telling us that we’d never beat Harlan two years in a row,” Hulett said. “When he passed right before that game, that was a hard deal.”
The support of the wrestling team is something else Hulett says he will never forget. His junior year, he was warming up in the wrestling room when teammate David Thompson pulled off a giant upset against a higher-rated Atlantic opponent, triggering one of the team’s patented run of pins.
“Thompson pinned that Stork kid, and I hear the gym just erupt,” Hulett said. “I looked out, and everyone is just yelling and jumping. It was crazy. Then we pin again, and pin again, and I get out there and pin. That was how our team worked. The support was a big part of it.”
Like Bevins, Hulett found that wrestling was important in making him a collegiate-level football player, even though he sacrificed some size as a senior to cut from 225 to 195, allowing Cole Tanner to hold a key position at 220 in a dual lineup that qualified for state.
“People say wrestling is too much work,” Hulett said. “And it is too much work, honestly. But I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t been in that sport for four years. The explosive hips, using your hands, quick feet, it’s all about mobility and wrestling ties into it really well.”
Frain likened Hulett’s mature leadership ability to another former Panther state champ. Quin Leith went on to wrestle at Cornell University before beginning a successful career on Wall Street.
“At the banquet I compared Keaton to Quin, in how he approaches things and presents himself to his peers, his coaches and other adults,” Frain said. “As a parent, when you have kids that wrestle, you want them to be like that.”
Hulett said he’ll never forget winning a state title the same night as his longtime teammate, Jake Marlin, claimed his fourth state crown.
Another special memory for Hulett as he winds down his prep career is being joined by eighth-grade brother Kadon on the baseball team.
“Kadon and his group has a lot of potential in sports if they keep working at it,” Keaton said. “It’s fun to have the chance to kind of guide them and show what it takes.”
Coach Steve Birchard has noticed the leadership qualities in all three of his seniors — Hulett, Evans and Zach Powers.
“To me, guys who stick it out in baseball and four years of track are special,” Birchard said. “Keaton and Briar both would have every incentive not to play baseball, you know? They’re playing another sport in college. But I think they both like baseball. I think they feel a team aspect to it.”
Before committing to Northwest, Hulett asked Bearcat coaches if he would be able to play baseball as a senior before he was needed on campus.
“The coach said to play all the high school sports you can,” Hulett said. “I’m going to redshirt anyway. I’m glad they’re allowing me to finish the high school sports I’ve played. Baseball was my favorite sport as a young kid. I saw myself playing college baseball until football came around for me. I still have a long road ahead, but a successful one, I hope.”
Morrison has no doubts. He has a good idea how it will play out.
“Keaton will go down there and redshirt, work hard, and eventually start for them,” Morrison said. “He will go in and outwork everybody. When it’s all said and done, he will have a diploma and play for a great program that plays for championships.”