Three years ago, Zeke Jones made a decision that is reaping big rewards now for the Arizona State University wrestling program.
Jones, hired in April of 2014, began rebuilding a sagging wrestling program that had been a conference and national power in the ’90s. He wasted no time, pulling in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in 2015.
But he decided to use that incoming class, which included three athletes listed on either the USA Today All-USA high school first- or second-teams, as his building blocks for the future. After all, ASU’s athletic director, Ray Anderson, told him when he was hired to “take as long as it takes to build a solid foundation and do it the right way.”
Jones, a two-time Pac-10 champion when he wrestled at ASU, could have put all that talent on the mat right away and enjoy the immediate success that was sure to follow. But instead, he decided to redshirt some of those athletes and let them mature as the program grew. Jones felt that would give him a junior class in a few years that might be able to challenge for a national title.
The plan seems to be working. The No. 9 Sun Devils just put away their second consecutive Pac-12 Championship as six of their wrestlers became individual champions to help the team to a total 96 points, well ahead of runner-up Oregon State (70 points).
It marks the first time since the 2005 and 2006 seasons that the program has won back-to-back conference titles.
Two of this year’s individual champions were Anthony Valencia and Zahid Valencia. The Valencia brothers, from St. John Bosco High School in California, were the first wrestlers to commit to Jones when he took over the ASU program. And since they were both ranked No. 1 in the nation in their respective weight classes, their commitment brought immediate credibility to Jones’ efforts and began to rebuild a national profile.
Anthony brought home this year’s Pac-12 title at 165 pounds and his younger brother won at 174. Despite the fact that Zahid is a year younger, both are in the same academic class.
As redshirt sophomores, they have benefited from sitting out that first year of eligibility. They both just won the second of two consecutive conference championships, the first ASU wrestlers to do that since Anthony Robles almost a decade ago. Robles also redshirted as a freshman and, despite being born with just one leg, went on to win three Pac-10 titles.
The other individual champions from the conference tournament include Ali Naser (133), Jason Tsirtsis (149), Josh Shields (157), and Tanner Hall (HWT). Shields, who was ranked No. 3 nationally at his weight class in high school, is another redshirt from that Class of 2015.
The 285-pound Hall, a three-time high school state champion from Idaho who wrestled on a couple of Junior World teams, was also a prize catch in that 2015 recruiting class, but was not redshirted. Instead, he helped that 2015-16 squad to an impressive second-place finish at the Pac-12 Championships.
“When we came in (to take over the program), we got a great jump start on that recruiting class that was No. 1, which is all these sophomores that you see here (at the conference tournament),” said Jones, who won a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics and coached at four Olympics as he became one of the most highly-respected college wrestling coaches in the nation, with a national profile so dominant that he is recognized in wrestling circles by just his first name.
“But I don’t think we’re ever satisfied with where we are. Until we can get on top of the podium at NCAA’s, we’re going to keep striving.” Jones’s plan at the time of his hire was to win a national title in four to five years.
Just how close Jones is to that goal will continue to unfold on March 7 when the NCAA qualifiers will be announced and the Sun Devils who make it into that select group pack up to head to Cleveland, Ohio, for the 2018 NCAA Wrestling Championships that will run March 15-17.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)