Throughout his high school wrestling career, Sean Nickell was always overshadowed by his more highly acclaimed Bakersfield High teammates, among them his older brother Ian.
Nickell qualified for the CIF State Championships his senior year (2014) but didn’t medal and wasn’t highly sought after by Division I college recruiters.
That didn’t deter Nickell, who accepted an offer to wrestle at Cal State Bakersfield, where over the past three-plus years, he has grown and developed into a wrestler worthy of the spotlight.
Last year, as a redshirt sophomore, Nickell won the 125-pound Pac-12 conference championship, earning an automatic berth to the NCAA Championships. Nickell and the Roadrunners will face a Pac-12 challenge again on Wednesday, when CSUB hosts No. 9-ranked Arizona State at 7 p.m.
Despite losing both of his NCAA tournament matches last year, Nickell finished the 2016-17 season with a 23-12 record, tying Russell Rohlfing for the CSUB team lead in victories.
“I was never a great high school wrestler,” Nickell said last month. “I lacked strength and I lacked confidence. I didn’t have any weapons or moves to use. I developed that stuff in college. Once I got that stuff, I just really took off. I’ve done way better than anyone thought I would coming out of high school.”
Nickell, who began wrestling in the sixth grade for the Junior Drillers Wrestling Club, comes from a family without any background in the sport.
“My brother and I were both really athletic when we were young, but we’re not big guys,” Nickell said. “We really wanted to play sports. My mom figured that wrestling would be a good way for smaller athletes (like us) to compete.”
Wrestling proved to be the perfect fit for both Nickell brothers. Ian, who is three years older than Sean, won a pair of state wrestling medals while at BHS. He then went on to wrestle at CSUB, posting a career record of 94-41.
Ian never won a Pac-12 title, though. He finished second twice and third on another occasion.
A wealth of knowledge and experience, Ian has tried to pass along everything he knows about grappling to his younger brother.
“He helps me quite a bit,” Sean said.
That help, along with several other factors, have made the lanky 5-foot-8, 22-year-old into one of the Roadrunners’ top wrestlers this season.
He’s been ranked nationally most of the year. Earlier this season, he won the 133-pound title at the Roadrunner Open. He currently holds a 17-8 record on the year and is coming off an 8-0 major decision victory last weekend against Utah Valley.
Sean wrestled at 125 pounds last year but said he feels much better now at 133.
“There’s always room for improvement but I think I’m wrestling really well,” Sean said last month. “Last year, I was dropping too much weight and it was causing me not to feel as good during my matches. It was causing me to get tired quicker. But this season, at 133, I go out in my matches with all the energy in the world and I feel really good.”
Sean, who describes his wrestling style as “funky and weird” because it’s different than what most guys do on the mat, is hoping to cap off his junior year by placing at the NCAA Championships.
“I want to make sure I do my part in every dual and every match to wrestle my best and put up points for the team,” Sean said. “But the main goal I have for myself is to become a Division I All-American.”
If that happens, Nickell won’t likely ever be overlooked again. ￼