Walk-on wrestler becomes first to head to Nationals in 15 years

In his purple SF State wrestling singlet, Johnny Costa knelt to the mat on one knee to attach his ankle band, but inside he was praying in anticipation of his first match at Massari Arena at Colorado State Pueblo University on Feb. 27. It was a tradition his grandfather had taught him to do before every match.

“I’m a really religious guy, I keep everything the same and go out there to wrestle,” Costa said. “I pray before every match, my grandpa told me to do that. I’ve believed in it ever since and never stopped.”

The tradition payed off as Costa became the first non-scholarship wrestler from SF State in 15 years to head to Nationals. This dual however was unlike any other because it occurred at the 2015 NCAA Division II West Super Regional, where Costa became one of three Gators to earn a ticket to St Louis, Missouri.

Costa, a redshirt sophomore from Escalon, Calif., placed fourth in his 184-pound weight class at Regionals and will be joining teammates Andrew Reggi and Jordan Gurrola for the National tournament.

“He doesn’t get any scholarship money at all,” said head coach Lars Jensen. “Here’s a guy going to a national tournament not getting one dime. It’s very rewarding and I’m looking forward to coaching him for two more years.”

Costa improved from where he was last season where he struggled to make his 174-pound weight at times. After countless attempts to convince coaches he was perfect for 184-pounds, he competed at that weight and defeated California Polytechnic State University’s Nick Fiegener in their first match this season. After the match, Assistant Coach Isaiah Jimenez gave him the OK to stay at 184.

“My eyes just glowed right away,” Costa said after Jimenez approved his move up in weight class. “It was probably one of the best decisions ever because I would have died at 174.”

Costa ran into academic trouble last season and lost his starting spot but with the help of his father, Costa was able to steer into the right path and come back to earn his starting position this year.

“It was definitely an eye-opener,” Costa said. “My dad helped me get back on track, told me I needed to get my grades right. I came back got my grades right and I’ve been wrestling well. I’ve got everything back on track.”

Sharing a strong father-son relationship, Costa’s father, Joey introduced him to wrestling at age five and he has loved it ever since.

“I try to be supportive and give him every opportunity to be successful,” Joey said. “Whether that means going to wrestling camps across the country or taking him to national tournaments ever since he was a little kid.”

Costa hopes to become a coach at his former high school, Escalon High School and eventually put his criminal justice major to use after graduation.

That is in the future. Now Costa is headed to Nationals, where he will face off with the number-one-ranked wrestler in the region, Ouachita Baptist’s Dallas Smith, and will have to win his first two matches to place and become an All-American.

Costa said his recent accomplishment has not hit him yet but directly after the qualifying match, he experienced sheer excitement as he turned around and ran to his coaches who were waiting on the sideline to give them all a hug.

“I knew I had to win the right matches,” Costa said. “I knew I had to win the first one right away because that’s really important. I knew if I won that first one I had a really good shot and I won it. Everything wound up falling in place and I wound up going to Nationals.”

Shortly after celebrating with coaches Costa went to call his dad to tell him to book his ticket to Nationals.

His father replied as happy as can be, “I already did.”

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