Wrestling Ends Season Strong, Shifts Focus to Olympic Trials
After the pandemic put all sporting events on pause last March for nearly a year, teams at Arizona State University were finally able to start competing again this January. Even with many hurdles in their way, including canceled games and sick team members, the Sun Devil wrestling team was able to finish the season strong. They placed fourth at the 2021 NCAA D1 Wrestling Tournament, the highest placement since 1995, and gained five All-Americans.
NCAA Tournament Recap
After the uncertainty of whether the team would be able to wrestle at the NCAA tournament this year, the student-athletes were more than prepared to get on the mats on March 18 in St. Louis, Missouri.
"I think we had an amazing amount of discipline on the team, guys that were truly grateful for the opportunity to wrestle. They got up and they battled," head coach Zeke Jones said.
The team had a great start during the first two rounds of the event but took a hard hit during the quarterfinal when redshirt senior Anthony Valencia got injured, followed directly by senior Kordell Norfleet taking a defeat with his match.
During a team huddle the following day, before their next match, Jones assured them that they still had the chance to win a trophy despite the challenges faced during the quarterfinal. After a stream of events, they were able to successfully persevere.
"There were quite a few things that propelled us," Jones said. "It was a team meeting, it was Anthony finding out how many points we needed, it was (Jacori) Teemer beating Hidlay. We just reeled off some really critical wins at the right time that gave us the opportunity [to win a trophy]."
Though they were ecstatic to win a trophy and place fourth in the competition, Jones says that they are aiming for the bigger win, and it will be their focus for the upcoming year.
"Make no mistake, it's not the exact one we want, but it's certainly a trophy," Jones said. "We're going to work hard at it, and we're getting ready for the [Olympic] trials. We never took a break, Monday hit, and we were right back at it at 9 a.m. Overall, really good performance and very excited for the kids on the team, and everyone is back next year, so obviously we want to improve."
With their first NCAA trophy in 26 years, the Sun Devil team also received the second highest number of All-Americans at the tournament, which included honors for Brandon Courtney (125), Michael McGee (133), Jacori Teemer (157), Anthony Valencia (165) and Cohlton Schultz (285).
At the beginning of the season, expectations for the team were not high, which Jones said is understandable as many of the athletes had never competed before. However, it was at the end of January that they were able to start climbing to the top.
"You have to earn your way up the rankings," Jones said. "It doesn't just get handed to you. Every week they were able to knock somebody off that helped them move up those rankings. Trey Muñoz being first, knocking off a top-eight kid right out of Oklahoma and then Cohlton getting to knock off a couple top heavy weights later in January, early in February, and that's where that streak started, and we were able to move our team up."
Redshirt sophomore Jacori Teemer was one of the athletes who was overlooked at the beginning of the season but was able to show what he was capable of by winning an All-American honor.
"He flew under the radar," Jones said. "People didn't respect him, and Jacori had a chip on his shoulder, and he was able to show everybody that he could do it at the NCAA tournament, the highest level, and beat good people. It was gratifying. I think the guys showed what they were really capable of."
Training at a Championship Level
For redshirt junior Michael McGee, who also received an All-American, he believes the team was more than prepared for the competition and many of the athletes may not have realized just how good they would perform. He emphasizes the importance of being mentally ready for any outcome.
"Day two, we just had to stay prepared mentally," McGee said. "I knew that all my matches we're going to get tougher and tougher, so it was more so getting mentally prepared. I feel like wrestling wise we were ready. I just had to be there mentally."
One of the tactics he uses while on the mat, and one he says Jones emphasizes to them at all times, is to score points no matter what position they are in. The more one individual can score, the more points can add up for the team, bumping up their place in the competition.
"I might give up a takedown here, I might give up a reversal there, but that doesn't mean the wrestling stops," McGee said. "I'm always looking to score whether I'm at the bottom, whether I'm on top, whether I'm on my feet. I know I can score from those positions, it's kind of just pulling the trigger more often and just wrestling more and getting into it quicker."
As for the preparation that takes place before something as crucial as an NCAA tournament, McGee says that the coaches carefully calculate their training so that each wrestler is fully prepared for the physical toll that each match takes on their body. In his case, he had to be prepared to wrestle in eight matches.
"The way we were training was very tailored to our style and us and what we needed," McGee said. "I felt very prepared. As far as the conversations and the training, it was kind of just like, your confidence comes from your training. They put me in a ton of uncomfortable positions and scenarios, so when I got to nationals, it was kind of just like routine in a way, like muscle memory."
The Effect of COVID
One challenge that the team was faced with this year was the disrupted training that occurred throughout the semester due to COVID-19, forcing the student-athletes to adapt to the uncertainty of it all.
