Sports Fresno State wrestling: Keeping the dream alive
Feb 17, 2015 10:37PM ● Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine
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Fresno State wrestling: Keeping the dream alive
by Christopher Livingston
The room is like a museum, telling a tale of history, success, heartbreak and hope. Pictures of student-athletes hang on every wall. Trophies and memorabilia sit on tables near the window.
Dennis DeLiddo excitedly points to one of the pictures. It is of the 1985 Fresno State wrestling team he coached that won the PCAA Championship.
“One! Two! Three! Four!” he excitedly calls out. Like a roll call, he points at the members of the team who wound up as wrestling coaches in the Central Valley. It is one of his many proud accomplishments: not just to coach title-winning teams, but also to keep the sport alive.
And everyone in every picture has something in common: He is part of a genuine Central Valley tradition.
In August 2014, Fresno State president Joseph I. Castro announced his intention to bring back intercollegiate wrestling to the university, saying that “it’s no longer a question” whether the sport will be reinstated.
Wrestling is the most successful sport in the Valley, DeLiddo says. The No. 1 high school in the state of California in the sport has been from the Central Valley five years in a row. Clovis High School is currently on a four-season streak as champions.
The emergence of a collegiate wrestling program
In the early days, high school football coaches encouraged their players to participate in wrestling during the offseason. That’s how DeLiddo got involved in the sport.
“I went out for wrestling my junior and senior years and started really liking it,” he said. “Then I went to Fresno City College and I tried football, but I wasn’t good enough. I went out for the wrestling team, and I really loved the coaches.”
After getting a scholarship to Fresno State – tuition was a whopping $50 per semester at that time – DeLiddo became more involved with the sport and decided to go into coaching. First, he led a turnaround at Clovis High School and then was hired to lead Fresno State.
While at the helm of the Fresno State program, DeLiddo led the team to 11 top-25 NCAA finishes, 10 in a row from 1992-2002. His resume boasts 33 All-Americans, 101 individual conference champions and at least one NCAA appearance for 21 straight years. He retired from the program in 2004, and Shawn Charles took over as coach.
Then on June 15, 2006, the unthinkable happened. Fresno State announced that it was cutting the wrestling program. The university blamed cost-cutting measures, the lack of adequate facilities, “low-level” academic performance and no comparable women’s program.
DeLiddo was shocked when he found out the program was canceled, but he figured such a drastic change would be reversed.
“You took an opportunity for a kid from, let’s say, Selma High, who’s not good enough to get a scholarship somewhere,” he said. “Now he has to make a decision, ‘Do I go somewhere else? Do I go to Bakersfield? Do I move to Illinois? Where do I go where I can wrestle and afford college?”
The reactions were not silent. Four days after the announcement, fans gathered outside the home of then-Fresno State president John Welty to protest the university’s decision. It was a peaceful demonstration. Protesters wanted to show Welty the community supported the sport.
An attempt to keep the tradition
For Adam Wong, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.
After finishing high school in Modesto, he was set to continue his wrestling career at Fresno State. But one month after graduation, the university’s wrestling program ended.
“I was telling myself that Fresno State was the only one in the area,” Wong said. “UC Davis was going on, but I didn’t feel like my grades were up to par, so I didn’t work toward going there.”
Instead of moving out of the area and pursuing a collegiate wrestling career, Wong decided to go to Modesto Junior College close to home. It was not a Division-I school, but he still enjoyed the opportunity to compete.
Once he transferred to Fresno State, he wanted to wrestle. He wasn’t alone. Two other students, Jovany Gonzalez and Daniel Avalos, joined him to start a club at the university geared toward raising awareness of the sport. Wong is the club’s president.
This was not the first time Fresno State had a wrestling club. After the intercollegiate program was shuttered in 2006, there was an attempt to continue competing as a club. However, with lack of funding and heavy out-of-pocket travel expenses, a norm in intermural sports, the club faded away.
Today, the relaunched wrestling club does the same thing as its predecessor: it puts money together to participate in matches with other clubs in the Valley.
However, there are shortfalls: the school doesn’t allow the club to practice or hold meets on campus, and that can be seen as a burden to potential wrestlers.
“There’s a lot of freshmen who want to wrestle, but there is no program,” Wong said. “They find out about us, but it’s a mile-and-a-half away from campus, and they don’t have cars.
“If we were on campus, I’m pretty sure our turnout would be double what we have.”
But the club still tries to keep the Valley’s passion strong. By renting a high school gym to practice and hold clinics, the club works with members of the community.
“It’s such a big wrestling area,” Wong said. “I want to stay here and be a part of it.” Community support for reinstatement since the goal of reinstating wrestling was announced, there has been an outpouring of support from the Fresno State fans.
“The idea came from our Sports Marketing 161 class,” said Fresno State student Jonathan Maertens, one of the tailgate’s creators. “We had to do a project for the course. We originally didn’t choose wrestling, but realized that wrestling in the Valley had more draw to it.
“As a class, we came to the conclusion that a wrestling fundraiser would have the most impact on Fresno State and the community.”
DeLiddo says the tailgate was a success, earning as much as $10,000 that night. “I was real leery of the tailgate,” he said. “I was hoping someone would show up, or I would be a little embarrassed. But when I showed up, they had hors d’oeuvres, smiles on their faces and lots of people there. It was fantastic.”
“This fundraiser has demonstrated to the whole class that wrestling is not only wanted back at Fresno State, but plays a crucial role in keeping valley athletes in the valley,” Maertens said.
“From my point of view, wrestling has been huge,” Wong said. “There were lots of fans coming to watch our tournaments back in Modesto. After my two years here at Fresno, I’ve seen so much support for wrestling – especially at the high school level.”
With wrestling having been out of the picture for so long, DeLiddo says that once the program is back, it could attract large crowds. After all, as the old adage goes, “You don’t know what you have till it’s gone.”
Even then, apathy could kick in after a while, and low attendance could still be a possibility in wrestling matches. After all, it was one of the reasons the program was cut in the first place.
But it is more than just getting a crowd to see a meet. It’s also about helping the young athletes develop, mature, and spread the Central Valley’s wrestling tradition.
“Wrestling isn’t just what happens on the mat,” DeLiddo said. “It’s off the mat, before you get on the mat and after you’re done with your eligibility. It’s just such a learning tool for kids.”
For now, DeLiddo waits anxiously for Castro to make the official announcement that sports fans in the region want to hear: the date when Fresno State can roll out its mat.
“I’m still nervous and have knots in my stomach,” he said. “But once he tells us exactly when the program will come back, then I can exhale and say, ‘Yes, we did it.’”
Editor’s note: Fresno State was expected to make an announcement in January about when the popular sport of wrestling would return to the university. At the time this issue went to press, that announcement had yet to be made. This story looks at some of the individuals who have played key roles in keeping the dream of wrestling alive, both at the university and in the Central Valley.