Three defections leave Fresno State scrambling to fill out wrestling lineup

By David White | Jan. 03, 2003, 12 a.m. (ET)
The stereo gets muted. So does the casual laughter and pre-practice chatter. "OK, is anyone else going to quit today?" Fresno State wrestling coach Dennis DeLiddo asks in a raspy yell Monday. "No more quitters? Good. Then, no more quitting." It speaks volumes of the state of the Bulldogs when DeLiddo has to check on such matters two months into the 2002-03 season. In the most calamitous of Decembers, three projected starters quit or were dismissed from the team as the Bulldogs careened to an 0-3 start for the first time in DeLiddo's 22 seasons at Fresno State. That leaves the Bulldogs scrambling to fill a 10-man lineup, let alone win a dual meet when they host Columbia and Oregon State today at the North Gym. Gone are: Senior 149-pounder Ralph Lopez, a three-time NCAA Tournament qualifier and one of three cover boys on the team's media guide. Lopez, ranked 18th in the preseason before a 3-3 start, quit after being benched for the Dec. 14 dual meet at Wyoming. He was 18-18 last season and 67-47 in his career. Ricky Palomino, a junior 149-pound transfer from Oklahoma State who went 2-3 as a part-time starter. Palomino was dismissed from the team for not making weight on the road at Wyoming. Joey Guiler, a first-year starter and replacement of three-time NCAA champion Stephen Abas. Guiler went 4-6. Guiler quit after losing five straight matches, citing personal reasons, according to DeLiddo. None of the wrestlers could be reached for comment. "They want to quit? OK, goodbye," DeLiddo said. "There's an old Italian expression -- 'I don't know, and I could care less.' I have one rule on this team: If you don't make weight on the road, that's your way of telling me you quit. Do you think I can afford airfare, room and meal money for someone who won't make weight? "This is exactly how coaches end up retiring, and that's a fact." For all the turmoil, some Bulldogs see the mutinous times as a form of burning away the dross for a fresh start with the turning of the calendar. With No. 4 Oklahoma (Jan. 11) and Nebraska (Jan. 18) looming on the home slate, senior Eddie Gifford figured it was better to get this exodus business done with early. "At least now we know the guys who still want to be here are here," said Gifford, ranked 19th in the nation at 174. "It's a brand new season, as far as we're concerned. We may not be where want to be right now, but we have time to get there by the end of the season." The departures did nothing to temper the upper-weight strength of Fresno State's lineup, which starts at 157 with junior Jim Medeiros and runs through senior Ben Baca (165), Gifford and sophomore Marcio Botelho (197). Together, they combined for three Fullerton Open titles and three Reno Tournament of Champions medals. Without lower-weight support, they could not carry the Bulldogs in dual-meet losses to Cal State-Fullerton, No. 19 Boise State and -- for the first time in nine meetings -- to Wyoming. "We'll have a better lineup than we've had all year," DeLiddo said. "I might be brain dead, but I don't ever remember starting off this bad. I mean, losing to Wyoming?" The four lower weights remain terribly inexperienced. DeLiddo had to invite back some of the eight wrestlers he was forced to cut before the season to meet the school's Title IX-mandated roster limit of 25. Among the replacements are freshman Jordan Keckler (0-4 at 125) and junior Zhon Kuraspediani, who went 5-2 at 149 last season but is returning from knee surgery. Fresno City College transfer Casey Olson is at 141, and junior Ben Martinez still hasn't wrestled as he continues to cut to 133. "Hopefully, the stronger guys are coming in, so things should get better now," Baca said. "We've been so up and down, juggling our lineup, we haven't gotten a good team effort where we could feed off each other. Starting now, we're going to start looking like a team." Also ... Columbia (0-1) is coached by former Fresno State All-American Brendan Buckley, who placed seventh at 142 in 1997. Buckley is in his third season at the New York City university. He is joined by first-year assistant Yero Washington, a former assistant and two-time All-American at Fresno State. The roster includes freshmen Sven Hafemeister (Lemoore) and Jason Smoyer (Buchanan). Embry-Riddle was scheduled to compete in the dual meet but canceled Monday.