Chance Rich did not get a friendly introduction to Division I wrestling.
Second on the depth chart at 133 pounds, Rich was only sparingly used during a redshirt year with Cal State Bakersfield last season. But that isn't to say his season was an easy one.
Held out of action through CSUB's first six matches, Rich got his first opportunity to compete at the Roadrunner Open last November, going toe-to-toe with Cam Sykora, a North Dakota State standout who would qualify for his third NCAA Tournament by season's end.
Rich admits such a challenge in his first match was too big to overcome. As a result, he sustained a 13-1 tech fall defeat.
"I didn't really have a game plan going into the match," he said. "It was a tough first draw, for sure."
In his days at Valencia High School, Rich would regularly leave straight from practice and drive an hour for additional training at the Titan Mercury Wrestling Club in San Marino. This well-established dedication to his craft served him well, as his first match showed had a lot of improvements to make if he wished to hang with DI competition.
Luckily, having one of the best sparring partners in the country helped his development. Every day when he went to practice, Rich would spar with Sean Nickell, who graduated in 2019 with a pair of Pac-12 titles to his name.
In the early part of last season, Rich says he struggled to wrestler from the bottom position, as strong competitors routinely thwarted his escape attempts. By year's end, he says he made significant strides thanks largely to working with Nickell, who thrived from the top position.
"I couldn't have asked for a better situation," Rich said of working with Nickell.
The effort led to a modest improvement on the mat, as Rich closed the 2018-19 season with a record of 9-7.
Perhaps the biggest boost to Rich's confidence came last April, when he earned All-American honors at the UWW Junior Freestyle Nationals. He opened the tournament with a pair of 10-0 decisions en route to a 5-2 overall finish.
Even Rich's losses were encouraging. In a quarterfinal match with Pat Glory, an All-American 125-pound wrestler from Princeton, he fell in an 8-0 hole early, then rallied within 10-8 before losing 15-10.
Saying he always believed he'd make the improvements needed to compete against DI competition, Rich admits his performance at Freestyle Nationals did make him all the more optimistic about his future.
"I don't feel like there's anyone out there that I felt overmatched against," he said. "It showed me that these guys are human just like anybody else. Everyone's beatable."
Now firmly atop the Roadrunner depth chart at 133, Rich is expecting big things in 2019-20, a confidence that is shared by his coaches.
"It's only a matter of time before he knocks off a really big name and a highly ranked guy," CSUB coach Manny Rivera said. "He's worked his tail off this whole offseason so we're excited for him to compete."
He's also earned serious praise from CSUB legend John Azevedo, who went 121-2 and won 126-pound national championships from 1978-80. Azevedo, who coached Rich at Titan Mercury, believes he is equipped to duplicate his success.
"He could be a legitimate contender for a national title," Azevedo said. "His technique has to get a little better but he could do it for sure. He's that kind of talented kid."
While a national title is Rich's ultimate goal, with four years of eligibility remaining, he's first focused on proving he belongs alongside the top 133-pound wrestlers in the country.
He got off to a great start Friday. Tied late in the match, he recorded an escaped and a two-point take down to earn a 7-4 win over Minnesota's Brent Jones in CSUB's 28-9 season-opening loss to the seventh-ranked Gophers.
Sunday provides him another great opportunity, as a trip to North Dakota State brings about a potential rematch with Sykora, who comes in ranked ninth in the weight class.
Naturally, Rich is eager for the challenge.
"This year's a whole new ball game," he said. "I've developed my skills a ton from last season. So I think I'm going to come out here this season with a bang."