Former wrestlers from the discontinued UC Davis program were forced to go elsewhere this season to compete; could others from threatened programs in the state be next?

Updated: February 10, 2011

By Roger Moore

It’s February.

Those who spend their lives in and around the sport of wrestling know that it’s time to get serious.

High school wrestlers, especially those not on the recruiting radar, know it’s time to put up or shut up.

All three divisions at the NCAA level know March is less than a month away. For freshmen the gauntlet that awaits them is intimidating. For most seniors it’s one last shot at the big stage.

For two Californians — Barrett Abel and Ricky Alcala — the next two months will include the final chapters of an odyssey that started at UC-Davis and will most likely end in Philadelphia.

Different but the same.

Cal Poly’s Barrett Abel (front), who faced Arizona State’s Bubba Jenkins at the Las Vegas Invitational, remained in the Pac 10 this season after qualifying for last year’s NCAAs with a 21-9 mark at UC Davis.

It hasn’t been some reality television series. It’s been true life … lives that included emotional and drastic changes when wrestling, one of four sports, was dropped by the University of California at Davis in April of 2010.

Instead of preparing for senior campaigns, the duo had to find a temporary wrestling home.

Aggie head coach Lennie Zalesky, an All-American for the University of Iowa, has transitioned to a new job within the UC-Davis athletic department, an athletic development officer.

When it was announced the program would be discontinued Zalesky was shocked.

“You get the feeling that you’re just not worth anything. It’s a difficult thing all around,” he said last April.

Usually preparing for a Pac-10 and NCAA Championship, the feeling this February is surreal for Zalesky. Just four years ago he was preparing Derek Moore for the NCAAs. Moore went on to win the 141-pound NCAA title and OW award.

“It’s the first time since 1972 that I haven’t been preparing as an athlete or coach for state or national championships,” Zalesky said. “I’ve become more of a fan over the last year, following things on the internet. I’m working with some local kids too, so I’m not completely removed.”

Over the last three decades it’s been an all-too-common theme in the state of California. A quick check of the Division I rankings show one California school among the top 25: Cal Poly. CS-Fullerton and Bakersfield are scheduled to discontinue wrestling at the conclusion of the 2010-11 campaign. That fight continues.

“I don’t blame the top kids for looking elsewhere,” said Zalesky, whose brother Jim is the head coach at Oregon State. “There are so many talented kids in California but they don’t have anyplace to wrestle. You have to be in that top two percent to get into Stanford and you even hear things about Cal Poly from time to time. Things, economically, aren’t getting any better in California and that isn’t going to have a positive effect on college athletics.”

Abel, a native of Diamond Springs, and Alcala, from Bakersfield, have lived through it, seen it firsthand.

“One year ago I had my future all laid out,” said Abel. “I was going to graduate from Davis. I was going to teach English in South America for a year to get away from things, then get into the business world, become an entrepreneur. I had it all lined up until my world was pretty much rocked.”

“I completely changed my degree program,” said Alcala. “I was going into physical therapy, probably going to graduate school at Davis. But I wanted to wrestle my senior year and it worked out that I went (to Indiana).”

Indiana heavyweight Ricky Acala, who qualified for the 2010 NCAAs for UC Davis, had earned a 23-7 record for the Hoosiers through January.

But at the same time both have made the best of their opportunities.

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