Pac-12 Wrestling: Coaching Conundrum Pt. 6
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Pac-12 Wrestling: Coaching Conundrum Pt. 6

The Arizona State Sun Devils

Pac-12 Wrestling: Coaching Conundrum Pt. 6

The Zeke Jones Effect

(Arizona State Asst. Coach Chris Pendleton (left) and Head Coach Zeke Jones (center) at the 2016 Pac-12 Championships)

In April of 2014, Zeke Jones, after leading the US Men’s Freestyle team to 3rd-place finishes in both the 2011 World Championships and the 2012 London Olympic Games, was announced as the new head coach of his alma mater, Arizona State. Immediately after the appointment, high-caliber recruits began funneling into the Sun Devil wrestling room in Tempe. Jones completed his staff with the addition of talented assistant coach Chris Pendleton, a 2x NCAA Champion competitor that spent a handful of seasons as an assistant coach under Mark Branch at the University of Wyoming. Pendleton joined long-time ASU assistant Lee Pritts (who had been on staff in Tempe since 2012). Not only Pendleton made moves, as Jones brought in 2x NCAA Champion, US National Teamer Jordan Oliver as a Volunteer Assistant Coach for a season alongside 3x NCAA Champion Ed Ruth, World University Gold Tyrell Fortune, and Olympian Kelsey Campbell to begin training for the Olympics at the renown Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club. The effort of Jones and staff in their first year garnered results quickly, as Arizona State had the #1-recruiting class for 2015, per Flowrestling, D1CollegeWrestling, and Amateur Wrestling News.

The wrestling world scrambled as Jones became one of the most notable additions to the D1 landscape. Not only was he joining the collegiate coaching ranks with a competitive resume that rivals most of his contemporaries (1991 World Champion, 1992 Olympic Silver, and “World’s Most Technical Wrestler” award by FILA), he entered himself into the Pac-12 Conference, an “island” of sorts considering the divide that separates the competition pools of the West and East coasts of the United States. Recruits were not worried about moving out West, however, as talent has continued to flow into the rejuvenated Sun Devil program, a team that had been a quiet member of the Pac-12 (a conference among many in college wrestling) since a 6th place finish at NCAAs in 2011, when Anthony Robles and Bubba Jenkins won national titles and Levi Cooper earned All-American honors, whilst unseeded, for the Sun Devils.

(2011 NCAA Champion at 125lbs Anthony Robles (top) and 2011 NCAA Champion at 157lbs Bubba Jenkins, of Arizona State)

Talent hailing from California to Minnesota and beyond found themselves at ASU, but the bulk of the notable recruits have yet to grace the collegiate mat. Since 2011, 2x Pac-12 Champion, 4x NCAA qualifier, 2015 All-American Blake Stauffer and 2x NCAA Qualifier Matt Kraus were among the stand-outs for Arizona State, but with this coming season the college wrestling world will see if the master-plan of Zeke Jones will come to fruition, as the redshirts come off and a full-power Sun Devil lineup takes the mat.

“Wrestling in the West is Strong and Thriving”

Jones came into a program that was on the edge. After 2011 when ASU finished 6th at NCAAs, two places behind a team trophy and their best finish since 2006 (6th), Arizona State placed 56th, 41st, 58th, 29th, and 36th at NCAAs. The latest two placements, of course, were under Zeke Jones. While 29th and 36th at NCAAs were clearly not the goal for the ASU athletic department, I believe that faith is still strong for Jones.

“[P]retty much anyone who wanted to come out could be on the team,” Jones said, of the depth-situation he inherited at Arizona State. Despite his credentials, not even Jones could turn around a program within eight months. Sure, the recruits flocked, but talent on redshirt is talent that doesn’t score points. In 2015, Jones and staff worked hard with what they had, which was about 2.9 of 9.9 scholarships after the cost of a redshirted #1-recruiting class was accounted for. Disregarding any obstacles, Jones gave the Sun Devil administration something to talk about when ASU finished 2nd at Pac-12s, their highest finish at the conference tournament since 2006 (the last time ASU won the Pac-12 conference title), powered by two individual Pac-12 titles. Then-junior Blake Stauffer captured his first conference title at 184lbs, as did Michigan State transfer, California state champion, redshirt freshman Christian Pagdilao at 149lbs.

The 2015-2016 season ended with Arizona State once again in 2nd place behind Oregon State despite a strong overall performance at Pac-12s. Blake Stauffer finished his Pac-12 competition career by defending his 184lbs Pac-12 title as one of five Sun Devils that made their way into the conference finals. Also capturing Pac-12 titles were senior Josh DaSilveira at 197lbs (who lost in the semi-finals of conferences in overtime the year before) and redshirt sophomore Dalton Brady at 133lbs (who transferred into Arizona State from Utah Valley University prior to the 2014-2015 season). Also reaching the finals were senior Matt Kraus (who bumped up to 149 from 141, beating out the aforementioned Pagdilao for the 149lbs spot) and redshirt sophomore Oliver Pierce. Both Kraus and Pierce earned their second NCAA qualifications.

Holding 2nd-place in the conference in the years before Zeke’s first recruiting-class hit the mat is a reasonable place-holder all things considered. But I doubt Zeke Jones is a fan of second place.

Devil’s Advocate

To borrow the analogy from Christian Pyles of FloWrestling, the rubber meets the road in the 2016-2017 season for the Sun Devils. The administration in Tempe knew it wouldn’t be an overnight turn around and they’ve publicly given their vote of confidence to Zeke Jones.

