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Fresno State wrestling coach busy preparing for program’s 2017 relaunch

Fresno State wrestling coach Troy Steiner, speaking during his introductory press conference in May, has been busy planning, recruiting, hiring and networking. But with the Bulldogs still a year away from competition, not much actual coaching.
Fresno State wrestling coach Troy Steiner, speaking during his introductory press conference in May, has been busy planning, recruiting, hiring and networking. But with the Bulldogs still a year away from competition, not much actual coaching. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

For the past 20 years of his life, Troy Steiner has been a college wrestling coach.

Officially, he still is. Except this year, Steiner finds himself in the unfamiliar position of being a college wrestling coach without a team.

Fresno State wrestling may be back, but it’s not back all the way. Not yet. That doesn’t happen until next fall, when the Bulldogs resume NCAA competition.

For now, as his counterparts across the country begin their seasons, Steiner spends his days planning, recruiting, hiring and networking. Just not a lot of actual coaching.

“It’s definitely a different year, there’s no doubt,” Steiner said during a recent interview in his office. “I’m not sitting here watching film, studying up on our next opponent and seeing how we have to prepare.”

I’m really trying to hone in what we put in place so that when we start next summer we’re ready to go.

Fresno State wrestling coach Troy Steiner

Earlier this week, Steiner unveiled his first recruiting class of 16 wrestlers who will form the foundation of next year’s 22-man roster. (That number increases to 27 in Year Two before settling in at 32 in Year Three.)

Six of the 16 are already on campus and training with a Bulldogs coaching staff that also includes assistants Israel Silva and Jason Chamberlain. However, because the team doesn’t actually exist until 2017, these practices must be designated as “California USA Wrestling regional training center practices” rather than “Fresno State practices.”

During a typical college wrestling practice, there are 30-something guys in the room grappling, sweating, pushing each other.

It’s much different when there are only a handful.

“It’s hard to get the energy up,” Steiner said. “I was frustrated the other day just because the energy’s not there, but as I’m driving home I reminded myself to use this time for what it’s worth.

“I have time to really spend on them individually that when you have a group of 25 or 30 you really don’t. Have to take that as a positive and use it for all it’s worth.”

6 members of Steiner’s first recruiting class who are already on campus and training

The six Bulldogs signees are allowed to compete in open tournaments, including Sunday’s Roadrunner Open at Clovis North High. However, they must enter as “unattached” and can’t wear official Fresno State singlets. (However, that didn’t stop one of them, Clovis High grad Khristian Olivas, from creating his own custom design.)

Why is a wrestling tournament in Fresno named the Roadrunner Open? Because it’s co-organized by Cal State Bakersfield, which for years has been the closest Division I college wrestling program.

The irony isn’t lost on Steiner.

Why is a wrestling tournament held in Fresno named the Roadrunner Open?

“Next year, I told them, if we wanted to continue having it, it won’t be the Roadrunner Open,” he said with a smile.

If Steiner’s first batch of recruits is any indication, the Bulldogs will have a strong Valley flavor. Twelve of the 16 grew up between Oakdale and Bakersfield, including four graduates of local juggernaut Clovis High.

Steiner scored quite a few “hits” by picking up a CIF state champion (Clovis’ Josh Hokit, who also is playing football) and several state finalists and medalists. The biggest “miss” was Clovis’ Justin Mejia, the three-time state champion who chose Illinois after decommitting from Iowa.

“I talked to him and obviously I wanted him, but if he doesn’t feel this is the place, then he needs to go elsewhere,” Steiner said.

“Not everyone is going to want to step into this challenge, but there are some kids that are. They want to be a part of this. Twenty years down the road, they’re going to be proud of what they accomplished.”

If you look at any top program in the country, they keep their area kids.

Troy Steiner

Steiner still has a lot that needs accomplishing over the next several months. He needs to sign six more recruits, hire a volunteer assistant and put together a schedule. Fresno State will wrestle in the Big 12 Conference, guaranteeing six to eight duals.

However, Steiner is wary about his fledgling program having to face any national powerhouses too soon during its relaunch 2017 season.

“People ask if I’m going to have (Iowa) here for the first dual meet,” he said. “I can’t do that to my team. It’s not going to do anything for us. We’re not going to be ready for that yet. …

“I’m trying to find a bigger program that maybe is down a bit. Because I want our guys to know we’re not going to schedule cupcakes here. That’s not going to prepare us for down the road. At the same time, I’ve got to be smart about how I bring guys along. Because if you throw them out there too early, you might never get their confidence back.”

People ask if I’m going to have (Iowa) here for the first dual meet. I can’t do that to my team.

Troy Steiner

The yearlong buildup also gives Steiner time to raise funds for a club team, made up of wrestlers who have finished their college careers but aspire to reach the Olympics or World Championships. These athletes would make Fresno their home base (again, as a USA Wrestling regional training center) and work out with the current Bulldogs.

All the national powerhouses sponsor such clubs. To make it happen at Fresno State, Steiner needs to find $40,000 for each member to cover living expenses and travel costs to some events.

“I just feel that’s one of the pieces you have to have in place,” Steiner said. “If you think you’re going to compete with the top programs like an Iowa, Penn State, Minnesota or Oklahoma State, you’ve got to have that.”

Wrestling supporters waited a long time for Fresno State to resurrect the program. In the end, the slow build should be worth their extra patience.

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