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NCAA wrestling is back in California’s Central Valley. The Fresno State Bulldogs made their triumphant return to their home wrestling mats last Friday after 11 long years in exile.
Over 6,840 members of the Valley’s faithful wrestling community made their way to Save Mart Center in Fresno to watch the Bulldogs' dual against No. 14 Illinois and to celebrate the momentous occasion (a number that dwarfed any other crowd in NCAA wrestling last weekend).
The resuscitation of the program became a reality thanks to the amazing efforts put forth by the school’s president, Dr. Joseph Castro, former head coach Dennis Deliddo, and a passionate and relentless group of local wrestling fans.
“It took a week to drop the program back in 2006 and 11 years to get it back,” said John Kriebs, Fresno State's athletic administrator in charge of wrestling and a two-time All-American at Northern Iowa.
“[Dr. Castro] made a powerful statement about a year or maybe six months into his presidency: It’s not a matter if we’re bringing back wrestling — it’s a matter of when.’”
When the spotlight hit the center mat on Friday night in Fresno, the roof nearly came off of the Save Mart Center. One thing was clear: California is a wrestling state and the people in the Valley deserve NCAA wrestling in their backyard.
“I’m very honored to be a part of the return and to be in the position that I’m in," current Bulldogs coach Troy Steiner said. "I know that I’m a lucky guy. I’m in a Valley where wrestling means something to them. Wrestling means something here. ... I know that I’m in a great position, and I know that there’s a great responsibility to that. You want to provide a program with the right resources and give these kids everything that they need to succeed and I plan on doing that.”
You don’t don’t have to be from the Valley or even from California to get caught up in the whirlpool of excitement circling the Fresno State program. I took a walk around Old Town Clovis before the dual on Friday, and wrestling was on everyone's minds and mouths.
“Yeah, they’re wrestling Illinois, tonight, right?” said one man coming out of an auto body shop when I asked him if he had heard that Fresno State had reinstated wrestling.
One woman who was working behind the counter in a jewelry store waxed poetic for (what felt like) hours about how she knew Dennis DeLiddo from his time coaching at Clovis High School.
“I knew he’d never let it go," she said." I knew they’d eventually bring it back. He’s been on a picket line since 2006”.
Three other men were eager to offer up a “GO DAWGS! BEAT ILLINOIS!” when I peeked my head out of the drenched street and into a poorly lit bar.
The scoreboard at the end of the dual may have read 33-10 in favor of the Fighting Illini, but the Bulldogs gave the people of the Valley plenty to cheer about again.