On the third day of his five-day camp this summer at the University of Iowa, Archbishop Riordan wrestler Michael Bigler was grappling with the Hawkeyes’ 125-pound All-American Spencer Lee.
Bigler — then a two-time West Catholic Athletic League champion at 106 and 113 pounds — had been able to get by in his career without playing much defense, in terms of protecting his legs. He also hadn’t really learned how to ride out an opponent when faced with a late-match need to protect a lead, or, in the case of ultimate tiebreaker overtime, to maintain control necessary to win.
While in the middle of a 20-minute sparring session with a freshman camper in the middle of Hawkeye Arena, Bigler, a rising junior, got pulled aside by Lee. He didn’t like how either of them were riding, and showed Bigler a new technique. Lee kept his hips glued to Bigler and tilted him over for an armbar.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Bigler said.
In the so-called blood round of this weekend’s two-day CIF State Championships, against one of the top grapplers in California, tied at 8-8 and facing an ultimate tiebreaker overtime, Bigler used the lesson he’d learned from Lee to win the 30-second sudden-death period, making history for Riordan wrestling and becoming the only City wrestler to place in the state tournament.
“It means a lot,” said Bigler, who was also the only City wrestler to advance past the first round of the consolation bracket. “It gave me a sense of hope that I could be a state champ next year.”
Bigler became the first Riordan wrestler to place at the state meet since Zac Contreras back in 2013, after not qualifying for the tournament as a freshman or a sophomore.
Having wrestled since his youth, Bigler went 2-2 in the Central Coast Section tournament his freshman year, having won the West Catholic Athletic League 106-pound title despite wrestling for much of the year at 97 pounds.
Bigler won the WCAL again last season at 113 pounds, but came in sixth in the CCS meet and again, failed to qualify for state. This year, he got third, and a ticket to Bakersfield’s Rabobank Arena.
The match that Bigler won against Sutter’s Jimmy Heryford — the No.4 wrestler in the state — was the match that, six years ago, Contreras lost. It was that match — where he was concerned more with protecting a lead than scoring points — that spurred him to finish fourth in the state 145s in 2013.
That kind of ascendance is more than possible with Bigler, who, with one more WCAL title, will be the first Crusaders wrestler since Steve Martin from 1994-97, and the second Riordan wrestler ever, to win four straight varsity league titles.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t start wrestling until I was in eighth grade, and I wound up being the last state placer before him, and Steve before that,” Contreras said. “I think he’s really bought into that, and saw that he could make history for himself.”
A judo champion in his youth, Bigler has always been a fighter. His mother Erica says he gets it from her side of the family, which hails from Puerto Rico. At the age of seven, he won gold in the Junior US Open of Judo, and was ranked No. 1 in the nation in July of that year. In 2013, he went to the Pan American Games.
This offseason, he resolved to over-tax himself, to push his limits. He came back different.
“Leaps and bounds,” said head coach Tony Tran. “We knew he got a lot better, but when it came down to big tournaments, my God, he turned it up.”
Bigler wrestled at the Reno Worlds in April, going 6-2 and stopping one match short from placing. In July, he headed to Iowa for the camp with the Hawkeyes, with over 100 other wrestlers.
“The first day, we woke up at 6 a.m. and started running,” Bigler said. “I was not ready for that. We ended up doing four practices that day with a lot of live, so it got me ready for the rest of the week, but it also helped with conditioning for the rest of the summer.”
For the first three of five days at the Hawkeyes’ wrestling camp, the top 113-pound wrestler in the state of South Dakota put a whooping on Bigler. At 126 pounds walking around, and four inches taller than the 5-foot-6 Bigler, he towered over the then-112-pound rising junior, and had much more length.
Then, Bigler managed to score two takedowns on the fourth day.
“I realized I could hang with the bigger wrestlers,” he said.
Thanks to placing in the top four in Greco-Roman wrestling at the California Grade States meet last March with his club program, he earned a spot at USA Wrestling’s Regional Training Center, where he got to wrestle under San Francisco State head coach Jason Welch, himself a three-time California state champion, starting just before the school year began, and ending in October.
“It was mainly college guys slamming me left and right,” Bigler said. “It gave me a sense of reality of where I have to be, if I want to be a college wrestler.”
Over the course of four weeks in October, he wrestled 25 live matches in various tournaments, peaking at 11 matches in a single day, preparing him for his run in Bakersfield.
In his first match, he faced the No. 1 wrestler in the state and No. 7 in the nation — Fresno State commit Tristan Lujan. His goal was just to not get pinned. He lost by technical fall — the match was stopped once he fell down by 15 points — and called his mother, Erica.
After telling her he got tech’d, she said, “It’s not a pin. A pin is when you get manhandled.”
He replied, “Mom, I was manhandled.”
“It set me up for my other matches, because it got me ready to face any other competition,” Bigler said. “If I could hang with the No. 1 in the state, I could hang with anybody.”
In the section semifinals, Bigler had a nail-biting loss in which he needed to ride out the final seconds to secure overtime. He didn’t get it. So, he and Contreras tweaked his ride, using what he’d learned from Lee.
Bigler shot out to a 4-1 lead over Heryford, but was slowly reeled back in, until the two were tied, 7-7 at the end of regulation.
“Last year, we had the talk, about becoming a student and evolving as a wrestler,” Contreras said. “He went out there and learned all he could. When we put together the game plan, it made it a lot easier. The growth, I asked him to grow as a wrestler, and to grow, and to seek things on his own, and when we come back together, we used that blueprint to build from there.”
After a scoreless one-minute overtime period, Heryford escaped a throw from Bigler in a 30-second tiebreaker period, and then Bigler matched him with a force-out in the second tiebreaker.
Then, in the ultimate tiebreaker overtime, Bigler was able to ride Heryford for the final five seconds of the 30-second sudden-death period, and after the final horn sounded, the Riordan sideline erupted.
Bigler had secured a place on the podium. Bigler would lose his next match, for a shot at third place, but won his seventh-place match via injury concession, becoming the first-ever Riordan junior to place.
“Our motto for this tournament, this year, was score points, wrestle free and do not protect,” Contreras said, reflecting on his own errors in his junior season. “That’s what we’d win on, the whole tournament. It worked out great. It ended up being a real Cinderella story.”