GCU wrestling using ambitious schedule to prep for D-I

As R.C. LaHaye gets his Grand Canyon University wrestling team ready for its first year of transitioning up to Division I, he’s keeping one eye on the horizon.  This year is important, of course, but his first concern is the future of the program.

LaHaye wants his grapplers to get as much mat time as possible to acquaint them with the step up in competition, so he’s announced an ambitious schedule for the 2013-14 season.

“We’ve put together a schedule with some tough Division I competition, as well as some open tournaments and big D-I tournaments,” he explains.  “This will help prepare us for our future.”

GCU will compete as an independent in wrestling as the Antelopes begin the four-year transition period required for admission to Division I.  College teams in transition are ineligible for the NCAA Tournament and compete, along with club teams, in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association (NCWA).

The ‘Lopes will compete in 17 events – that include six tournaments with D-I competition – and will host four events on their west Phoenix campus.

This season will kick off with the Colorado Mesa Open at Grand Junction, the first of six tournament-style events on the road.  It will be a brutal opening to the schedule, but it’s what LaHaye feels his nationally-ranked program needs to begin gearing up for the next level.

And he can’t wait to get started.

“We’re excited about moving up and getting the transition period started,” he said.  “(With this schedule), the guys will get a lot of valuable experience.”

LaHaye, who is beginning his sixth season as head coach, has built the GCU program into one that has earned respect on the national stage of Division II wrestling.  The ‘Lopes have finished in the top 10 of the national rankings the last three years, including a No. 5 finish in 2011-12 and No. 4 last year.  At one point in the season last year, the squad had climbed to a No. 2 national ranking, the highest recorded in the history of the program.

But those were the good ol’ days.  LaHaye has four years now to prepare the program to compete with the big boys.

To that end, he has added some championship-caliber talent this season.

Austin Gaun is the most recognizable member of the group of six new recruits since he is from Flagstaff High School where he was named the Co-Wrestler of the Year by the Arizona Daily Sun.  A two-time state champion in the 174-184 weight class, he finished his senior season 51-1 with 33 pins.

He will be joined by three recruits from California: Jovan Villalobos (165-174 lb. class), Terrill Sidener (141), and Giovanni Castillo (125).  Villalobos is a state champion and three-time qualifier, Castillo is a three-time state place-winner, and Sidener is a two-time state champion.

The other two members of the group include Levi Maes (125-133), the 2013 Rocky Mountain Nationals champion and two-time Colorado state finalist, and Wyatt Robinson (149-157), a three-time New Mexico state champion.

GCU had five wrestlers qualify for the 2013 NCAA Division II Championships; two of them are back this season.  And both are local products.

Lino Estrada (133) was a three-time state champion from Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix and Mike Hamel (141) from Mesquite High School in Gilbert was a two-time state champion and undefeated in his senior season.  Estrada is a redshirt senior who finished runner-up at the conference championships and Hamel, who transferred in from the University of Wyoming last season, finished in fourth place in his weight class.

The squad will be on the road for the first seven weeks of the season, with the first of four home dual matches scheduled for Jan. 4 in GCU Arena.

(Photo: GCU Athletics)