Nothing but positives for Fresno State in its first year back

By Roger Moore, Special to | Feb. 24, 2018, 6:20 p.m. (ET)

Photo: Huge crowd for Fresno State in its first home dual of the season against Illinois. Photo by

The final score in the final dual of the season mattered little: Oklahoma State 41, Fresno State 0.

Four dual wins in 20 starts for a wrestling program in its first year.

Sort of.

Calling Fresno State “a first-year program” is not exactly accurate.

Located in central California, they wrestled at FSU from 1962-2006. The program did not compete for national championships, but did finish a very respectable eighth in 1993. That ‘93 team included Gerry Abas, runner-up at 142 pounds, Harold Zinkin, fifth at 134, and Serge Mezheritsky, sixth at 150. The 134-pound bracket that week also featured an entry from Iowa named Troy Steiner, who finished third behind North Carolina’s TJ Jaworsky and Penn State’s Cary Kolat.

Abas’ younger brother, Stephen, is one of FSU’s two NCAA champions. A three-time champion, winning in 1999, 2001, and 2002, the younger Abas went on to earn a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He will be part of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum’s 2018 Class, inducted as a Distinguished Member this summer. Mike Gallego won 167-pound gold at the 1968 NCAA Championships, so to say there was no foundation to build on would be inaccurate.

During that 41-0 loss to the tradition-rich Cowboys, an outsider could not help but notice the energy inside the Save Mart Center. Down 20-0 after Boo Lewallen’s victory over Khristian Olivas at 149 pounds, Greg Gaxiola scored a late second period takedown to take a lead into the third period. The crowd of 4,328 was into the match, fighting for everything they could get. An outsider witnessed a group of wrestling fans in need of a mat fix.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a while,” said an FSU fan following the dual. “Yes, I was bitter at FSU, the administration, everyone involved, for letting wrestling slip away. But I think today, all season, we showed there are people willing to support wrestling at Fresno State. I think a lot of places take their program for granted, think that it can’t get taken away. We learned our lesson.”

The wrestling gods have not been kind to California, any place west of the Rocky Mountains for that matter. When FSU first hit the mats in 1962, there were programs at UCLA, California-Berkeley, San Jose State; by the end of the 1960s they wrestled in Long Beach and Cal Poly. Wrestling thrived at Oregon, Arizona, Boise State, Colorado, Washington, and Brigham Young throughout the 1970s. One of wrestling history’s most talked-about matches was supplied by Washington’s Larry Owings, who gave Iowa State’s Dan Gable his only collegiate loss in the 1970 NCAA finals. Darrell and Dwayne Keller found their way to Stillwater and Oklahoma State from the state of Washington. Portland State’s Rick Sanders was a national champion, a World champion, and Olympic silver medalist.

Mat fans in California and most of the West Coast get few opportunities to fill their wrestling palates at the collegiate level these days. The Pac-12 Conference now features Stanford, Arizona State, Cal Poly, Oregon State, and Bakersfield.

So, despite Tristan Moran’s third-period comeback to beat Gaxiola and on the short side of a 41-0 score, the fans left Save Mart Center happy. The Bulldogs’ lone senior, Sean Williams, transferred back home to California to wrestle for one season at FSU. Originally, after competing at Oklahoma for three seasons, Williams, a native of Tulare, Calif., was just going to finish school. But the pull to wrestle one last year brought him to the FSU workout room.

“When I got out here, I started training with Coach Steiner and at the time there were only five or six guys around, so it was a real small group,” Williams said. “Seeing how large the team has become is very cool. We have a great environment around the team.

“When I was in Oklahoma, my parents always said ‘I’ll come to the next one,’ but they were never able to make it. Being here at Fresno State, my parents are able to come along with my siblings, grandparents, cousins, so that has been really nice to have that support.”

