ASU wrestling has arrived: a national power once again

When Zeke Jones was hired by Arizona State University in April of 2014, he was charged with reviving a moribund wrestling program that had fallen far from the national power it had been back in the ’90s.

Check that box. Mission accomplished.

Six years later, the Sun Devils are showing the wining consistency that marks a legitimate national contender. Not just success for a season or two, but continued excellence, year after year.

And that’s where ASU finds itself right now. Jones, who was a two-time Pac-10 champion when he wrestled for ASU, a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame who went on to coach at four Olympic Games, pulled in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in 2015, his first season in charge of the Sun Devil program.

And his program has been reaping the rewards of that effort ever since.

The Tempe school just wrapped up its third Pac-12 Championship in the last four years — and the one that got away, the Devils were runner-up. And each of those four years they also finished each season in the top-10 nationally. ASU finished sixth this year and fifth last season.

And, if you want to be the best, you have to show you can beat the best. In December, ASU upset the No. 1 team in the country, Penn State, putting an end to the Nittany Lions’ 60-match winning streak.

This year’s Pac-12 Tournament title was accomplished without the program’s best wrestler competing. Zahid Valencia, the three-time Pac-12 Wrestler of the Year, was suspended indefinitely on Feb. 20 following a failed drug test. He tested positive for a recreational drug, not a performance-enhancing drug.

Valencia was undefeated this season, racking up a 20-0 record before his suspension, and was ranked No. 1 in the nation at his 184 weight class. He’s 121-3 overall in his four seasons at ASU and first in school career major decisions.

Cade Belshay took his place at 184 for the conference tournament, finishing third. The redshirt sophomore has appeared in 10 matches this season, rotating among 184, 192, and heavyweight classes.

Zahid’s brother, Anthony Valencia, a redshirt junior, was one of five individual champions, winning at 174. The others included Brandon Courtney (125), Jacori Teemer (157), Kordell Norfleet (197), and heavyweight Tanner Hall, who notched his second Pac-12 individual title as he closes out his collegiate career. Norfleet shared Most Outstanding Wrestler with Stanford’s Shane Griffith.

With his win, Courtney, a redshirt sophomore from Desert Edge High School in Goodyear, became the first ASU champion at 125 lbs. since 2011 when Anthony Robles collected his third title at that weight. His victory over Stanford’s Jackson DiSario ran his collegiate record to 25-5.

Stanford finished runner-up to ASU, but the Cardinal’s 122 points were well back of the 141.5 points posted by the Sun Devils. The 141.5 points are the highest conference tournament point total for an ASU team over the last 27 years.

ASU will be without one of its brightest stars when next season begins, since Zahid Valencia will be graduating this year. But there is no question that Jones has laid a foundation for success that doesn’t depend on any one athlete.

The future looks solid for this program and the coach who is one of those rarities in sports who is so well-known and widely respected in wrestling circles that he can go by just his first name.

And now Zeke has returned the Sun Devil name to a place of respect on the national stage.