The first time Dominic Kastl stepped onto a mat at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, he was a 165-pound freshman in 2012 with the promise and ambition to eventually join what was a growing list of Cal Poly All-American wrestlers.
He returns to the Scottrade Center this week a grizzled 174-pound senior, back on college wrestling’s biggest stage following a two-year, injury-riddled hiatus for one more shot at the glory of stepping on the podium as one the weight’s top eight grapplers.
“One of the hardest things to cope with was just staying with it and not giving up,” said Kastl, whose entire sophomore campaign was derailed by a degenerative back condition before a late-season knee injury cost him a chance at last year’s tournament. “It was about finding a way to get back here, and staying true to what I believe I can do.”
Kastl admitted he hit a low point after back surgery kept him from following up on his breakout redshirt freshman season, when he compiled a 14-5 record and knocked off a top-10 seed in the NCAA bracket.
“Not being able to wrestle every day made school harder,” he said. “But my family was behind me the whole time, and I realized that pretty much every wrestler goes through some sort of adversity — maybe not as extreme, but other guys have had to deal with more than I did.”
Kastl went 15-5 in 2014, but was forced to pull out of the Pac-12 Tournament because of complications from a torn meniscus.
“I tell myself I’m 100 percent every time I step on the mat,” he said. “I feel really strong and ready right now, and I feel there’s nothing that can hold me back.”
Joining Kastl in St. Louis is Nick Fiegener, a true freshman 184-pounder from Folsom, whose quick shooting and relentless approach led to a high school state title last year and is translating to success in his first collegiate season.
“It’s a unique experience for both of our guys,” fourth-year coach Brendan Buckley said. “This is the culmination for Dom of a career of blood, sweat and tears. For Nick, it’s the start of a new journey.”
Kastl qualified for NCAAs — which begin today and will be aired on the ESPN family of networks — by finishing second two weeks ago at the Pac-12 championships at Oregon State on the heels of a 13-2 dual meet season.
Only the top two 184-pound wrestlers at the conference tournament earned an automatic qualifier to nationals, so Fiegener, who finished fifth after going 11-7 in duals, had to wait until the at-large bids were announced in an online selection show akin to college basketball’s annual bracket unveiling.
He was in a history class when his name was called, so it wasn’t until he checked a voicemail and text message from Buckley that he learned his season would continue.
“It’s a cool experience because I was just in high school a year ago,” Fiegener said. “But I put this goal on myself, and I’m definitely ready to be here.”
The duo arrived in St. Louis on Tuesday in order to acclimate themselves to the festive atmosphere and get some practice drills in on the Central Time Zone.
“We’re already seeing wrestling fans everywhere, and banners all over the city supporting wrestling,” Kastl said by phone. “This is what I’ve always dreamed of being apart of.
“For us, it’s the Super Bowl.”
This marks the first time Cal Poly has had multiple participants in the championships since 2012, when Kastl went 2-2 as a freshman and Boris Novachkov and Ryan DesRoches both earned All-American status.
For Buckley, that’s a sign of positive growth after six dual wins in his first season were followed by eight combined victories in the next three.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, and most of our efforts over the last two years was to strengthen the culture,” said Buckley, who spent six years as the head coach at Columbia and was a 1997 All-American at Fresno State. “We believe we’ve done that, and the wins will follow.”
Penn State, coached by one of the highest-profile grapplers ever in Olympic gold medalist and four-time undefeated NCAA champ Cael Sanderson, is seeking its fifth consecutive team championship. Perennial power Iowa is ranked No. 1 by renowned publication Intermat, followed by Missouri and Ohio State with the Nittany Lions at No. 7.
Cal Poly won’t sniff the top of the team scoreboard, but the two Mustangs will get a taste of the title race, as entire cheering sections are known to openly root for wrestlers facing those in a rival singlet.
That experience will come immediately for Fiegener, who makes his national tournament debut against 14th-seeded Matthew McCutcheon (24-12) of Penn State.
Fiegener is a five-time All-American in the Cadet Greco-Roman Nationals to go along with his CIF state crown, but he knows none of that can compare with the energy that will be bouncing off the Scottrade Center walls once the first whistle blows.
“My philosophy is to try and stay really relaxed and wrestle like I can,” said Feigener, who had eight dual meet wins by major decision this year. “Guys that are seeded are definitely feeling more pressure, so I try not to put any pressure on myself and be relaxed.”
Kastl opens against No. 12 seed Tanner Weatherman (23-8) of Iowa State in likely his final tournament — a medical redshirt for his lost sophomore year is not expected to be granted, Buckley said.
The fifth-year senior said he’ll wrestle with no reservations and no regrets, and he is imploring the flourishing freshman — Kastl’s former post — to do the same.
“I don’t know if he truly understands how blessed and lucky he is,” Kastl said of Feigener. “It’s such a great feeling and accomplishment to make it this far. Him getting here gives me hope for the future, because he’s going to carry this experience back to the (practice) room and become a team leader because he knows what he’s training for now.
“You can watch it on TV, but you never truly experience it until you’re here. Making it as a freshman pushed me to work harder than I ever would have.”