Associate Athletic Director Mark Brand has explained Jones’s long-term plan for establishing the Sun Devil program as a national power. “Coach Jones has a clear and definite plan to win, or be a national title contender in four or five years. 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.”

Notable California preps have gone to ASU since Jones’s appointment, including CA State Champions Nikko Villareal, Zahid and Anthony Valencia, and Christian Pagdilao (who transferred from Michigan State). Pagdilao has earned a 2015 Pac-12 title, the first Pac-12 title for the Sun Devils since 2011, so far and enters the season a redshirt junior; look for him at 149lbs. Anthony Valencia comes off an Olympic Redshirt where he was a scramble away from qualifying for the Olympic Team Trials (he would lose to Mark Hall at the Last Chance Qualifier). He nonetheless earned a wealth of experience competing on the national senior-circuit during his redshirt. Anthony projects at 165lbs. His younger brother Zahid Valencia returns from a redshirt season in which he beat both of the NCAA finalists at 174lbs within months of the national tournament. Valencia beat 2016 NCAA Champion Myles Martin in the UWW Junior Freestyle Nationals finals, 7-0, and then proceeded to beat NCAA Runner-up Bo Nickal in two-straight matches, 8-2, 2-1, in the finals of the UWW Junior World Team Trials. (Note that these wins were under the UWW Freestyle rules, not the NCAA collegiate rule-scheme.) We’ll see if Zahid goes 174 or 184lbs. Anthony and Zahid are ranked #5 and #1, respectively, on FloWrestling’s preseason Freshman rankings.

Highly-touted redshirt freshman Lance Benick will look to take the mat at 197lbs. A 3x Minnesota State Champion, Benick was ranked the #11 and #12 recruit of the class of 2015 by and InterMat, respectively. He was the consensus #3 recruit at 195lbs by FloWrestling and the OpenMat. Tanner Hall, a 24-year old sophomore and talented heavyweight that made two Junior World Teams, was one of the first (if not the first) wrestlers of the #1-recruiting class of 2015 to take the mat. He placed 3rd at Pac-12s and qualified for NCAAs in 2016, losing only to 2015 conference champion Nathan Butler of Stanford at the Pac-12 tournament. The addition of Hall makes a clear three-man race at heavyweight in conference, as 2014 Junior World Gold, 2016 All-American Amarveer Dhesi of Oregon State and the aforementioned Butler look to battle Hall for conference supremacy.

(2016 Pac-12 Champion Dalton Brady)

Returning 133lbs Pac-12 Champion, NCAA qualifier Dalton Brady and Pac-12 runner-up at 157lbs Oliver Pierce join Christian Pagdilao as returning redshirt juniors for the Sun Devils. Brady will be tested at 133lbs by the incoming Junior from Fresno City College, Ali Naser. Naser made a name for himself when he beat 2012 Olympic Bronze Coleman Scott at the US Open… he established himself as a talent when he went on to beat not only another Olympian in Sam Hazewinkel, but 2015 NCAA Champion at 125lbs Nathan Tomasello, and World Team Member Obe Blanc.

On September 22, Jones officially announced Naser’s transfer as well as the transfer of 2014 NCAA Champion, 2015 3rd-Place All-American, redshirt senior Jason Tsirtsis. Tsirtsis, who competed for Northwestern University for three years (four if you include his redshirt season), was deemed academically-ineligible based on the high academic standards set by Northwestern. Tsirtsis had a rough year, involving a combination of controllable and uncontrollable events, that made making wrestling his #1 priority all but impossible. Coach Jones hopes to see Tsirtsis on the mat not this season, but the next (2017-2018).

FloWrestling’s Christian Pyles has 2x Arizona State Champions, redshirt freshmen Josh Kramer and Ted Rico vying for the 125lbs spot vacated by the graduation by NCAA qualifier Ares Carpio. Returning NCAA qualifier at 141lbs Robbie Mathers will likely have the spot again, though sophomore Nikko Villareal will look to earn himself some starting time.

With a deep and talented roster coming active, Jones’s team should make noise this year on the D1 landscape. Notable talents, e.g., Brandon Courtney and Navonte Demison, continue to commit to the Sun Devils out of high school. If Jones’s plan works, he should field a team solid enough to take away the Pac-12 crown from five-time defending champions in Jim Zalesky’s Oregon State.

For Zeke Jones, I have a feeling he’ll enjoy coaching a team with such amazing potential. In addition to Assistant Coaches Pendleton and Pritts, 2016 alum Matt Kraus will stay in Tempe as an Undergraduate Assistant Coach. As for the roster, I must point out that it’s loaded with California talent. Not many teams have brought a comparable amount together at the D1 level in such a short time interval. That said, I have to believe they’ll make a statement in this coming season. It’ll be a matter of proving it at the national tournament, of course. Zeke Jones could be at the start of a John Smith-esque dynasty at Arizona State. Time will tell.

Want more wrestling?!

Coaching Conundrum: Part 1: Fresno State / Part 2: Boise State / Part 3: Cal-Poly SLO / Part 4: CSU Bakersfield / Part 5: Stanford by Darius Levan

July ‘16: D1 Wrestling Update on Fresno State and Boise State

Team USA Olympic Wrestling Results

Olympic Wrestling: Breakdown of Controversy: Gomez vs Navruzov

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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