CLEVELAND — The public address announcer presented the first-round match between Fresno State’s Khristian Olivas and Northern Iowa’s Max Thomsen.
The match received a smattering of applause from the crowd. The spectators demonstrated their appreciation, realizing it was more than an unseeded wrestler taking on a Panther All-American.
The contest was Fresno State’s first appearance at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships since 2006, when the program was cut. The program was resurrected this season under former University of Iowa four-time All-American and NCAA champion Troy Steiner.
Fresno State is a beacon of hope in a sport that is desperately trying to grow.
“It was a neat thing for the sport,” Steiner said. “Obviously, for Fresno State it is big, but it’s big for the sport.
“One of the reasons that really intrigued me about taking the position is somehow we have to get the pendulum swinging the other way. I felt if I could get this thing going in the right direction, maybe it will open up some other institutions to do the same thing.”
The Bulldogs were 4-16 in duals this season and had two national qualifiers, including heavyweight A.J. Nevills. Steiner said he knew reaching the levels he envisioned when he was named head coach in May 2016 would take some time.
“It’s been good,” Steiner said. “As a coach, you always want more and you want it quick, but it’s a process.”
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The process started before he had athletes. He assembled his staff to set the foundation and then targeted athletes. They established a regional training center, which is an important part of programs now.
Steiner also had to engage supporters and regain a following for the program that hadn’t competed in more than a decade. The Bulldogs averaged almost 4,500 fans per home dual.
“We’ve had great crowds in our first year,” Steiner said. “We haven’t given much to cheer about but the sport.
“I think they knew they lost something there about 10 or 12 years ago. They’re not going to let it happen again, so they really came out and supported us. Hopefully, we’ll give them something to cheer about here as we move on to the next year.”
Olivas fell to ninth-seeded Thomsen, 13-5. Duke’s No. 4-seed Jacob Kasper pinned Nevills. They are the cornerstones of the foundation that Steiner wanted to create. Steiner said they are focused more on their current goals than their roles in Fresno State’s return.
“I don’t know if they understand it right now,” Steiner said. “They are guys coming out of high school that want to be in a program and succeed like any other wrestler out here.
“I think in time they will see it a lot more. They are worried about what they can do right now and that’s what they should be worried about.”
Steiner said he doesn’t consider Fresno State a new program now. The program and wrestlers have been through a full season. He has high standards, noting his Iowa experience and it is hard to settle for anything less.
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“We have to continue to develop and progress,” Steiner said. “I want to see growth every time out. Every time I see any of our athletes compete, even in the spring for freestyle, I want to see growth and development. If I don’t see that, then I need to make adjustment and changes.”
Degen wins opener
Iowa State had a perfect record after the opening session Thursday afternoon. The Cyclones’ Jarrett Degen was the lone qualifier and he won his first-round match. Degen dropped Nebraska’s 13th-seeded Colton McCrystal, 9-5, to reach the round of 16.
The Cyclones matched last year’s point total (1). Degen is a redshirt freshman, who transferred from Virginia Tech, following head coach Kevin Dresser and members of his staff.
Degen (21-10) dropped his second round match to North Carolina’s fourth-seeded Troy Heilmann.
Turk scores first points
Iowa’s Vince Turk scored a takedown in the opening seconds of his pigtail match Thursday, going 2-0 in the first session. His points were the first of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, which was followed shortly by the tournament’s first blood timeout.
Turk started strong with a 12-2 major decision over Lock Haven’s Kyle Shoop. He followed it with a last-second 4-3 victory over Indiana’s Cole Weaver, scoring a takedown and adding two nearfall at the buzzer.
Iowa’s Cash Wilcke had another last-second victory. He had a late escape and takedown for a 4-3 first-round win over Nebraska’s Eric Schultz at 197.
“We want to keep improving and maybe control things a little bit more,” Brands said. “Keep wrestling matches 420 seconds long. ... Both guys did that. Paid off for them.”
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