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In high school wrestling, people see Blair Academy, Wyoming Seminary, and Buchanan as the top wrestling programs. Yet, Valiant College Preparatory is beginning to crack radars in their early existence. Valiant, created in Phoenix, Arizona in 2018, is the next prep school with loads of talent. However, the bright vision came with tough challenges early.
Co-founder and assistant coach Eric Larkin jumped through several obstacles before landing the wrestling team. According to Larkin, he tried to build a national prep team at his former school, Seton Catholic. Although his intentions were set in sight, Seton Catholic denied the idea. Therefore, Larkin took the matter into his own actions. With his children entering high school, he reached out to Valiant’s current principal about making an accredited school.
After several phone calls, text messages, emails, and years of waiting, Larkin pulled the trigger. Once he founded the school, he needed to find the coach to match his ideals. Despite Larkin being a former four-time All-American and national champion at Arizona State, he decided that he would not handle head coach duties. Instead, he boosted Valiant’s resume by signing Angel Cejudo.
Cejudo brought in the passion and drive that gave Larkin’s former athletes confidence to switch over to the new head coach. Plus, his portfolio fulfilled some needs in the early steps of the program. Cejudo’s portfolio includes a 152-0 record in high school, wrestling on the FILA Junior Freestyle World Team, wrestling in Olympic Trials, and training his brother, Henry Cejudo, to a gold medal. Although Cejudo took the chance on Valiant, he was not on board early.
“When Eric’s goal and his vision came, he called me. I was back from Colorado for about two years now,” Cejudo said. “He told me his goal and I said I don't want to be a head coach anywhere. I don't have social media and I can barely send an email. When you're a head coach, you have to do all that stuff.”
Yet, Cejudo’s mind changed over time. Once he realized the atmosphere of the school, he joyfully bought into Larkin’s process. Larkin continued to add to the process of building Valiant. He searched around for another assistant coach to finalize the coaching staff. After digging around, Larkin added former GCU wrestler Madison Gambrell to the coaching carousel. Gambrell brought in a younger and slicker approach to the team.
Gambrell’s approach provided the aspect of developing the younger athletes through his standards. When Gambrell had the opportunity to join Valiant, he took it. However, he did not pick up the coaching position for himself.
I joined for the opportunity for the wrestlers at this school. The first week that I was here, I was just mind blown with the other people that were involved in helping these kids get to their goals.
Besides having a strong coaching core, Valiant began to build the athletic program around wrestling. Mike Douglas, the founder of Thorobred Wrestling, joined as the Athletic Director. When the staff settled down, they began to build the brand. Cejudo and Valiant’s brand was bringing in new-school tactics with old-school legends.
“My vision was to break the mold of the traditional old school way of doing things. The ways of the room has to be 100 degrees, you have to be tough, you have to be conditioned, the toughest survive,” Cejudo said. “I wanted to change that paradigm that has gone through centuries. I showed them there was a different way of getting to the next level, by systematically taking our time developing skills. Plus, my goal is to have these kids enjoy what they were doing.”
The other goal for Valiant’s brand is to be a successful student-athlete. According to Larkin, the wrestlers improve by supporting each other. Plus, the wrestling atmosphere rolls over from the mat to the classroom. The Valiant squad pushes each other in the classroom so they can attempt to break into the collegiate wrestling scene. Within their short stint, the Valiant wrestling squad has already cracked into the college wrestling scene.
The Valiant alumni are beginning to spread their roots throughout the country. Tanner Mendoza currently wrestles at Little Rock and No.9 ranked Ben Alanis will wrestle at Northern Colorado.
Throughout the first few seasons, the tradition has built nationally too, but it came with sacrifices. The wrestlers gave up Arizona state titles, school dances, hanging with friends, and more. However, the squad continued to make national radars after impressive performances at Super 32, Fargo, and more.
The national radar will not be the end of Valiant’s process. Valiant plans to prove that Arizona is not a state in the way of California during the recruiting process. Instead, colleges from the West Coast to the East Coast will keep their eyes locked in Phoenix, Arizona for the next product.