ASU’s Jenkins, Robles close in on NCAA wrestling crowns

You have to wonder what Bubba Jenkins was thinking last night as he sat and waited for his quarter-final match at the NCAA D-I Wrestling Championships.

Was the Arizona State wrestler aware that Penn State was not only leading in the team title race, but the Nittany Lions also had the most wrestlers still in the hunt for individual national championships?

If he was aware, did he regret leaving that program to finish out his wrestling career at Arizona State?

Jenkins, a redshirt senior wrestling in the 157 weight class, was one of three ASU wrestlers that had advanced to the quarterfinals at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.  The others were Anthony Robles at 125 and Levi Cooper at 285.

Jenkins and Robles won their respective matches this morning and will compete in the semifinals.  Cooper, the redshirt sophomore from Oregon, lost his bid for a championship in a 5-3 decision to No. 5 Dom Bradley from Missouri and will now compete in the consolation round to try for All-America honors.

But all three wrestlers have more than just wrestling talent.  They each have their own unique, interesting story of success.

Robles gets most of the publicity.  Born with just one leg, he didn’t let that keep him from reaching great heights during his high school career, winning two state titles at Mesa High School and going undefeated his last two years and earning a scholarship to ASU.

The 22-year-old won the Pac-10 title in his weight class this year and has not yet been beaten during his final year on the mat at ASU.

Jenkins, on the other hand, hasn’t had much visibility in the Sun Devil program, coming here from Penn State to wrestle just one year, and then being out two months of that one season with a meniscus tear.

He won the 2006 national high school championships and had a bright career ahead of him.  At Penn State, he was the 2008 national runner-up at 149 lbs.  He missed much of the next season due to injury but still managed to go 24-3, losing in the title match of the Big Ten Tournament.

According to most reports, he didn’t leave the Nittany Lions program willingly, but was forced out when a new coach took over after his junior year and he was released from his scholarship.

He’s still a Nittany Lion at heart and has to find it difficult that his former school has a chance to win a national title this year without him, the first team title since 1953.

Cooper is even less recognized than either Robles or Jenkins, but his story is also intriguing.  Arizona State is his third school in three years.

It had nothing to do with Cooper, but rather the sagging popularity of college wrestling, that put him on the road to Tempe.  The first two schools he attended – Portland State and Cal State Bakersfield – dropped their wrestling programs.

By that time, he had run out of options.  There were no other colleges interested in his services.

So he took a gamble, moved to the desert, enrolled at ASU, and then won a spot on the team as a walk-on.  Which meant no scholarship money.

But that gamble is paying off now and he may reach his lifelong goal of being a Division I All-American sooner than he might have expected.  He finished third at the Pac-10 Championships and qualified for the nationals.

Now he is a match away from that All-America dream.

And ASU, which finished third at the conference tourney and is sitting in a tie for eighth place at the NCAA Tournament, has some additional hope for next season.

Jenkins and Robles may also be about to realize their own dreams by winning a national title.

The top-seeded Robles will take on Utah Valley’s Ben Kjar in the semis, who is unseeded but has already knocked off the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds.  They’ve met twice before, with Robles winning both.

Jenkins has drawn No. 8 Jason Welch from Northwestern, who is coming off an upset of top-ranked Adam Hall from Boise State.

The road to the top is never easy.  But with these guys, at least it’s been interesting.