Lars Jensen achieved the one goal he had in mind at the start of his 28th season as wrestling head coach: Three of his wrestlers emerged from nationals as All-Americans.
Six SF State wrestlers traveled to Kearney, Neb., to compete in the NCAA Division II championships March 12.
Naveed Bagheri, Josh Nolan, and Gene Choi each earned All-American honors, with Choi and Nolan placing eighth in their respective weight classes and Bagheri claiming the fifth-place spot. Pierre Bondoc, Matt Thomas and Isaiah Jimenez also competed but suffered losses in the consolation round that eliminated them from competing the second day.
“I was pleased,” Jensen said. “There have been a couple of years where we didn’t have even one All-American, so just to get one is nice. After all our hard work, having three is pretty good.”
The Gators dropped from 15th place on the first day of competition to 19th overall out of 41 participating schools with 18.5 total points. Nebraska-Omaha claimed its third-consecutive title with 102.5 points.
Jensen acknowledges that part of the challenge of competing at a national tournament is coping with the weight of such important matches.
“It’s a lot of emotion,” Jensen said. “If you make one mistake, that could mean not placing. It’s the culmination of a whole season in 30 seconds. It’s pretty exciting.”
This year’s tournament was not without its exciting moments, with a few Gator matches coming down to the wire.
After winning his opening match against Limestone College’s Bryan Sopko 6-5, Gene Choi suffered a frustrating defeat when he was pinned by St. Cloud State’s Shamus O’Grady.
“It was a little disheartening,” Choi said. “But after that match, I knew I had to just forget about it.”
Choi proceeded to the consolation round to wrestle Newberry’s Josh Whitlock in what Jensen dubbed one of the most exciting matches of the tournament.
Choi, who was behind for most of the match, made a glorious comeback in the last 30 seconds that secured the victory, his All-American status and a joyful celebration.
“I almost had an ulcer afterwards, heartburn and everything else,” Jensen said. “So here we are, we all get together, and we’re giving each other high-fives and everything because we got three All-Americans. That was probably the most gratifying moment right there.”
The impromptu celebration was something that Choi hadn’t quite witnessed in his four years as a Gator wrestler.
“You couldn’t take the smile off my face,” Choi said. “Everyone gave me high-fives, all the coaches, even the athletic trainer. No one’s ever high-fived me after a match.”
Josh Nolan and Naveed Bagheri were also able to fight through the first day of competition, and both were able to capture All-American honors on the second day. Similar to the heartburn-inducing thrill of Choi’s consolation match, Bagheri was able to capture the attention of the entire gymnasium in his own thrilling contest.
“Naveed probably had the most exciting match of the entire tournament for anybody,” Jensen said. “I had people come up to me and say ‘Oh, that was great’ – even the opposing coach.”
The quarterfinals match against Nebraska-Omaha’s Mario Morgan was one of the most exciting, but the last-minute loss was a hard pill to swallow for Bagheri, who had hopes of a national title.
Bagheri led most of the match, but was pinned late in the third period with 6:26 left on the clock.
“That was pretty upsetting,” Bagheri said. “I’m not going to say I’m disappointed, but I’m not going to say I’m satisfied. Right now, I’m still hungry.”
Looking back on the season, Jensen admitted he has no regrets and cited the team’s many successes as proof of a job well done.
“We placed in the national dual meet tournament,” Jensen said. “We beat division I Stanford we had six national qualifiers, we hosted regionals and we had three All-Americans—that’s a good season.”