David White

Fresno State wrestling already knocking off Top 25 teams – and doing it the right way

Fresno State’s Khristian Olivas wrestles against Cal State Bakersfield’s Kalani Tonge in the Bulldogs’ first home match last season.
Fresno State’s Khristian Olivas wrestles against Cal State Bakersfield’s Kalani Tonge in the Bulldogs’ first home match last season. Fresno Bee file

Fresno State wrestling is back.

Not back as in back as a program; that happened in 2017 when the Bulldogs ended 11 years of off-campus housing.

We mean back, as in a viable wrestling program with Top 25 value. We mean, they are back back.

That much is certain after Friday’s 23-10 win at No. 23 Utah Valley. The Bulldogs hadn’t beaten a Top 25 team since they went the way of the temporary ghost in 2006 (see program eliminated, until it wasn’t).

How’s that for setting the stage for today’s 2 p.m. homecoming against South Dakota State? The Bulldogs are about to be 3-3 in the Big 12 Conference in just their sophomore season back wrestling in The Grocery Store.

Beat a Top 25 team, and you have what it takes to be a Top 25 team. See how that works, Wavers?

“It was a good team win,” said Bulldogs coach Troy Steiner, saying nothing about nothing because he leaves the brinkmanship and sales pitch to former coach Dennis DeLiddo.

All Steiner does is take a van of common wrestlers with the uncommon tenaciousness of a toothy wolverine and coach them to wins that better wrestlers would never win.

God’s gifts to us don’t make his starting lineups. There’s not a single two-time state champion in the First 10. Half of them never did take a first in California.

Think about that. A team filled with no-time and one-time state champions, knocking off a Top 25 team in away singlets.

Strap on the headgear, here we go.

Steiner has taken Fresno State fullback Josh Hokit and whipped him into Iowa wrestling shape quicker than a three-count. Hokit (14-3) is 16th-ranked in the nation, and just magnet-backed No. 11 Tanner Orndorff to the mat Friday.

This, one week after beating the No. 4 wrestler at 197 pounds and picking up Big 12 wrestler of the week honors.

Given non-state champion Khristian Olivas, Steiner has whistled him into a No. 15 national ranking at 149 pounds. He recruited Jackson Hemauer out of Wisconsin, and has molded the freshman into the 21st-rated 184-pound kid in the country.

Even heavyweight AJ Nevills is getting better, when he was already better enough. He just beat No. 10 Tate Orndorff 5-1.

Steiner and the Bulldogs are winning, which means Fresno State is winning.

He is winning the recruiting battle in the Central Valley, the richest three counties of wrestling in ‘Merica. Friday’s starting 10 had kids who grew up in Selma, Lemoore, Wasco and Clovis.

They are winning the ticket counter, with last year’s top-five national attendance (4,566 jeans in the tubs). They’re running 2,500 in three home dates so far, which still kills the old North Gym days.

Yeah, one and a half seasons after coming back, they’re back for reals now.

The Bulldogs have bottle-rocketed from 2-8 in the Big 12 last season to 3-3 so far. That’s a show worth watching.

Some say this still isn’t worth the money in a sports department that loses money by the barge load. We saw apply yourself to a front headlock and squeeze until you’re navy in the face.

Wrestling is giving Fresno State a team that makes grades, wins matches, signs local and works blue collar. They’ve given Old Man DeLiddo the right to happiness when his 49ers refuse. They’re giving Fresno State its money’s worth.

Best of all? Wrestling is giving all those sucked-up kids from Wasco and Selma and Clovis a chance to earn a scholarship without having to move to Champaign, Ill., for the winter.

“I really like our intensity,” Steiner said.

And, we really like his.

Three-point stance

1. No. 1 Duke loses at home to unranked Syracuse. No. 2 Michigan falls to unconsidered Wisconsin. March Madness in January? Don’t tell me Fresno State can’t stick it to No. 10 Nevada, if not in Reno, then in Vegas. Because, college basketball, that’s why.

2. Nice of the Golden State Warriors to rejoin us as the No. 1 team in the NBA. We were starting to think they were saving it for May.

3. Rams-Patriots in the Super Bowl. Not changing my mind.