2024 NCAA Championships Watch Party

ASU Rolling Into NCAA Wrestling Championships With Confidence

ASU Rolling Into NCAA Wrestling Championships With Confidence

The team Arizona State coach Zeke Jones envisioned has come together at the right time and the Sun Devils are excited heading into the NCAA Championships.

Mar 16, 2024 by Jim Carlson
ASU Rolling Into NCAA Wrestling Championships With Confidence

Zeke Jones knew all along he’d have a good Arizona State team this season. He finally got to show it off at the Pac-12 tournament and is hoping the Sun Devils can prolong that performance at the NCAA Championships.

Five champions and three runners-up from the final Pac-12 title event will head to Kansas City in good health and in good shape, hoping to have a good time during the three-day test of endurance.

No one’s been tested more than the Sun Devils this season, as their starting lineup was reshaped, revamped and revised until it transformed into a conference championship crew of eight bound for KC.

Some of those eight are seeded highly — two #2s, a #4 and a #8 — while others range from #14 to #33. But they’ll be there, and Jones can’t wait to watch.

“I think they need to continue to do the same things that they are doing and take it to the next level,” he said. “Continue to score points but take it to the next level. Be able to go get takedowns, get away, return people to the mat, just like they did last week, but at the next level.”

Things all came together at Oregon State where the Sun Devils won their sixth title in the last eight years and watched Jacori Teemer (157) and Cohlton Schultz (285) become the conference’s seventh and eighth four-time champions. 

“Patience is difficult in moments, however, it's also a virtue, right? And I think we just stayed the course,” Jones said. 

“No need to hit the panic button. I think the kids just stayed steady and had faith and belief that we could get to this place. We knew we had the personnel, we just had to get it in the lineup ready to go and train them up with the right amount of competition and all those things are coming to the forefront and now we can see it.”

What Jones is seeing is a team excited to compete, a team excited that it’s hitting its stride and a team that’s having fun, according to the veteran ASU coach. 

“I think the kids right now still feel like they have something to prove. I think they feel still feel that they haven't got the respect that they want and deserve, but they have no problem with going to prove it,” he said.

“They’ve gotta go there and show that they are the team they think they are. I think over the last five years, we've been able to demonstrate that by going to the NCAA tournament and performing because they believe they can and they believe they're ready.”

ASU placed seventh last season and fourth the two seasons prior. A high-placing this year in a battle for second place behind heavily favored Penn State will be contingent on the efforts of second-seeded Kyle Parco (149) and Teemer (157), fourth-seeded Schultz (285) and eighth-seed Richie Figueroa in that wild and loaded 125-pound class.

The Sun Devils’ other qualifiers are Jesse Vasquez, #14 at 141; Julian Chlebove, #24 at 133; Tony Negron, #31 at 184, and Cael Valencia, #33 at 174.

Figueroa, the nation’s top recruit in 2021, opens with Ethan Berginc of Army and could face anywhere from the #24 seed to the #1 seed in his next two matches. 

“Everybody’s beating everybody (in that bracket),” Jones said. 

“Right now, Richie’s confidence … I think he looks at the group and just really believes that he can win the thing, but I don't know that he's so much focused on that. I think he's just really focused on getting out there and having a lot of fun on the wrestling mat. I think he just hasn't had fun yet. He's just feeling himself, and I'm happy for him in that way.”

As #2 seeds, Parco and Teemer are positioned well to make a run at 149 and 157, respectively. 

“I think he’s (Parco) in a perfect spot, and I think Jacori’s in a perfect spot,” Jones said. “Now you just gotta go out and execute, you gotta go out and wrestle and have fun and really score points. And I just know that's what they're excited about doing.”

Schultz, who recently qualified the 130-kilogram weight class for the Olympics for the U.S. in Greco-Roman competition, is in the top half of the bracket, along with #13 Yaraslau Slavkouski (Rutgers), #5 Nathan Taylor (Lehigh), #9 Nick Feldman (Ohio State) and #1 Greg Kerkvliet (Penn State), among others.

“I think (Schultz) feels really, really excited about the pairings there,” Jones said. “I think he feels he’s in a perfect spot to run to where he wants to go.”

Jones has high hopes for a fantastic finish. 

“We have four legitimate finalists and three of them were seeded that way,” he said. “I think for us to put four in the finals is not a stretch, it's realistic. And I know the kids are just excited to go get that opportunity to do that.”

Winning Four An Impressive Feat

Jones celebrated the efforts of Teemer and Schultz for winning their fourth Pac-12 titles. “It’s really quite bizarre that they were only the (seventh and eighth) persons to do it,” Jones said. “That blows me away. Why is there only that many? It’s freaking hard to do.

“As much as people think the conference is easy, which it probably is, it’s freaking hard to win four of those things, so I'm just really super happy for them, grateful they're on our team, two in the lineup at the same time. I know the country doesn't care about it because the country pretty much only cares about Big Ten the Big 12, but we're excited about it.”

A Look Inside A Practice Session

The Sun Devils were scheduled for difficult practices on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before tapering off to prepare for the NCAAs. Thursday’s practice was labeled a domination practice.

“We call it domination because they have to dominate the hardest that we're gonna throw at them,” Jones explained. “We're gonna have two partners rotate on them today and they have to score within 10 seconds from the 61 most common positions and situations they'll see at the NCAA tournament.

“We want to explode and they have to do it in 10 seconds; everything is an explosion. It's mostly just to create the state of mind that nothing is harder than two people rotating on you and you have to score within 10 seconds, and then the NCAA Tournament just won't be that hard.”

Jones came up with the number 61 by writing down common positions and situations a wrestler could be in and it came to 61. 

“It’s how the math worked out,” he said. 

Off The Mat Training

Interestingly, Jones also is staging media training for his team. He said when a wrestler makes the Olympic team that USA Wrestling conducts media training. 

“It’s your one chance for the world to see you every four years and when your moment comes, you’ve got to be ready and you’ve got to be great at it,” he said.

“We'll do matches and then we’ll walk off and our guy will interview them. ‘Hey, it was the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, how do you think you're wrestled?’ Or, you get a tough question like ‘You got a bad call that didn't go your way. What do you think?’”

Jones cited the case in 2017 when ASU’s Zahid Valencia grabbed the headgear of Penn State’s Mark Hall and lost on a penalty point. 

“He went for media training literally days before he grabbed Mark's headgear and when he got there, he nailed that interview perfectly and people loved him,” he said. “He gained like 20,000 followers that night because of how he answered that interview question. 

“Kids should be able to share their true authentic self in a way that's doesn't sound like you're 13; they are learning to communicate to the world right.”