When he was in eighth grade at Avery Middle School in 2016-17, Kodiak Stephens heard some devastating news. The Bret Harte High School wrestling program was shut down. Why was this such a big deal to Stephens? Well, he was one of top elementary school grapplers and had a chance to make a name for himself on a Bullfrog wrestling mat.
As his eighth-grade graduation approached, Stephens began wondering where he would attend high school in a few short months. He wanted to be a Bret Harte Bullfrog, but he also wanted to wrestle. If there was no wrestling program at Bret Harte, Stephens figured Calaveras or Sonora high schools would be the best option.
“When I heard from my dad that there was not going to be a Bret Harte wrestling program, my first thought was, ‘Geeze, where am I going to wrestle?’” Stephens said.
If there was one thing that Stephens learned from his years of wrestling, regardless of who or what is in front of him, never give up. Just because Bret Harte’s program shut its doors for a year, didn’t mean those doors would stay closed forever. Stephens became determined to do whatever he had to do to wrestle for Bret Harte his freshman year.
But he knew he couldn’t do it alone. If Bret Harte was to have a wrestling program, there needed to be more than one grappler. So Stephens’ first step was to go into recruiter mode.
“My dad told me and my little brother that we need to get people into that (wrestling) room because a lot of good people like Luke Brewer and TJ Dillashaw have gone through the program,” Stephens said. “We could have made the safe bet by going to Calaveras, or come here and try to get the program back. I’m happy that I made that decision.”
Stephens was not the only one who had a mission to restart the program. Mike Borean, who has dedicated over two decades to the Bret Harte wrestling program, was the head coach when the program was shut down in late December 2016 due to lack of interest. With all the memories Borean has associated with Bullfrog wrestling, closing the doors was one he’d rather forget.
“It was the worst thing I’ve ever been a part of in athletics,” Borean said. “I was the coach when we had to shut it down because we only had two people. Having to shut the season short was a true heartbreaker.”
With the program shut down, Borean knew it would take a special athlete to help bring it back. Fortunately, that special athlete was on his way to Bret Harte. Borean knew of Stephens and figured the incoming freshman would be willing to lead the charge.
“I’d been watching him from a distance,” Borean said. “I knew that if we wanted to bring the program back, we’d need at least one dedicated kid to come in here and set an example. I met him shortly after we ended the season and I told him that there’s nobody better to do the recruiting than a fellow student.”
Once the 2017-18 school year started, Stephens began the recruiting process. And there’s no better place to start looking for tough kids who enjoy being physical than on the football field. Stephens, who played JV football, didn’t just plant the wrestling seed in his teammates” heads, he continued to water it the entire season.
“It’s really hard to recruit,” Stephens said. “I’d just look at a guy and think, ‘He looks like he could wrestle,’ and that was part of the process. But wrestling is like no other sport. A lot of people aren’t as committed to this sport as I am, but I really wanted to get people in on the fun.”
Stephens convinced six other Bullfrogs that the wrestling mat is the place for them. The only issue is that no one other than Stephens had any wrestling experience. So although he was only a freshman, Stephens was viewed as the senior of the group.
Even though Bret Harte had its program back, with no realistic competition, it became glaringly obvious that Stephens would not be able to progress the way he hoped. So he hit the road. Stephens would take a trip to Sonora to practice with the Wildcats and he also had a number of different coaches sprinkled throughout Northern California.
Regardless of how long the drive or what he had to do, Stephens just wanted to be on the mat.
“It’s a major part of my life,” Stephens said. “I believe that people should be competing because competition is good for everybody. Especially with wrestling, it teaches you to move on from a loss. Wrestling is my sport.”
Stephens’ first year of high school wrestling was a good one. The 158 pounder took first place at the Calaveras Novice Tournament held at Calaveras High School on Dec. 2. He stayed hot and won his third consecutive gold medal while competing in the Lodi Shootout Tournament on Dec. 15. And on Dec. 21, Stephens won a gold medal and was also voted as the Most Outstanding Wrestler of the Mike Tamana Tournament in Modesto.
Stephens finished second in the Mother Lode League tournament, losing in the finals to Calaveras freshman Donivan Giangregorio. Stephens got some revenge against Giangregorio in a match at the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V Wrestling Championships. He picked up two pins on the first day of the tournament and only surrendered one point in each match before pinning his opponent’s shoulders to the mat. In the championship match against Giangregorio, Stephens picked up an 8-1 win.
“It was just another stepping stone,” Stephens said. “I’m trying to get to the very top and place at state. I have goals and I’m just taking steps right now. I still want to do better.”
At the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Tournament, Stephens went 1-2. Although he didn’t advance to the state tournament, Borean believes Stephens will get there sooner rather than later.
“Kodi will make state next year and he might even podium,” Borean said. “His junior and senior year, I will not be surprised at all if he podiums. And his senior year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him top three or No. 1.”
With Bret Harte’s program back and moving in the right direction, Stephens is pleased knowing he still has three years to make a name for himself. And although it wasn’t always a sure thing, there is no other place he’d rather wrestle.
“I’m happy that wrestling is back at Bret Harte,” Stephens said. “This is a good room that at one time had TJ Dillashaw in it. I honestly think that I could wrestle anywhere. I love the sport and I want to build up the program. I want to chip in to the entire wrestling community. If I wrestled at another school, I wouldn’t be building the program, I’d just be another wrestler. Here, I’m building up the program and I have a chance to be a really good wrestler.”
Contact Sports Editor Guy Dossi at 498-2053 and follow him on Twitter at @GuyDossi.