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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Glass half full for UC Davis wrestlers

Editor’s note: On Apr. 16, the UC Davis Athletic Department cut four Intercollegiate teams. As part of a four-part series, The California Aggie will examine how these cuts will affect the student athletes, the coaches and the future of each sport. While several factors such as conference affiliation, Title IX regulations and budgetary constraints determined which sports were cut, this series will concentrate on the impact felt by those directly affected. Wrestling is part two in this series.

Wrestling is life.

For many former UC Davis athletes like Barrett Abel, this ideology is an unquestioned fact.

“I chose UC Davis because it was a good academic school,” Abel said. “That wasn’t my main priority, though. My main priority was wrestling.”

The story is the same for Ricky Alcala, a 285-pound junior out of Arvin, Calif.

“I could have gone to any school,” Alcala said. “Wrestling was the reason I came to UC Davis.”

Like many student athletes, the world of Abel and Alcala was drastically altered when their program was cut. For them, it could not have been more serious.

“It was like losing a family member,” Alcala said. “I couldn’t even concentrate after I heard.”

Abel agreed 100 percent.

“I thought it was a joke,” he said. “It’s the whole reason I’m here. You practice 20-30 hours a week for four years with the same guys – it just becomes your lifestyle.”

The disbelief ran all the way to the top as coach Lennie Zalesky was just as surprised as his athletes.

“I was shocked,” Zalesky said. “You get the feeling that you’re just not worth anything. It’s a difficult thing all around.”

The disappointment was underscored by the fact that both Abel and Alcala possess an insatiable desire to win. Despite the fact that he was Pac-10 champion in his weight class, Abel was displeased with his career as an Aggie.

“Personally I wasn’t very satisfied,” Abel said. “I’m glad I was able to do what I did but there was a lot more. You always want to have higher goals, to achieve the next step.”

The feeling resides within Alcala as well.

“I’m not happy with my career here,” Alcala said. “Anything other than a national title is not good enough.”

Despite the success achieved by several individuals, Zalesky also believes that they could have been better.

“This year we had a very young squad with a lot of injuries,” he said. “Having three guys in the NCAA [Tournament] and a Pac-10 champ is pretty good but it wasn’t our best year by any means.”

Fortunately for the athletes, the road does not end here.

Under NCAA rules a student-athlete must sit out for one year if they wish to transfer to a different school, effectively reducing their years of eligibility from four to three. However, if the program at the athlete’s current school is cut, he can immediately transfer to any school that will have him.

As a result, ex-UC Davis wrestlers are drawing interest from around the country.

“They’re getting recruited,” Zalesky said. “I’m not really up or down emotionally. I feel good that they have a place to go to but I’m pulled in both directions. If there’s no program here we’d like to see them go on and wrestle more.”

For Abel and Alcala, being able to transfer so quickly is the silver lining of an impossibly tough situation.

“I’m lucky because I have a lot of options,” Abel said. “I’m trying to see this as an opportunity. I’m taking recruiting trips, checking schools out. It might be fun to go and be a part of a team that wins a Big-10 or a national title.”

One tricky part for the athletes is finding a school like UC Davis that combines stellar academics with a quality wrestling program.

“I don’t want to go from here to a bottom line school,” Abel said. “But as long as it has decent academics, I’ll be okay with it. I have teams calling, who will probably be top-three in the nation next year, saying, ‘We need a guy for one year.’ If that’s a school that is not the best academically but is still decent, that would be an experience that’s hard to miss.”

While transferring to a team that could potentially win a national championship is an incredible opportunity, the procedures are more complex than they seem.

“The transfer process is difficult,” Alcala said. “The problem for me is that the program was cut after the transfer deadline for some schools. Stanford and some Ivy League schools won’t even look at my transcripts because it’s too late.”

Despite the poor timing, Alcala has drawn a lot of interest from schools that are still able to admit transfer students.

“My phone has been blowing up,” Alcala said. “I’ll be going to another school so my career isn’t over yet.”

The mentality to never be satisfied and to stay positive in the face of adversity leads some to believe that the UC Davis program will be remembered not for its hardware, but for its quality athletes.

“There have been so many people to come through here that have had success after leaving,” Abel said. “It’s created so many opportunities and it really molded a lot of people. I think that’s the legacy, not the accolades and whatnot. It’s the people.”

One of the best qualities of those people is to stay positive.

“Who knows?” Alcala said. “Maybe next year you’ll be calling me to interview a national champion.”

MARK LING can be reached at sports@theaggie.org.

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