For nearly all their high school lives, Bret Harte’s Kodiak Stephens and Calaveras’ Donivan Giangregorio have been spitting images of one another.
The two senior student-athletes are not only the top wrestlers at their respective schools, but also the top wrestlers in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section and California. They both play offensive line on the football field and each are unblockable defenders. Both have been varsity football players since they were sophomores and are no strangers to the all-league team.
Not only are Stephens and Giangregorio two of the top athletes in Calaveras County, but they are two of the top students, with each posting over a 4.0 gpa. They were each the 2019-20 Calaveras Enterprise Male Athletes of the Year for their respective schools. And they were both recruited to wrestle by many of the same elite colleges in the country.
And if all of that wasn’t enough, the longtime friends and competitive foes will continue to be joined at the hip, as they have signed on to wrestle and attend Oregon State University in the fall of 2021. The plan wasn’t to try to attend the same university, but when it was time to choose, both Giangregorio and Stephens landed at the same conclusion.
“The fact that Kodiak is going there makes it a plus,” Giangregorio said. “Since he’s there, we might as well have some fun with it.”
Stephens added, “For a lot of the things that I’ve done, it’s been mostly just me and my family, or just me alone. I’ve done a lot of stuff alone, but this is the first time I’ve had somebody come with me. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.”
For years, former Calaveras wrestling coach Ryan Upchurch had a front row seat to watch both Giangregorio and Stephens wrestle. While he is not surprised that they are continuing their wrestling careers, he feels that they are doing so while coming from such a small area shouldn’t go unnoticed.
“The fact that these two are going to a division 1 school together out of our area is insane,” Upchurch said. “These two boys live so far off the beaten path, with both living at least an hour from the interstate. Training is tough and finding practice partners is tough. What these boys have accomplished is amazing, and I know that they both have amazing families that have sacrificed a lot to put these boys on a path of success.”
A lifelong dream
Stephens knew wrestling was his calling when he was in fifth grade. For many kids at that age, not much serious thought is put into their future. That wasn’t the case for Stephens. While his older sister practiced soccer, he killed time by running bleachers and working out. Little did he know that he was starting a training regimen that would stick with him for years.
Because of his relentless work ethic, even at such a young age, Stephens found success on the wrestling mat. As a fifth grader, he won the California USA State Wrestling Championship, which was the first of many major accomplishments Stephens would experience.
“That was the moment where it clicked in my head that, oh, this is something that I can do and rock the world with,” Stephens said.
When Stephens began at Bret Harte in 2017, Bret Harte technically didn’t have a wrestling program. Lack of interest the year prior resulted in the program being shut down. That didn’t sit well with the future star, so he recruited friends and got a handful of Bret Harte students to join the squad. Two years later, Bret Harte had enough wrestlers to trot out nearly a full squad and host home wrestling matches.
Not much went wrong for Stephens during his junior wrestling season at Bret Harte. Wrestling at 182 pounds, he placed first at the Mother Lode League Tournament, went 4-0 at the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division V Divisionals, became the first Bullfrog since 1976 to place first at the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Meet, then finished fourth overall at the CIF State Championship.
“It’s his confidence,” Giangregorio said about what makes Stephens so special. “Every time he goes to a tournament, he thinks that he’s going to win. Every time that he wrestles, you can see that he’s not afraid of his opponents and that he’s better than them. That’s why he’s so good.”
And yet, through all his success, Stephens credits his work ethic over pure skill and talent.
“To be honest with you, I don’t believe that I’m super talented,” Stephens said. “I just get down to the nitty-gritty and work really hard. I set goals for myself and don’t let the thoughts of, ‘Oh, this is too much,’ or, ‘Oh, I’m tired,’ get to me. You can’t think about doing less; it’s always do more, do more, do more. You have to have that voice in your head that tells you to keep going and focus. I can’t let other things around me slow me down.”
Upchurch watched the progression of Stephens for years and knows that the Bret Harte senior is truly a special grappler.
“What separates Kodiak Stephens from any kid I have ever coached in wrestling is his maturity when it comes to wrestling,” Upchurch said. “Yes, he is still a young man. Yes, I have seen him make goofy jokes and sing terribly, but when it comes to his focus on wrestling, he has something special. He has a college-level focus on technique and improving every day. He studies technique and is constantly trying to learn. Kodiak puts everything into every practice, and every tournament. He isn’t worried about anything else when it is time to wrestle, except wrestling.”
With so much success, it would be understandable for complacency to kick in. However, that would go against everything that fuels Stephens.
“The need, the want and the desire to be perfect is what drives me,” Stephens said. “Yeah, you can’t be perfect, and that’s definitely true. I have shortcomings every day, but I just can’t stop.”
