From here on out, nothing else matters for the ASU wrestling team.
Though the Sun Devils finished with a sub-.500 overall dual meet record, they aren’t lacking any confidence as they head into this weekend’s Pac-12 championships in Boise, Idaho.
All-America heavyweight junior Levi Cooper put it simply: “We’re as ready as we can be.”
ASU intentionally crafted their regular season schedule this year with an array of top-notch opponents, including No. 14 Nebraska, No. 11 Oklahoma, No. 10 Lehigh and No. 1 Oklahoma State, with the expectation that the tough competition would make its young grapplers more than ready to face the challenges of the grueling postseason.
“We know what we have to do this weekend,” assistant coach Brian Stith said. “That’s why we booked our schedule as such.”
Eight freshmen will be making their debut appearance at the conference tournament, as Cooper and 174-pound senior Eric Starks are the only upperclassmen competing for ASU.
“I’m sure they’re feeling more anxious than they’re leading on,” Cooper said of his younger teammates. “It’s a big thing to go to the Pac-12 tournament for the first time. I’m sure there are some jitters.”
That being said, this is an ASU team that’s ready and capable of grabbing a number of bids to the national tournament on Mar. 15-18 in St. Louis.
“The name of the game is go to the conference (championships), dominate the conference and get guys to the national tournament and make their dreams come true,” Stith said.
Cooper echoed Stith’s sentiment, saying nothing has changed from the start of the season.
“Our goal from the beginning of the year has been to win the tournament, and that’s still what we’re shooting for,” Cooper said. “For us, it’s about trying to get as many guys as we can to the national tournament.”
In preparation for Boise, the entire Sun Devils’ squad has been dedicated to fine-tuning the team’s 10 starters over the past few weeks.
“We’ve been focusing on tightening up each person’s individual style,” Cooper said. “We’ve been practicing a lot with a couple partners, and each workout has been totally focused on what you, as an individual, need to do to have the best opportunity to win.”
In Cooper’s case, the heavyweight not only has a good shot to win the Pac-12 tournament, but to also make a run at a national championship.
Cooper is the No. 2 seed at the meet, and a conference crown — which would have to include a victory over Oregon State’s Clayton Jack, who boasts a 32–1 record as the top-ranked heavyweight in the nation — would give him serious momentum heading to St. Louis.
“He’s looking tough, and he’s looking like he’s ready to go,” Stith said of Cooper. “He’s been working really hard in the room and pushing himself that extra mile all the time.”
Besides a jammed finger that’s on its way to mending, Cooper is feeling healthy and confident heading into the weekend.
“We wrestle all season, and now it matters,” Cooper said. “This is the time when we put together everything that we’ve worked for all season long.”
Cooper plans on using his superior conditioning to propel himself to the Pac-12 title.
“I feel like I’m in as good of shape as any of the guys that are going to be there,” Cooper said. “The faster the tempo is, that’s an advantage for me.”
ASU expects a handful of freshmen to secure spots in the NCAA championship meet. Winners of each of the ten weight classes automatically qualify, with additional at-large bids to be determined next week.
“We’ve got about five to seven wrestlers right now who are in position to qualify for the NCAA tournament,” coach Shawn Charles said. “The more of these young guys I can get to the NCAA tournament, the better it’s going to bode for us in the future.”
Sunday’s action at Taco Bell Arena will run all day long.
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