By Nate Sanchez
A term used to describe the athletes who’ve chosen wrestling as their craft.
You probe the consistency of the mat with your feet. It’s cushioned like a firm foam mattress, but there will be no rest for you here. Not today. From behind your headgear, you hear instructions from your coach and shouts from the crowd in the stands. Their shouts are all positive, though not all are meant for your ears.
The whistle blows and the match begins.
Two minutes of grappling leads to an open opportunity and you take it. As your opponent makes a move to take you down, a quick sweep of the leg reverses his attack. You wrap your arm around one leg, the other hooks around his neck. The cheering grows louder and the instructions come more often.
You cling to your prey like a lion to a gazelle. After a few seconds, another whistle blows. Your hand is raised by the referee and the crowds roar as you stand victorious over your defeated opponent. The savannah is yours, and you proved it today. You walk back to the bench to high fives and congratulations from your teammates.
But you know they’re more than that. They’re your best friends. They’re your comrades; your brothers.
That’s what wrestling is in Bakersfield. It’s not just a sport. It’s a brotherhood; a fraternity. Its reach stretches beyond the big, colored mats in gyms across the state into the heart of many a local athlete. Its legacy, though not as pronounced and paraded as football’s pageantry, is still powerfully palpable.
The Local Kids
Bakersfield is a concentrated source of wrestling talent. Out of the 29 wrestlers on CSUB’s wrestling team, all but one are from California. Redshirt 141-pounder Dalton Kelley is the only exception to the Californian theme. The senior is a native of Colorado.The eight aforementioned wrestlers are locals, hailing from high schools here in town. To narrow the scope even further, seven of those eight are from the same high school.
In another instance of football overshadowing the local rich wrestling culture, Bakersfield High School’s wrestling program is as storied as its football program, if not more so. The man behind this is Coach Andy Varner.
“He’s a hall of fame coach,” Bryce Hammond said. “He’s among the best in the country because he was good at having us peak at the right time. He knew how to design practices so we could do that.”
Hammond isn’t the only one in line to sing Varner’s praises. Ian Nickell, another alumnus of the BHS wrestling program, adds to Hammond’s compliments.
“I don’t have enough time to go through all the things Coach Varner’s done for me,” Nickell said. “He taught all of us to be more than wrestlers. He taught us to be overall good men.”
Varner’s wrestling legacy is somewhat of a dynasty here in Bakersfield. He was the second Varner to win a Central Section championship at 141 pounds. His uncle, Steve, has been coaching for almost two decades and was the first in the Varner line to win a state championship at 141 pounds.
He did it in 1966. Steve, along with his three cousins Bobby Varner, Roger Varner and Vernon Varner dominated the local wrestling scene in the ’50s and ’60s at BHS, North High and South High.
The Golden Boy
The most recent jewels in the Varner wrestling crown are the accolades of Steve’s son, Jake. He’s only lost 10 times in his entire career as a wrestler, which spans from his high school to college and beyond. Jake, a 212-pound wrestler out of BHS won two state championships and qualified four times in his high school career.
In college, Varner repeated as a NCAA champion at 197 pounds in his final two years and went undefeated with a record of 31-0. In 2012 Jake was able to perform and succeed on a stage for all the world to see: the Olympics.
In 2012 at the age of 26, Jake won a gold medal in the men’s heavyweight freestyle as an American Olympian. Four straight victories got Varner to the gold medal match, where he beat Valeriy Oleksadrovych Andriitsev 1-0, 1-0.
Most recently, Jake earned the opportunity to represent the United States again in the FILA World Championships in September.
The student-athletes don’t come from nowhere, and they don’t sprout from the tacky blue floor of the Icardo Center during the summer months.
For most of the local wrestlers at CSUB, the choice was simple: wrestle for the Roadrunners or solely be a student somewhere else. The passion for wrestling runs deep in this town and it runs through the veins of these wrestlers. Any chance to continue their careers is taken.
For Hammond, it was not an easy choice. The six-foot-one-inch redshirt sophomore was recruited by every school in the Ivy League, Boise State University, Ohio State, as well as Oklahoma State and the entirety of the Pac-12 sans Oregon State University.
The decision to come to CSUB was one that didn’t come easy for Hammond, as choosing a college is not an easy task with so many options so readily available. Familiarity and tradition gave CSUB the advantage.
“We would wrestle here every summer,” said junior Adam Fierro, another BHS alum. “It wasn’t a big surprise when they [CSUB] recruited me because they knew me and we worked together a lot.”
CSUB’s head coach Mike Mendoza, a former wrestler himself, became a part of the Bakersfield when he wrestled for the Roadrunner from 1995 to 1999. In 2003, he returned to his alma mater to coach.
“A big part of this job is getting to know guys,” Mendoza said. “That way they know who they’re wrestling for. When they’re local they know a little bit more. There’s more of a connection.”
The connection goes farther than just high schools to CSUB.
“A lot of our alumni from this program are coaching here in town,” Mendoza said. “Andy Varner was a teammate of mine. It’s helpful having a bond with the community.”
“I’d known Coach Mendoza since he became was an assistant coach around the time I was in seventh grade,” Hammond said. “We’ve gone to the same church since then.”
After the last whistle blows
Not every wrestler will be a Jake Varner. For most wrestlers, the Bakersfield connection has given them the opportunity not only to grow as wrestlers and perfect their craft, but also to better themselves through higher education.
“When you go to college, there’s a point where you become more independent,” Mendoza said. “It’s our job to teach these guys the small things about being responsible with their time and their money. We also teach them that there are no shortcuts.”
By season’s end, the Roadrunners had three first-team All-Conference honors for Academics. Kelley, who’s maintained a 4.00 GPA in his masters’ studies, Rueben Franklin and Nickell were named to the PAC-12’s Academic All-Conference team.
“I’d like to work toward a Ph.D in engineering sciences,” Nickell said. “It’s a goal of mine to become an engineer or a professor. I feel like wrestling’s opened up this avenue of opportunity, and I’ve learned from coach that if you put work in, you’ll get results.”