"It was difficult because sometimes you would get into a good routine and then it would just be messed up," McGee said. "You had to get comfortable with the uncomfortable and make the most of every training session."
Jones says though there were several cases of COVID within the group, including himself, their schedule accounted for prospective injuries, which made it a little bit easier to adjust for illnesses and quarantine periods as well.
"The one thing I told the team at this point, everything we do, is with a purpose," Jones said. "And I told them, one thing we do is we always build the training schedule so that if somebody gets hurt, we've built in training where if you need two weeks off, you've already done the work. We account for injuries"
Playing sports during a global pandemic was certainly uncharted territory for every athlete across the country, but Jones knew that the team was ready to face any of the hurdles that would come their way and persevere in the end.
"We've just really been grateful," Jones said. "I think that's probably the main thing we've talked about is being grateful for the opportunity. The Ivy League didn't wrestle this year, they pulled out. And the whole country not playing sports in general. We've just really been grateful for the opportunity, and I think that's propelled us, that gratefulness."
Next Steps for the Program
Though the team had a successful semester, Jones says that there is always room for improvement, and they will have to work to get that NCAA Championship title, especially when facing Iowa.
"We still have a lot of ground to make up on Iowa," Jones said. "They were 50 points ahead of us. Kordell can be 10 more, Anthony can be 10 more, Trey needs to get on the podium, I mean you have to look up and down the line up. Then we got a top recruiting class coming in [...] We have to find 50 points to beat Iowa, and that's going to be a tough task, but it's certainly do-able if we can improve like we had from the year before to this year."
Jones also hopes that some of those top schools like Iowa will come down to Tempe to compete during these upcoming seasons; something that has been a challenge before but might be achievable now.
"Hopefully we can start getting teams like Iowa and Oklahoma state on our schedule and at our place and certainly at theirs too," Jones said. "You know the challenges of getting teams to come and wrestle here, it's hard […] They have to come and wrestle us at some point, hopefully this [winning a trophy] will motivate them to do it."
Now that the Sun Devil wrestling team has been able to show the country what they are capable of, Jones says that even though the team will certainly be going into the upcoming season with a target on their back, it will be a fun challenge for them and will help them improve further.
"If you have a dream of being the best, how could you not envision everybody coming after you?" Jones said. "You have to relish it. You have to relish the fact that the guys are coming at you and they're giving their best shot at you [...] That's a privilege that you should enjoy and honor that opportunity when kids are coming after you with their best, but that's when you find out if you're at your best when you're getting somebody's best every time."
Jones says that the program has been fortunate in recruiting thus far and has tracked the best kids in the country. It was a process that required taking a leap of faith and trusting that they were recruiting the most talented athletes out there.
He says that now the process will become more selective based on a few factors. He also shares that winning this trophy will show future recruits that they can be successful at ASU at a championship level.
"I do think it's becoming much more selective, what weight classes do we need that need to get on the podium and who is available," Jones said. "The transfer portal is heated up, there's some good kids in there that could score and make an immediate impact on the program."
Joining the Sun Devils in the fall are five elite wrestlers from across the country. The No. 1 pound-for-pound recruit in the country, Richard Figueroa and Cael Valencia, the younger brother of ASU wrestlers Zahid and Anthony Valencia. Fellow California wrestler Max Wilner is ranked sixth overall in the 170-pound weight class while Pennsylvania native Carter Dibert is ranked seventh in the country for the 126-pound class. Rounding out the class is Mykey Ramos, a Fargo U16 Greco-Roman champion and Arizona High School champion for Casteel High.
Now that the college season has ended, the program's focus has shifted to the United States Olympic Trials. Jones has high hopes for this group of athletes and firmly believes they are capable of making it to the finals.
"We're getting ready. Most people are taking the day off after the NCAA tournament, but we're back at it. We have seven legitimate athletes that can make the Olympic trial finals," Jones said. "I think Mark's done a nice job, now all our coaches are shifting their attention to that group now that the college season is done. Now we're all putting our attention over there and I like where we're at, I think we're ready to go. We'll find out."
Assistant coach Frank Molinaro, a former Team USA Wrestler in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, is seeded seventh in the 65 kg men's freestyle weight class. Joining him are Sun Devil wrestling alumni, Zahid Valencia (86 kg) and Tanner Hall (125 kg). Valencia is seeded second while Hall is seventh in his weight class. Redshirt freshman and Pac-12 heavyweight Champion Cohlton Schutlz is also competing on the Greco-Roman side in the 130 kg weight class as the second seed.
The 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials will be live on NBC and take place in Fort Worth, Texas, on April 2 and April 3.
Ariana Diaz is a junior in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism who will graduate in the spring of 2022. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, she has interned at knoodle, a PR and advertising agency, and worked in the Cronkite PR lab in her Sun Devil undergraduate career.