Four years isn’t much time to build a national-caliber college wrestling program, even at the Division II level.
But it’s happening at Grand Canyon University.
The west Phoenix college was picked to finish third in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference this season, but instead wrapped up the regular season title earlier this month, and finished in third place at the RMAC/NCAA Region IV Championships over the weekend.
By winning the conference crown, the Antelopes improved their overall dual record to 17-4 and put the cap on a perfect record in conference, 9-0.
At the regionals, a school-record seven wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championships, while the ‘Lopes pocketed two individual championships at the event held in San Francisco.
But the goal this year, says head coach R.C. LaHaye, is to finish the season among the top five D-II programs in the country.
“We believe we’re in the hunt to do just that.”
A total of eight out of the 10 GCU wrestlers who made the trip were still alive after the first day of regional competition and, on the second day, five were competing in championship matches in various weight classes.
Todd Wilcox, who is ranked No. 1 nationally in his weight class, brought home the 133-pound title by defeating No. 7 Aldon Isenberg of Fort Hayes State, 4-1. The senior from Sacramento will take a 17-match winning streak and an impressive 32-3 record with him to nationals.
The other championship at regionals went to No. 4-ranked Victor Carazo in the 174-pound weight class. The junior transfer from Modesto College defeated Caleb Kociemba of Nebraska-Kearney, 9-2, to extend his win streak to 20 straight matches and his overall record to 30-3.
Three others reached the championship matches of their weight classes before falling. The trio included a local product, All-American Ryan Becerra at 174, who is a redshirt senior from Highland High School in Gilbert. The others are Madison Gambrell (125) and Eli Arizmendez (197), a mid-season transfer from Embry Riddle in Prescott.
Kyle Wilson (133) and Ted Bristol (157) round out the group of seven moving on to the national championships. Bristol finished third at the Region Championships and Wilson placed fourth. Bristol entered the tournament ranked 10th in his weight class and moved up to third by the time it was over.
LaHaye and his hopefuls will have a couple of weeks to prepare before heading to Kearney, Neb., for the March 11-12 NCAA Championships.
And then he’ll find out if this young program really is ready for the big time.
(Photo: GCU Athletics/Tim Koors)