Although Fresno State wrestling was cut in 2006, the program never completely died. Really, it went into hibernation. And it waited for the right moment to reawaken. That moment is now.
“We’re excited to finally be back at it,” head coach Troy Steiner said. “We know we’ve got a heck of an opportunity here to get this program started out, and [we’re] just excited to get back at it.”
The program returns to competition on Nov. 11 in San Francisco with matches against San Francisco State and Nebraska-Kearney.
Former athletic director Thomas Boeh cut the wrestling team in 2006 in order to cut costs, a decision that was met with community disdain.
The road to reinstatement started when Fresno State President Dr. Joseph Castro was appointed in 2013. Shortly after taking office, Castro removed Boeh as athletic director and replaced him with Jim Bartko, who started Jan. 1, 2015.
In 2015, Castro and Bartko announced their plan to reinstate wrestling, as well as create a women’s water polo program.
Steiner was hired in May 2016. He previously served as an assistant coach at Oregon State for 10 years and was a national champion wrestler at Iowa.
Steiner said he is honored that Castro and Bartko trust him to lead the program back into competition.
“I know that there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that,” Steiner said. “We want to put a product out there that’s exciting and fun to watch, and something that people can be proud of – not just on the mat, but off the mat, as well.”
After Steiner was brought on, the rest of the team started to shape up. Steiner hired assistant coach Israel Silva in July 2016 as well as assistant coach Jason Chamberlain in August 2016.
Steiner rounded out his coaching staff by adding volunteer assistant coach Joe Colon in July. Also in July, Fresno State officially joined the Big 12 for wrestling.
In November 2016, Steiner announced his first recruiting class, which included many wrestlers from local high schools. He completed the recruiting class for the 2017-2018 season in May 2017.
One of the recruits signed in May was Clovis native AJ Nevills, who spent last year grayshirting for Penn State. Nevills won the 2016 CIF State Championship at Clovis High School at 220 pounds and joined his older brother Nick at Penn State before returning home.
“My brother’s the heavyweight out there,” Nevills said. “I’ve been telling people I’d rather wrestle against him in a match than have to wrestle him off.”
Nevills said it is special to be part of the first Bulldog wrestling team in over 10 years. He hopes to make Steiner proud as well as make an impact on the local high school programs.
“We’re trying to keep a lot of people at home in California,” Nevills said. “We’re going to try to be the best recruiter in California – get the best kids to come here.”
Another former Clovis High School wrestler is freshman Brandon Martino, who said he stayed close to home because of the coaching staff.
“They’re great people,” Martino said. “They know what they’re doing, so it was just a perfect fit.”
Martino said that Steiner is a very helpful and patient coach, and he is excited to be a part of the new team.
“It’s a little nerve wracking, and it’s exciting at the same time – just because we’re going to be setting the standard, I guess you could say, for the recruits and people that are going to come in and be a part of this program in the future,” Martino said.
Sophomore Richie Brandt, who attended Liberty Madera Ranchos High School and spent the last two seasons at Utah Valley, echoed Martino’s thoughts on the coaches.
“Steiner’s awesome,” Brandt said. “He’s probably the best coach I’ve ever had. He gets a lot out of me. He gets a lot out of the guys.”
After the weekend matchups in San Francisco, the Bulldogs return home for a much-anticipated duel against No. 14 Illinois on Nov. 17. Steiner hopes to have close to 10,000 fans packing the Save Mart Center for the home opener.
“Illinois is a good program,” Steiner said. “They’re going to be ready and prepared when they come out here. So obviously at this early in the stage with our team, we’re not going to take anyone lightly. We definitely know that they’re going to be a team that will be ready to go, and we’re going to have to be at our best.”
The wrestlers are just as excited as Steiner for the first home match.
“I’m super pumped for that one,” Brandt said. “I have a lot of friends and family that are coming to see me. It will be a big one.”
Besides the matchup against Illinois, Fresno State has home duels against Bakersfield, Cal Poly, Utah Valley, No. 21 Stanford and No. 3 Oklahoma State. The Big 12 Championships take place on March 3 and 4 followed by the NCAA Championships from March 15-17.
With the season approaching, the team is ready to get on the mat to compete.
“It feels great to be at this point,” Steiner said. “A lot of things have been put in place. There’s been a lot of people besides myself that have done a lot of work to get to this point. We’re excited to be here, and it’s finally around the corner.”