Nick Fiegener has emerged as the Cal Poly wrestling team's present and future. | Ian Billings/Mustang News

Harry Chang

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Wrestling is a notoriously vigorous sport. Aggressive pins, big lifts, hard falls and some of the most virulent sidelines in any sport.

But for true freshman Nick Fiegener, it all started with a puppy.

“It’s kind of a funny story,” Fiegener says. “When I was in first grade, when I first started, my dad wanted to get me into wrestling for the discipline and to be independent. But what (convinced me) is he offered to get me a puppy if I tried. So of course I did, I wrestled and ended up loving it and haven’t ever stopped since.”

But don’t be misled, the 184-pound Fiegener is no stranger to the high-octane side of the sport. The blood, sweat, tears and more sweat.

Take, for example, the time when Fiegener was still a Folsom High School Bulldog and found himself needing to lose 8 pounds in a night to make weight for a meet the next day.

“I ended up spitting, sweating and running for hours,” he recounts. “I was in plastics (to help me sweat), which I really wasn’t supposed to do, and I just ran. I’d switch to bike, then run, and just spit and sweat.”

And while it wasn’t exactly a model of planning ahead — “I didn’t wrestle that well the next day cause I was up ’til 4 sweating,” he said in hindsight — it was a testament to his passion. There was no reward this time, just the privilege of walking onto the mat, shaking his opponent’s hand and going at it for three rounds in a small, rowdy gym.

The numbers and accolades he accumulated in his time as a Bulldog are further proof Fiegener was barking up exactly the right tree.

After he missed placing in the State Championships by just one victory as a sophomore, climb is exactly what he did. Fiegener went 57-3 the next year as a junior and not only qualified for State Championships but placed second.

His tourney wrestling that year also included a second-place finish in the Doc Buchanan, first in the Tim Brown and third in the High School Coaches Association Tournament.

He didn’t stop there. Fiegener followed his breakout junior year going an eye-popping 64-1 his senior year and capturing a national championship in 2014, capping his graduating year at the peak of the sport.

But you have to go back to the Doc Buchanan Tournament his junior year to find where Cal Poly wrestling head coach Brendan Buckley first met the then-160-pounder.

“When we met him, we already knew how much success he had that year and the year before,” Buckley said. “We also knew what a good kid he was and how hard he worked — how talented others thought he was.”

Mike Collier, Fiegener’s coach at Folsom High, was one of those who vouched for him. And Collier, who Buckley had incidentally coached years before at UC Davis, was the only testimony Buckley needed to believe that Fiegener was, in fact, the pick of the litter.

“From that point on, we kept in touch with him that junior year and followed along with him as he continued to succeed.”

Fiegener ended up putting on more than 20 pounds from his sophomore year, a growth that would be pivotal in giving Fiegener the reputation he’s making for himself as a premier Pac-12 wrestler in the 184-pound class.

“When you see a guy who is lighter in middleweight and then they keep growing,” Buckley said, “it’s generally those guys who, the bigger they get, the more athletic they become, and the more success they find because they do continue to wrestle like lighter guys.”

Fiegener admits that it’s the level of athleticism in his competition that has been the biggest adjustment for him three months into his rookie campaign.

“Besides from schoolwork, yeah, it’s the level of competition,” he said. “There’s not a lot of pins anymore, you know, pretty much every match is gonna go to the third round. Whereas in high school I was pinning almost every kid in the first round, here you’re almost always going all three rounds.”

And three rounds is exactly what it took when Fiegener notched his biggest win to date — and probably the biggest win for the Mustangs this year — on Jan. 10 at home against Brown University.

In the third round of a dogfight, Fiegener found himself down 7-6 to Ophir Bernstein, Brown’s senior 184-pound All-American who took eighth place at NCAA Nationals last year.

The veteran Ivy Leaguer was just 30 seconds from putting away the freshman and earning the decision when Fiegener exploded to escape the grasp of Bernstein and tie the match at 7-7. Fiegener then scored a takedown with just six seconds to go to upset the nation’s 16th-ranked 184-pounder in emphatic fashion.

That notorious wrestling sideline? Well, Cal Poly’s hadn’t been that amped up all year. Coaches, wrestlers and trainers alike jumped up and down like schoolchildren as the referee raised Fiegener’s hand toward the Mott Athletics Center rafters.

“[I remember] my teammate telling me he’s an All-American and feeling like I couldn’t lose,” Fiegener said. “Like I had to get that one.”

“Awesome,” Buckley said of his performance after the match. “Just awesome.”

Part of that win may have been due to one of Fiegener’s biggest role models and training partners on the team: the team’s lone senior and emotional leader, Dominic Kastl, who Fiegener trains with primarily because of their differing styles.

“I’m more about doubles and getting straightforward shots, and he’s really funky,” Fiegener said. “He tends to squirm out of stuff while I’m more offensive, so it’s fun when we train together and it does help a lot.”

Fun for Fiegener, fun for the team and fun for the coaching staff, who have it made with one of the most talented wrestlers the program has seen in years.

“Just seeing him steadily getting better and better is great,” Buckley said. “He knows where he is when he’s competing, and that’s where he’s kind of beyond his years.”

With the most wins on the team this season and even higher expectations heading into Pac-12 conference wrestling, Fiegener’s story is no longer about a Folsom High School standout, or a naive teenager trying to make weight or even a first-grader wrestling for a puppy.

This true freshman has a chance to become wrestling’s top dog.

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