R.C. LaHaye decided to do something different to start this wrestling season, so he threw the mats on the ground outside the Grand Canyon University Student Union building and conducted his annual pre-season intrasquad Purple-Black Duel for the first time in the great outdoors.
It was a typical mild October evening, rock music blared, and the students gathered ’round to get an up-close look at college wrestling. Many were probably being introduced to the sport for the first time.
Now, three months later, the Antelopes’ wrestling squad needs little introduction. The ‘Lopes are the No. 1 ranked team in the latest National Collegiate Wrestling Association (NCWA) coaches poll and just returned from Georgia, where they won the NCWA Collegiate Cup in a field of teams that included nine of the top 10 teams.
LaHaye, the seventh-year head coach, has taken a young squad that included 17 freshmen and four sophomores when the season began and is making a smooth transition to Division I.
It’s got to be a little like deja vu for LaHaye. He started the school’s wrestling program when it began during the 2007-08 school year as a Division II participant. Steadily, over the years, he has built the program into a national contender. And now, in a sense, he’s starting over again as GCU begins a four-year transition that is required for re-classification into Division I.
While his squad is young this year, the cupboard isn’t bare when it comes to experience and talent. Mike Hamel, who transferred in last year from University of Wyoming and earned All-American status, is back at the 149 weight class; Lino Estrada, an NCAA qualifier last year who is in his third season as a starter, returns at 133; and Peter Anguiano moves up from No. 2 on the depth charts at 285 the past two seasons. Hamel and Estrada are local athletes; Hamel graduated from Mesquite High School and Estrada comes from Hayden High.
All three won all of their matches in the opening day of the Collegiate Cup as the ‘Lopes rolled over opponents in the field of 24 of the top teams in the nation. They led the way to lopsided team wins that included a 59-0 win over Connecticut, a 48-3 take-down of Florida Gulf Coast, and a 61-(-1) finale against South Florida. (GCU won all 11 matches, while South Florida was docked a point for unsportsmanlike conduct.)
GCU won six duals in two days at the Cup, but the championship came down to a major decision by Anguiano in the final match that broke a 19-19 tie with Shorter College.
Seventeen of the 24 teams in this year’s field were ranked in the NCWA Top 25. With its performance, GCU picked up 24 points that will be attributed to the NCWA Championships at the end of the season. The ‘Lopes won’t be participating in the NCAA championships since they are ineligible during the four-year transitioning period. Instead, they will have post-season opportunities with other programs that are in a similar situation, as well as universities that don’t have programs at the NCAA level.
As LaHaye continues to move through the transition process to D-I, he has more help coming in next year as one of his best recruiting classes arrives. There are four state champions in that group, including local athletes, Gabriel Gonzales (197-pound) from Sunnyside High School in Tucson and Trey Ronayne (165) from Basha High in Chandler.
Bobby Reece is a three-time state champion from Washington who is 125-1 throughout his high-school career, and Derrick Jones is a California state champion.
So next year, if LaHaye drags the mats out into the center of campus again to introduce his product to the GCU student body, he might be able to provide an even better show than this year.
But first his top-ranked squad will try to stay on top through the regular season’s final four matches before the NCWA Regionals begin March 1. Next up is a huge home match against Stanford, which is 13-4 overall and enjoying one of its best seasons ever.
Nobody ever said this was going to be easy.
(Photo: GCU Athletics/ Daryl Webb)