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Wrestling program returns familiar face

Former Liberty Hawks standout wrestler Richie Brandt returns to the mat this season, but this time, as a Fresno State Bulldog.

“It’s awesome,” Brandt said before a recent practice. “I’ve been waiting since my sophomore year in high school when they said they’d come back. I was just super excited when I was at Utah Valley University when I heard they got the program back.”

Although Brandt is just beginning Fresno State career, some think his success is not a matter of if but when.

“He, of all the wrestlers I’ve ever had and I’ve coached for years, is one that is self-motivated, very tenacious and has been able to always set a goal and get to that place,” Brandt’s Liberty wrestling coach Jason Napier said. “His work ethic is above most of any other kid I’ve worked with.”

When Brandt graduated from Liberty in 2015, he was one of the top wrestlers in his weight class where he CIF state finalist as a junior.

After he graduated, Brandt committed to Utah Valley, he redshirted his first year. Brandt competed unattached to his school however and posted a 4-4 record at 197 pounds. He later transferred to Fresno State after the program’s reinstatement.

Although Brandt had a few offers to mull over, Fresno State was his first choice. Not only to become a Bulldog, but a Bulldog wrestler as well.

The Bulldogs reversed a past ruling and new Fresno State president Joseph Castro brought back the wrestling program. Troy Steiner was appointed the new head coach and tasked with resurrecting the once respected program and it’s his belief that Brandt, among the others, can help him deliver.

“They all bring something to the table or they wouldn’t be here right now,” Steiner said. “They all bring a unique set of assets that we feel will help build this program.

“Richie is always here and willing to work, he’s kind of like a silent warrior.”

Although Fresno State faces an uphill battle against some of the toughest wrestling programs in the country, the support from the Central Valley helps remedy that issue.

“Coming from a small school, you get a lot more support,” Brandt said. “Every time I go over there to a football game at Liberty or something, they ask me how I’m doing and how’s the program. It’s great, there is a lot of support.”

Fresno State marked its return with a 35-12 victory over San Francisco State before they were narrowly defeated by Nebraska-Kearney by two points, 17-19.

The team’s first home dual of the season pitted Fresno State against one of the best wrestling programs in the nation, Illinois. The Save Mart Center was packed with the third-largest crowd in wrestling history and first since 2005 to watch the return of Bulldogs wrestling.

The Fighting Illini were too much to handle for the Bulldogs after they jumped out to a 13-point lead after the first three bouts. Unfortunately, Fresno State couldn’t recover. No. 14 Illinois took the victory 33-10.

After opening the season 1-3, Fresno State looked to change their fortune against Air Force in the “Battle of the Midway.” The Bulldogs competed in their first ever Big 12 match on the deck of the USS Midway in San Diego on Tuesday.

“What a great event and I want to thank Left Coast Wrestling for putting on this event and ESPN Radio for covering it,” head coach Troy Steiner said during a radio interview. “There are a lot of positives to take away from tonight. It is good to get three wins, but we know we still have more work to do, and it is good to be apart of such a historic event.”

The Bulldogs faced an uphill battle early on after Air Force jumped out to a 12-point lead after three matches. Freshman Khristian Olivias and Greg Gaxiola combined for nine points in back-to-back matches to cut the deficit, 13-9.

Air Force tacked on 11 more points and take a 24-9 lead into the heavyweight division. After Isiah Hokit lost his bout at 165 pounds, Angel Solis recorded two quick escapes before losing 4-2 to Zen Ikehara.

Brandt then took the mat against Anthony McLaughlin in the 197-pound weight class. Both wrestlers jumped out to a quick 2-2 draw. Brandt worked his opponent well early, but couldn’t find the finish he was looking for. McLaughlin added two takedowns and an escape, along with riding time for a 8-2 win.

Fresno State added a few points to the final tally, courtesy of Clovis High alum A.J. Nevills, who continued his undefeated start to the season, but the team lost 24-12.

The Bulldogs return to the mat Dec. 1 and Dec. 2 at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas.


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