Major changes in a college sports program don’t come overnight. And sometimes the road to improvement can feel a little like a roller coaster ride.
The Arizona State wrestling program is on that ride right now, and so far this year’s results are a little disappointing – unless you understand the rebuilding process that new head coach, Zeke Jones, has put in place.
This is the second season for Jones, the former Olympian and hall-of-fame coach who was hired in April of 2014 to resuscitate a program that was a conference and national power during the ’90s.
Last year, Jones appeared to validate the faith the ASU administration put in him by leading the wrestling squad to a second-place finish at the Pac-12 Championships, the best finish in almost a decade. And he also produced six qualifiers for the NCAA Tournament – the first time that has happened since 2011, when the Sun Devils finished No. 6 in the country.
But so far, this season pales by comparison. However, that’s the price the new head coach is willing to pay to re-build a national contender.
Jones has a long history of being a winner. During his college days at ASU, he became a three-time All-American, set a school record for dual-match victories, and was enshrined in the ASU Hall of Fame. Wrestling for his country, he was the 1991 World Champion and won a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics.
As a coach, he was on staff at three universities, including ASU, and was the Amateur Wrestling News Rookie of the Year as the University of Pennsylvania head coach. He also coached at the 1996, 2000, 2004, and 1012 Olympic games and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Jones rounded up an incoming recruiting class that was ranked by both Amateur Wrestling News and Division I College Wrestling.Net as No. 1 in the country. Three of those in the 2015 class were on either the USA Today All-USA high school first or second teams.
Zahid and Anthony Valencia, brothers who were both three-time California state champions and prized recruits, were the first to commit to the Class of 2015. Anthony decided to redshirt this season to be able to prepare for the Olympic Trials and the 2016 Rio Olympics. Tanner Hall, who won three state championships in Idaho and wrestled on a couple of Junior World teams, came on board in the spring.
Add to that senior leadership from Blake Stauffer, an All-American who went 14-1 in dual matches last season and won the 184-pound title at the Pac-12 Championships, and Matt Kraus, runner-up at 141 pounds at the Pac-12 Championships.
But Jones was faced with the task of deciding how to use the incoming class as his building block for the future. After the success of last season, he tried to tell the media what to expect in the next few seasons by explaining what ASU Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson told him before being hired to take on the program. Anderson, he said, told him to “take as long as it takes to build a solid foundation and do it the right way.”
So this season Jones had the option of putting all the talent he has gathered on the mat and enjoy the immediate success that was sure to follow. Or he could redshirt some, or all, of them and let his young wrestlers mature as the program grows. He chose the latter.
“Coach Jones has a clear and definite plan to win, or be a national title contender in four or five years,” explained Mark Brand, ASU Associate AD/Media Relations. “To do that, he planned to redshirt the No. 1 class that he signed last year. In doing so, when that No. 1 class becomes juniors, he would have a seasoned, veteran squad that is capable of challenging for the national title.”
So none of the top-rated freshmen in the No. 1 class are competing this year, which accounts for seven of the 9.9 scholarships. According to Brand, Jones has just a one-half scholarship in the first seven weights.
The results of that decision are being played out in this year’s record. This was a .500 team (4-4) overall and 0-1 in Pac-12 competition going into the Dec. 4-5 Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas. The Devils collected 48 points to finish 17th out of 39 teams as Hall and Kraus finished fourth in their respective weights, and sophomore Robbie Mathers added the only other top-10 placement by finishing seventh at 141 pounds. Missouri won with 144 points.
But those three placers in Las Vegas are the most at the event for the ASU program since 2012. And the Sun Devils have been dealing with a November schedule of eight dual matches that is considered one of the toughest stretches in the history of the program.
Brand also points out that Hall had an upset win in Las Vegas, beating Ohio State’s Nick Tavanello, one of the country’s top-ranked heavyweights. And two weeks before that in a home dual meet, Kraus defeated the defending Pac-12 Champion at 141 pounds, Geordan Martinez.
So this group will continue to gain experience as Jones prepares them for what lies ahead the next two months and, most importantly, the Pac-12 Championships at the end of February.
It will be interesting to watch that play out – but even more interesting to see what awaits a little farther down the road, when Jones will be able to get this top-ranked recruiting class into competition for the first time.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)