2024 NCAA Wrestling Conference Weekend Coverage

Arizona State Wrestling Healthy, Trending Upward Heading Into Postseason

Arizona State Wrestling Healthy, Trending Upward Heading Into Postseason

Injuries plagued Arizona State during the dual season, but the Sun Devils are healthy and heading in the right direction entering March.

Feb 29, 2024 by Jim Carlson
Arizona State Wrestling Healthy, Trending Upward Heading Into Postseason

If the decisions a coach makes in November ultimately pay off in March, then it doesn’t matter nearly as much what happens in between.

Arizona State is the perfect example, as coach Zeke Jones’ injury-plagued lineup in November (and December and January) was markedly different than the one he put on the mat in late February. ASU battled back from a 3-5 record to win four of its last five and finish 7-6 overall, 4-1 in the Pac-12 and ascend to a #12 team tournament rating heading into the postseason.

And as any coach will admit, it’s all about the postseason. The Sun Devils closed out the regular season by defeating Stanford 18-17 on heavyweight Cohlton Schultz’s dual-winning fall and Lehigh 24-14 by winning the first seven bouts. ASU fell 26-9 to #7 Nebraska in the finale, losing some close matches but registering two big-time upsets.

None of those three matches were without drama, especially against Stanford. 

“It’s how you’d write it in a script for a book or a movie,” Jones said. “They get a tech fall at 197 to take a five-point lead; the score was tied before that. Cohlton has to get a pin to get the win and he does, and it was pretty spectacular; the energy was great.

“Everybody loved it, he was the hero and … the end to the book. It shows how important having Cohlton is to our dual meet victories and having a bookend like him is pretty darn good.”

Against Lehigh, the Sun Devils did not yield a takedown through those first seven bouts. And the dual with Nebraska was 9-9 after six bouts, but the Cornhuskers turned the momentum with wins at 174 and 184 by a total of four points.

“It just reaffirms the decisions that we’re making in November and December and January — you know, suffering with purpose,” Jones said. “We’re making choices in the short term that are challenging but produce long-term results. The January training cycle was hard, but they needed that to be ready to taper heading into March.

“It showed. They’re just now starting to hit their stride.”

Especially 125-pounder Richie Figueroa, the nation’s top recruit in 2021 who sat behind NCAA runner-up Brian Courtney and then had to rehab an ankle injury much of this season. Figueroa defeated Lehigh’s #3-ranked Matt Stanich and Nebraska’s #11-ranked Caleb Smith to jump to #17 from his previous #25 spot.

“Richie, as we’ve been saying, has got his mojo back and is just starting to really get his confidence again,” Jones said. “Now that the injuries are gone, he’s been training healthy and going into matches healthy and he’s really getting confident being 100 percent. It’s been fantastic. Richie’s hitting his best wrestling and when you can get Jesse Vasquez (141) into the lineup, that gives us a huge lift.”

Even bigger against Nebraska was #3 Kyle Parco’s 4-3 over #1 Ridge Lovett at 149. Those rankings stayed the same this week because of previous losses, but Parco hasn’t lost since December. 

“We’re not trying to peak in November, we’re not trying to peak in December and now he’s really hitting his best wrestling,” Jones said about Parco. “You watch that match from start to finish and Kyle pretty much dictated everything from the pace to the hustle and the work and the technique and the strategy, but it was a game of inches. 

“Lovett’s great and that match could change the next time they wrestle, but Kyle believes he’s wrestling his best wrestling right now and all our kids are feeling like they’re hitting their best wrestling right now, and that’s the time to do it.”

In terms of performance, it’s been a long time coming, Jones said.

“We finally got to see the team that people knew we had. Those first seven matches against Lehigh, that’s the team we knew we had. We just haven’t had it out there for a variety of reasons and we weren’t gonna force them out there until they were ready to go,” he explained.

It’s Tournament Time

Next up for the Sun Devils is a trip to Corvallis, Oregon, for the six-team Pac-12 championship tournament on March 10. Joining ASU and the host Beavers are Cal State Bakersfield, Arkansas-Little Rock, Cal Poly and Stanford.

Some weight classes are stronger than others, such as 125, 149 and 157, but Jones believes the tourney will be balanced and that the event is the best it’s been.

“Generally, there’s been a gap between our top teams and our bottom teams, but I don’t think we have any bottom teams,” Jones said. “I think we’ll have six teams all doing well, six teams that will have several individuals in the mix. I think it will be a tight team race. The scoring system is designed to stay close no matter what.

“We had six champions one year, Oregon State had one champion and we beat them by a half a point. So it’s gonna be close no matter what, but I do think there will be more teams close at the top of the scoring.”

Good-bye, Pac-12

The six-team tournament will be the last for ASU in the conference that was once called the Pac-8 before it grew to the Pac-10 and eventually expanded into the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are moving to the Big 12. Half of the Pac-12 Conference doesn’t sponsor wrestling, and the conference is losing teams to the Big Ten and the ACC.

“I was really rooting for the Pac-12 to continue to exist, having a West Coast Conference for all sports, not just for wrestling. I always felt that there needed to be a conference in the West,” Jones said. “However, it seems like television says different, that they want conferences to have all three time zones.

“If there is not going to be a Pac-12 for all sports, then that excites me that we can go into the Big 12 and be in a premier wrestling conference.”

A Lot Of Talent Returning

The Sun Devils lose just five seniors from the program and Tony Negron (165) has been the only starter.

“We feel confident because we get our point-scorers back and we’ll add a Kaleb Larkin and a Nicco Ruiz, who have already had some pretty outstanding true freshman years,” Jones said. “We’ll get them into the lineup, and Cohlton will be a full-time wrestler for us next year, so that will be nice. We have a team that could really, really do well next year.”

Schultz Still On The Greco Circuit

Schultz, the Sun Devils’ 285-pound heavyweight, competes Wednesday in Acapulco to try to qualify the 130kg spot for the U.S. Greco-Roman team in the Olympics.

He’ll have to earn a berth in the finals to qualify the weight and Jones believes it could be an eight-man bracket, meaning that Schultz would have to win two bouts; final matches between the top two survivors will not be wrestled.

“Every kid on the team fully support Cohlton and what he’s trying to do,” Jones said. “This is the reason why we make the decisions to suffer in a dual meet so that we can have a guy make an Olympic team. We feel confident.”