Benefield: Michael Klee’s time to shine at state wrestling meet

Cardinal Newman's Michael Klee will be wrestling in the 145-pound weight class at the 43nd annual CIF State Boys Wrestling Championships held in Bakersfield this Friday and Saturday. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

Cardinal Newman’s Michael Klee will be wrestling in the 145-pound weight class at the 43nd annual CIF State Boys Wrestling Championships held in Bakersfield this Friday and Saturday. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Wrestling is arguably one of the most solo of sports. No teammates on the mat with you, not a lot of coaching input — just athletes putting themselves up against each other in a grueling test of will and strategy.

That’s one of the draws for Michael Klee, a Cardinal Newman senior who is taking his unblemished record at 145 pounds this season to the CIF state wrestling meet, which begins Friday in Bakersfield.

“I don’t have to rely on a team. If I lose, it’s because I did something wrong, not because my team messed up,” Klee said. “I don’t like relying on other people, that’s for sure.

“That is why wrestling has been great for me,” he said. “When you lose, it’s pretty much all your fault.”

Except that Klee doesn’t often lose.

He ripped through the North Coast Section tournament, barely letting his opponents break a sweat. He beat Jordan Jimenez of Heritage High School in Brentwood in a 15-0 technical fall in the finals.

“He destroyed everybody,” one coach said. “He made a good wrestler in Jimenez look terrible.”

“Michael Klee is the real thing,” another told me.

Michael Klee excels at the one-versus-one nature of wrestling, but he is never far from the imposing shadow of a second Klee — his older brother P.J., who graduated from Cardinal Newman last year.

P.J. Klee was the stuff of legend — the enormously talented wrestler who returned from a two-year stay at prestigious Blair Academy in New Jersey to wrestle his senior year at Newman alongside younger brother Michael.

While Michael’s junior season ended with a fourth-place finish at NCS last year, P.J. made it to the state finals, only to come up short and take home second place.

It could have been a situation to make a therapist salivate — the highly decorated older brother descending upon younger brother’s high school and scooping up attention and accolades, including being named All-Empire wrestler of the year.

But Michael insists that having P.J. suit up for the Cardinals last year only made him better.

Still, a little solo time in the limelight can’t be bad, right?

“Obviously P.J. had a lot of success, but I think in the back of his head, he knew that his time was coming,” Cardinal Newman wrestling coach Francisco Manriquez said of Michael.

There was a spell there, when Michael didn’t know if his time would come — mostly by his own choosing. While his brother trained with laser-like intensity on getting better at wrestling, Michael, who had been wrestling since the age of 4, gave up the sport in middle school. He dabbled in football, played some soccer and lacrosse.

“His brother is what I would call a diehard; six, seven days a week, completely dedicated to wrestling,” said Carolyn Wester, who runs Wrestling Prep, an elite training facility in San Jose where both Klees have trained for years. “Michael was a more diversified athlete growing up.”

Manriquez says that if Michael had stayed the course through those years, his skills would have matched his older brother’s point for point.

“Obviously, he missed two or three years,” he said. “That had an impact. If he would have continued, they would have been neck and neck, back and forth.”

Despite describing himself as “hesitant” to return four years ago, Michael Klee suited up for the Cardinals his freshman year and with Manriquez helped breathe new life into a faltering program.

Michael Klee is hailed by area coaches as incredibly strong, yet lightning fast. And he can tie his opponents up with his legs — a strategy a competing coach said looks like some poor soul being strangled by a grapevine.

His appearance Friday at the state tournament is his first and he will be cheered by the whole Klee family: his parents, Paul and Katie, his younger sister Megan, who plays goalkeeper for the Newman girls soccer team, and, of course, P.J.

“We are pretty close,” Michael said of his relationship with his brother.

That closeness made for some fierce competition last year, according to Manriquez.

“You always had the two Klee boys, really strong, big personalities,” he said.

“These were guys who would race the other to the line at a sandwich shop and then race you to the van to get the best seat,” he said.

(See more photos of Michael Klee)

Talking about the Klee legacy brings a smile to Michael’s face after a practice in which his facial expression didn’t give up much information.

“People don’t want to really wrestle the Klee brothers, definitely around this area,” he said. “People definitely know the Klee name at the state level. It would be really great to go and finish what my brother started last year.”

Michael Klee, after finishing fourth last year at NCS — one slot away from making it to state — is more than ready to light up the state stage this weekend, according to Manriquez.

“P.J. is not here anymore, so I think this year, P.J. being out of the picture, it’s definitely Michael’s team and it’s his time to shine,” he said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.