Clovis native Khristian Olivas provided the first individual wrestling triumph in 11 years for a resurrected Fresno State wrestling program to the delight of almost 7,000 fans Friday night.
A stage befit for a rock concert took centerstage on the ground floor, with spotlights shining the wrestling mat at the Save Mart Center. The Bulldog wrestlers emerged from a back-lit tunnel to a row of cheerleaders offering high-5s,
They ran to the main stage as their names were announced over the public address system, all to the raucous cheers of the Bulldogs’ spectators.
Former Bulldog wrestler and junior coach Gary Quintana – with his family present – was honored with a standing ovation. Quintana died in October.
The Bulldogs’ home opener attracted wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans alike for an announced crowd of 6,840 fans, just 23 fans short of the program’s second-largest crowd.
The ’Dogs, with 17 of its 20 wrestlers hailing from Valley schools, couldn’t lose in the eyes of the fans despite the 33-10 loss to the 15th-ranked University of Illinois.
After Olivas earned his 10-2 victory, he raised his hands at center stage before the referee officially raised his right arm as the winner. The Bulldogs cheerleaders tossed out T-shirts and the Fresno State band provided an uplifting performance and danced its own routine.
It was something the local crowd hasn’t witnessed since the program was canceled in 2006 due to Title IX equality measures that eliminated some men’s sports to make room for women’s sports.
“It feels good! It’s electrifying here, all the people. It’s a blast to wrestle out here,” said Olivas, a communication major and a 2015 Clovis High graduate, who defeated 19th-nationally ranked Eric Barone in the 149-pound match.
Olivas is well-known locally for his time at Clovis High, a high school wrestling powerhouse. He lettered all four years, and picked up three state medals.
“A lot of home schools showed us the love tonight. This program here is the only one in the Valley, so I’m glad we got a lot of support,” Olivas said before signing a Fresno State men’s wrestling poster.
“You got the surrounding schools, Firebaugh, Mendota; that’s the Valley right there. I’m from Fresno for the return of Fresno State wrestling,” said fellow freshman Greg Gaxiola, a 2015 Buchanan (Clovis) graduate who defeated 16th-ranked Kyle Langenderfer in the 157-pound weight class.
Bulldog heavyweight A.J. Nevills, a 2016 Clovis High graduate and state high school champion, notched Fresno State’s third win when he defeated Duece Rachal in the 200-plus pounds weight class.
“I’m loving the return of the sport. I’m so happy to see it come back to Fresno,” said Ernesto Rodríguez, whose voice had gone hoarse leading cheers from the sixth row.
Rodríguez said he had been in wrestling since his elementary school days at Ft. Washington (Clovis) to his graduation from Clovis West High School in 1989.
Former Fresno State president John Welty was in office 11 years ago, when the program was cut. His successor, Joseph I. Castro, brought wrestling back.
“I will definitely be there at the home match,” said Castro in the weeks leading up to the opener. “It’s a big sport that is well received in the community.”
“For so many years, it was such an influencial sport in Fresno. I’m so proud; we’re watching all of our Clovis boys come back out. We’re watching the glow out in the middle of the ring tonight,” added Rodriguez.
After being selected to lead the ’Dogs last year, head coach Troy Steiner and his assistants made a point to select a Valley team, a squad recruited from the local area, but he wanted more.
“I wanted more. I’m going to tell the people I want more. We want to be the premier program in the west, and there’s no reason this area can’t draw,” said Steiner.
“I was here 11 years ago on the other side when Iowa came out and there was 10,500 people. We need them here. Why aren’t they here? Just because Iowa was here? Who cares? Lets root for Fresno State. Quit looking back to the east.”
Steiner added he wasn’t disappointed with the crowd, but he definitely wanted to break the 10,000 mark in attendance.
“People complain when programs are dropped. Now that we get this thing back, lets support it and do everything we can to make this one of the best,” he said.
“We’re all excited, family and friends, to see this program back. The turnout was more that what we expected and it’s going to grow from here,” said Kevin Olivas, uncle to Khristian Olivas.
Abbie Chamberlain, the wife of assistant wrestling coach Jason Chamberlain, was pleased.
“We are so excited. We’re really excited to be a part of it. Jason was like ‘I want to be a part of this,’ so he called Steiner,” said Abbie.
“This is the best thing I’ve seen in a long time,” said Rodríguez.
The Bulldogs will travel to meet Air Force in the inaugural ‘Battle on the Midway’ in San Diego then compete Dec. 1-2 at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas. 2.
The next home match is a renewed rivalry against Cal State Bakersfield on Dec. 8 at 7 p.m.