Just a few miles away from the FSU campus sits Clovis where Clovis High, Clovis North, and Buchanon produce plenty of recruits. Steve Tirapelle, in his 20th year at Clovis High, continues to turn out talent. Two-time All-American Scott Sakaguchi, national finalist Alex Tirapelle, and Division II national champions Pacifico Garcia of San Francisco State and Tom Gongora of Bakersfield learned tricks of the trade at Clovis. At Buchanon, coached by Troy Tirapelle, Gaxiola was part of a California state champion team in 2016. FSU’s 2017-18 roster features seven from either Clovis High, Clovis North, or Buchanon.

Clovis High’s Olivas will take a 25-5 record into his first collegiate postseason, while heavyweight AJ Nevills has produced 26 victories in 33 matches as a first-year starter. Nevills originally joined his older brother at Penn State, but jumped at the chance to wrestle at Fresno when wrestling was reinstated last year.

Back in November, FSU hosted Big Ten power Illinois and California legend Isaiah Martinez, a product of Lemoore, Calif. Over 6,800 fans showed up for the dual.

“It was a great way to start,” said Olivas, who picked up a 10-2 major decision of Eric Barone. “We thought, OK, it’s the first dual in 11 years so there will be a good crowd. But it’s been that way all year long. It’s a little surprising, but I think people around here really want to support the program, want to see it succeed.

“As far as wins and losses, it wasn’t a great dual season, but we are going into the Big 12s with nothing to lose. There’s no reason we can’t go to (to Tulsa) and compete, push some guys through to nationals.”

With the final dual’s attendance, the season total went over 27,000. With an average of 4,566 fans per dual, FSU ranked among the nation’s best for 2017-18.

“It’s beyond my wildest dreams,” longtime FSU boss Dennis DeLiddo told the Fresno Bee’s David White. “I knew people would show up for the first few matches, but I figured it would have gone down after a while. What do I know.”

Steiner’s first squad beat Cal Poly, Bucknell, Northern Colorado and D2 San Francisco State. There was a 26-22 loss at Iowa State and a two-point setback to D2 power Nebraska-Kearney. For a head coach who cut his teeth in Iowa City back in the early 1990s under Gable, patience is key.

“The biggest thing is that so many people fought to get this program back, they know that they have to support it,” said Steiner, a national champion in 1992 and four-time All-American at Iowa from 1990-93. “And they have. We didn’t give them much to cheer about, but we are going to change that. It’s an area of the country where I think you can draw. Wrestling is in the fabric of this community.”

That community included Olivas.

“There were rumors about (FSU) coming back,” said Olivas, who started his career at Utah Valley State. “But until you hear it, you don’t believe it. Wrestling put me in a position to go to college, to get a degree, so I was going somewhere. My dad called me the day they announced (FSU was coming back) and we started the process of getting back. I wanted to be a part of this, part of something that brought wrestling, good college wrestling, back to Fresno.”

As with any coach, California or otherwise, keeping the top recruits out of Big Ten and Eastern programs is a task Steiner understood.

“We are going to keep some of them, not all of them,” Steiner said. “We have a lot to sell, your family and friends are going to be able to come watch familiar faces. We are going to have the resources, a Regional Training Center, big things we can sell to kids.

“I knew what I was getting into. As a coach you never want to go through the growing pains; you want to win quickly. But it’s a process and I knew coming in that it was a situation where there aren’t too many times in your life where you can really build something from scratch. I’ve been around some great coaches, around the (United States) program, so I’ve seen what it takes to be successful. Coming to a place like Fresno, with the resources available, I wanted to see what I could do.”

The Bulldogs join four top 20 teams – No. 5 OSU, No. 12 South Dakota State, No. 14 Wyoming, and No. 15 Northern Iowa – in Tulsa next Saturday and Sunday for the Big 12 Championships.

“It’s important for wrestling in the West,” Steiner said. “(Being in the Big 12) forces teams to come out here. It’s not easy, when teams don’t have to, to get them to come out here. It’s a lifeline for wrestling, something we need.”

“I’m really looking forward to seeing what this program can do,” Olivas said.