Roger Moore, NCAA.com
When Lars Jensen became head coach at San Francisco State almost three decades ago, putting together a schedule was pretty easy. The state of California had in excess of 20 schools which fielded wrestling teams.
But the landscape has changed.
“There is really nothing we can do from a scheduling standpoint,” said Jensen, who is in his 28th year running the Division II program. “Twenty years ago it wasn’t that big of a deal when we were putting a schedule together. There were plenty of schools to choose from in California, but that’s certainly changed.”
Jensen had the foresight to see problems on the horizon as program after program in California has slowly started going away. UC Davis’ wrestling program was dropped following the 2009-10 season, joining Fresno State and a half dozen others during the last 30 years. Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Bakersfield are currently in major fundraising battles to keep afloat.
“We have a couple of endowments worth a half a million dollars,” Jensen said. “The UC Davis deal, that was kind of out of nowhere. They didn’t get much of a chance to work to save that program. Fullerton and Bakersfield, they’ve gotten the word that they need to raise their own money, so they’ve been able to at least try.
“I think the most important thing right now is to have that contact with your alumni base. They are the ones who are going to make the phone calls, the ones who can have an impact and the ones who are going to fight for you. And I’ve been able to build a strong rapport with those outside the fieldhouse, the administrators who make the decisions.”
Despite the turbulent waters, Jensen, a regional champion for San Francisco State in 1978, has built a solid program including coaching nine national champions and 56 All-Americans. In 1997 the Gators were Division II national champions with Damion Broadbent (125), Greg Jackson (158) and Lee Lofton (197) each winning individual titles.
Under Jensen, the Gators’ dual standard shows 128 victories against 283 losses. This season the record is just 4-8. But the losses have come to Division II powers St. Cloud State and Central Oklahoma and Division I Bakersfield, Cal State Fullerton and Wyoming.
On Jan. 30, SFSU beat Division I Stanford. SFSU finishes the dual season Feb. 13 against Cal Poly.
All-time, the Gators are 32-32 in duals against UC Davis and 11-19-2 against CS Fullerton.
“We’ve always wrestled the DI schools (in California),” Jensen said. “It might be tough on some guys’ individual records but we are prepared at the end. We’ve had guys with losing records end up at nationals, but that’s just the schedule we have to wrestle.”
Nineteen times since 1990 the Gators have finished among the top 25 at the DII national championships.
This season’s squad, ranked 14th in the latest National Wrestling Coaches Association poll, is led by senior 141 pounder Naveed Bagheri. He finished fifth at 133 pounds at the 2009 DII Championships but is now ranked second at 141 with a 24-5 record.
On Saturday, Bagheri was the only non-Division I athlete to win a title at the California Collegiate Invitational on the campus of SFSU.
“(Bagheri), we felt like, was capable of winning it last year,” Jensen said. “He’s certainly right there this year. We feel like we can take five or six kids to the DII Championships (March 11-12 in Kearney, Neb.). We are hosting the regional, so that keeps us from having to travel pretty far to compete.”
Matt Thomas, a junior transfer, is 16-9 and ranked fifth at 149 pounds.
Sophomore Zach Jimenez qualified for the national championships last March as a true freshman. The 184 pounder is 7-13 this season but, as Jensen mentioned, records can be deceiving. Isiah Jimenez is 21-12 at 165 pounds. Senior Gene Choi is 14-18 at 174 pounds. Senior Pierre Bondac is 17-15 at 125 pounds after finishing fourth on Saturday along with Isiah Jimenez and Choi.
And Jensen is doing his best to keep California kids in California. Only one member of the team is not from California – A.J. Simon of Colorado Springs, Colo.
“Ten years ago there was no way I was signing any state champions,” Jensen said. “We’d usually get a few state placers here and there. But we are starting to sign a lot more quality kids — we just got a state champion. There are limited places for them to go, especially if they want to stay close to home.
“And you don’t know if some places are going to have a program in a few years. The big schools have really come in and raided the state for the top talent. It’s hard to keep them here.”
Jensen, along with assistant coach Mauricio Wright, a two-time DII national champion, is doing his best to keep wrestlers in the West.
Along with Bagheri, other champions at Saturday’s California Collegiate were Cal State Fullerton’s Andre Gonzalez (125), Marcus Orona (133) and Kurt Klimek (285); Cal Poly’s Filip Novachkov (149), Barrett Abel (157), Steven Vasquez (174) and Ryan Smith (197); and Oregon State’s Cody Weishoff (165) and Taylor Meeks (184).