In double overtime with just 30 seconds to go and a national championship title on the line, SF State senior Naveed Bagheri only had to watch the clock run down and wait for the last match of his college career to come to an end.
When the final bell rang, Bagheri became the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II Champion for the 141 weight class in Birmingham, Ala. March 9.
However, this moment almost didn’t happen.
Bagheri started wrestling in sixth grade, but by the time he got to high school his interest began to wane. He always saw wrestling as a hobby and nothing more than a way to mess around with his friends. He became serious about wrestling during his sophomore year, but only briefly before he again lost interest.
“Wrestling was a big commitment,” Bagheri said. “I thought it was one of those things where it was worth it, but at that point I was already over it.”
Then a fateful phone call came from SF State wrestling Coach Lars Jensen. At first, Bagheri didn’t think much of it, but he saved the voicemail anyway. After a six-month break from the sport he went to go wrestle some high school kids and beat them all while being out of shape and then he knew he wasn’t completely done with wrestling.
“(I) went back and saved his voicemail and gave him a call,” Bagheri said. “Obviously it ended up being a blessing and a life-changing decision that has been great ever since.”
Jensen saw a talented high school wrestler and felt he needed him on his team. Bagheri just needed a push.
“Here it is six years later and he’s national champion and a three-time All-American,” Jensen said.
In the final match of his career at SF State, Bagheri found himself looking at a familiar opponent, Ryan Fillingame of Adams State. Having previously faced him twice this season, Bagheri was going to have to beat Fillingame for a second time this season in their “rubber match” with only one of them winning the title of national champion.
“(Fillingame) looked at his coach and then he looked at me,” Bagheri said. “I’ll never forget it because he had to go down and at that point I knew I had the match won.”
Bagheri finished his last season with a 29-5 record. He finishes with 112 career wins at SF State placing third in school history. He also tops the Gator record book with 153 career two-point near falls and is second with 111 three-point near falls.
“I came into this season thinking this is my year,” Bagheri said. “This was my chance to prove it. There was no doubt in my mind that I could make it happen. Only thing holding me back would be me.”
Not to be out shined by Bagheri’s success, the Gators had a second wrestler with something to prove this season.
Senior Isaiah Jimenez was looking for his own national champion title, but fell a bit short of the glory.
“Going in I wanted to be national champ, definitely did not have 5th place written on my wall,” Jimenez said. “It’s definitely not what I wanted at all but I’m still an All-American so that feels good.”
Jimenez left nationals last year heartbroken after ranking third in the nation to lose the eventual national championship in the fourth overtime and leave without placing.
“It just drove me all summer long, all offseason,” Jimenez said. “This year I said there was no way I’m not going to be an All-American. I’m not going to let it happen.”
Jimenez ended his career on a high note beating Blake Ridenour from Newberry College in a 7-4 victory. He placed fifth for his 165 weight class and finished his final season with a 24-9 record. Jimenez led the Gators in takedowns with 71 this season.
Coach Jensen was proud of his team this season and felt the biggest team win for them was beating Adams State, who won the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference dual meet title this season.
“Overall, I thought we did as well as we can,” Jensen said. “Would have liked to see a couple more guys at nationals. Need four or five guys to get in the top five.”
Of course, the best thing to happen to the team was Bagheri’s Championship and Jimenez’s 5th place finish helping the Gators to finish in 10th as a team.
“Every year our goal is to have All-Americans,” Jensen said. “Our goal is to place in the top 20 in the nation. This is the first time we’ve been in the top 10 since 2004.”
The Gators finished 8-8 in dual meets and 8-3 in non Division I competition.
In 30 years as SF State’s head coach, Jensen’s coached 10 individual national champions, losing only three times. The last time Jensen had an individual national champion was in 2005.
“It’s been a long time,” Jensen said. “It was a good season, a lot of hard work from the student athletes as well as the coaches, trainers, equipment guys and everything else. Hopefully, it gets better recruits in here and that the kids on the team right now get excited about it.”
First-year assistant wrestling coach Jeff Silveira felt this season was rewarding and that minor setbacks only refocused the team to reach its goals.
“With the amount of money we get and the scholarships we have we were beating teams that are fully funded or have a lot more scholarship money than us,” Silveira said. “To finish ahead of them was very rewarding. I Felt very proud of our team and our whole effort.”
As far as next season goes, Coach Jensen just hopes to keep building on this season’s success and move forward with the program.
“We’re just starting to turn the corner again and having another successful run at finishing in the top five in the nation,” Jensen said. “I’m looking forward to having not just two guys go to nationals but we want to have six to eight guys go.”