David White

Fresno State wrestling fans revel in reborn program’s return home. A loss? Who cares?

Fresno State celebrates end of long wait for return of wrestling program

Fresno State's restored wrestling program hosts its first home match of the new era against Illinois, drawing 6,000-plus wild fans Friday night, Nov. 17, 2017 to Save Mart Center in Fresno.
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Fresno State's restored wrestling program hosts its first home match of the new era against Illinois, drawing 6,000-plus wild fans Friday night, Nov. 17, 2017 to Save Mart Center in Fresno.

The crowd went wild, all 6,840 of them, celebrating what could go down as the greatest victory in program history.

Fresno State beat Illinois? Of course they didn’t. The Bulldogs lost to the 15th-ranked guests 33-10 in a dual meet that was long on feisty where it was short on back points Friday night at Save Mart Center. But that’s not the score that counted, not when taking the long view of history.

The Bulldogs won by wrestling again in the first place, something they haven’t done in this town in the 11 winters since the previous school administration killed the program.

Former Fresno State wrestling coach Dennis DeLiddo fought, scratched and clawed for this day since Fresno State broke his raspy heart in 2006. He stood on the mat before the first whistle, flipped the traditional coin, and he cried.

Because, of course he cried.

“I couldn’t hold back my tears,” DeLiddo said. “Not today.”

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Fresno State won only three matches but appeared to have wildly won over fans while hosting Illinois in the first home match for the newly restored Bulldogs program Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, at Save Mart Center. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

As for that crowd? They couldn’t hold back their roar, no matter how many times their guys got taken down.

Before the match began, they gave a standing ovation to the family of Gary Quintana, a former Bulldogs wrestler from Selma who died of a heart attack last month.

They went wild when 125-pound senior Sean Williams of Lemoore took the first double-leg shot of the season at the opening whistle – let history mark 7:08 p.m. as the official time Fresno State wrestling came home.

This is amazing. This is more than amazing.

former Fresno State wrestler Pablo Saenz on the sights and sounds of a reborn Bulldogs program

They cheered when the Bulldogs scored on the elevated centerstage. They yelled when the Bulldogs almost scored. They even applauded their team off the mat when they didn’t win. And don’t get them started when cheerleaders flung free T-shirts into the stands between matches, because there wasn’t enough riot gear in the truck to keep that process civil.

“I’m just happy wrestling is back,” said Lalo Moz, a wrestling alum from Hanford.

You should have seen how the place made eardrums bleed when Fresno State actually won a bout.

Freshman Khristian Olivas got the pounding headache started with a 10-2 victory over 19th-ranked Eric Barone at 149 pounds. It wasn’t enough for the place to bounce as he rocked Barone like a cradle on his back. He got up and gestured for more noise, and of course everyone obliged.

Another freshman, Greg Gaxiola, chased that with a 9-5 win against 16th-ranked Kyle Langenderfer. So what if Bulldogs sophomore Isaiah Hokit got rolled 28-13 by two-time national champion Isaiah Martinez (by way of Lemoore High) at 165? Hokit actually got a 2-point takedown to tie the match 4-4 for, oh, 5 seconds.

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Illinois’ two-time national champ Isaiah Martinez, a Lemoore High alum, celebrates a win at 165 pounds against Fresno State’s Isaiah Hokit as the Bulldogs host the first home match for the newly restored program Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, at Save Mart Center. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

As far as newborn wrestling programs go, you take the celebrations where you can get them.

“This is amazing,” said Pablo Saenz, another former Fresno State wrestler who never thought he’d live to see the day. “This is more than amazing.”

Heavyweight A.J. Nevills closed up shop with a 7-5 victory in the finale, dropping the curtain with a tiebreaking score in the final 10 seconds.

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Fresno State’s Greg Gaxiola, top, and Illinois’ Kyle Langenderfer duel in the 157-pound matchup as the Bulldogs host the first home match for the newly restored program Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, at Save Mart Center. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

The third-largest wrestling audience in Western U.S. history celebrated as if they won the dual meet in its entirety. The dance music blasted away, Fresno State wrestlers posed for pictures and signed autographs by the swarm, and Bulldogs coach Troy Steiner tried to remember there are worse things than losing dual meets at home.

Here’s one example of worse: how about not wrestling at all, as has been the case here for 11 years.

“So many people worked to make this moment happen,” Steiner said. “It’s a start.”

The columnist can be reached at bydw@sbcglobal.net and on Twitter @bydavidwhite.

Fresno State wrestling schedule

NOVEMBER

11 at San Francisco State, W, 35-12

11 vs. Nebraska-Kearney, L, 19-17

17 vs. Illinois, L, 33-10

19 at Roadrunner Open, all day, in Bakersfield

21 vs. Air Force, 7 p.m., in San Diego

DECEMBER

1-2 at Cliff Keen Invitational, all day, in Las Vegas

8 vs. Bakersfield, 7 p.m.

10 at Minnesota, 11 a.m.

17 at Reno Tournament of Champions, all day

JANUARY

4 vs. Cal Poly, 7 p.m.

12-13 at Virginia Duals, all day, in Hampton, Va.

19 vs. Utah Valley, 7 p.m.

26 at Northern Colorado, 6 p.m., in Greeley, Colo.

27 at Wyoming, tba, in Laramie, Wyo.

FEBRUARY

3 vs. Stanford, 7 p.m.

5 at Oregon State, 7 p.m., in Corvallis, Ore.

9 at Iowa State, 5 p.m., in Ames, Iowa

18 vs. Oklahoma State, 1 p.m.

MARCH

3-4 at Big 12 Championships, all day, in Tulsa, Okla.

15-17 at NCAA Championships, all day, in Cleveland

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