When it came time to choose a college, Stephens had plenty of options. The Bret Harte wrestler was being recruited by Stanford, Brown, Bakersfield, San Francisco State and of course, Oregon State. But when it was time to put pen to paper, he knew he was making the right decision.
“The coaches there are just phenomenal, and they really believe in me,” Stephens said. “They want to make a difference and they want to make an impact, but they also want me to be an overall good person and not just a wrestler. That really stood out to me.”
Pinned by Oregon
Unlike Stephens, Giangregorio didn’t always plan on wrestling in college. For years he wrestled with the dilemma of having to choose between life on the mat, or a future on the gridiron. But when the offers started rolling in, he got one that he couldn’t refuse.
“I was waiting on which scholarship was the best and when I finally got on my scholarships for both football and wrestling, Oregon State was the best offer and the only division 1 school that offered me something for wrestling,” Giangregorio said. “At that point, that’s when I said wrestling was going to be my future.”
On Nov. 15, Giangregorio officially signed to attend Oregon State, and once he put down his pen, he knew his life was forever changed.
“It was nice that I finally committed, but it really made me think about how I’m about to leave this town and I only have eight more months of my friends and family,” Giangregorio said. “Ever since I signed that paper, I’ve been spending more time with friends and family.”
Giangregorio began wrestling as an elementary school student and wrestles year-round all over the country. He credits his growth as a grappler on being able to face different opponents from different states.
“California has a lot of great wrestlers, but not the best,” Giangregorio said. “So, when you travel around the nation, you see different styles of wrestling. Every state wrestles a little differently and you kind of get a new feeling of wrestling and that helps you.”
Like Stephens, there aren’t many matches where Giangregorio doesn’t get his hand raised in victory. But on the rare occasion when that’s not the case, he has learned that being angry with the loss won’t help him the next time he steps on the mat.
“When I have a bad performance and I hold on to it, I’ll do pretty bad the next match,” Giangregorio said. “When I lose, I just think about getting that guy next time. There’s nothing I can do about it now, so there’s no point in holding onto it. I’ll think about what I did wrong and then improve on that for my next match and then just keep winning from there.”
At 195 pounds, Giangregorio has the strength and size to be an elite wrestler. Yet Upchurch feels that his wrestling smarts are what puts him on another level against his opponents.
“Donivan Giangregorio is the smartest wrestler that I have ever coached,” Upchurch said. “The kid has a knack for remembering technique and can adjust on the fly mid-match.”
During his junior year, Giangregorio kept winning all the way to the CIF State Championship. After the three-day event, he placed seventh in the 195-pound division. Not only would he like to make a return trip to the State Championship during his senior year, but he’d like to be the last wrestler standing. But with the future of high school sports in jeopardy because of COVID-19, Giangregorio doesn’t know if he’ll have the chance for one final memorable run.
“It would suck (not to wrestle for Calaveras again) because my goal ever since I was a little kid was to win state and to be the best Calaveras wrestler who has ever been here,” Giangregorio said. “Coach Upchurch has already said that he believes that I’m the best wrestler to go through Calaveras High School, but if I get this one last season and most likely hopefully win state, then it will make me the best wrestler to ever go to Calaveras.”
Upchurch feels for all wrestlers, including Stephens and Giangregorio, with the possibility of there not being a wrestling season. And what bothers Upchurch even more is that he knows first-hand how much work both wrestlers put into being ready for their senior year.
“I really hope that the CIF gives these boys a chance to bring home state championships to Calaveras County,” Upchurch said. “These boys are generational athletes from our small community, and I hope they get the chance to show how special they are."
Giangregorio and Stephens don’t get slowed down on the wrestling mat or in the classroom. Both have killed the notion that they are just dumb jocks. If their athletic ability wasn’t enough to get them into any university they wanted, their grades would have done the trick.
“Having good grades is super important,” Stephens said. “There are a lot of skills you need to succeed in life, but you can’t let someone’s own personal opinions or beliefs about you determine who you are. You just have to get to work and get your work done.”
While the future is uncertain, there are three things that Upchurch feels are nearly certain: death, taxes, and that Stephens and Giangregorio will end up finding success at whatever they choose to do.
“I know these boys will both be successful at Oregon State,” Upchurch said. “Academically, both of them have well over a 4.0 gpa, and their families have taught them how to have a balance between sports and school. Beyond the wrestling world, these kids have great things in their future. With wrestling, both of these kids have a very high ceiling in the sport, so I think that their growth is only going to continue. If either of them ever qualify for the NCAA championships, I will be there with bells on. My own kids have never wrestled, and I only put in the time that I did because I love the sport and I love these kids like they are my own. It’s well worth it.”