ASU wrestling’s Blake Stauffer knew in his heart he was going to wrestle at the NCAA Championships again.
The numbers backed him up, too: He had an undefeated dual meet season, followed by a third-place finish in the Pac-12 Championships at Stanford.
But the 184-pound redshirt sophomore didn’t know he was going to Oklahoma City as recently as last week.
“(The NCAA) put out the wild cards, and posted all of the qualifiers. Coach (Lee) Pritts told me after practice on Tuesday, ‘You’re in,’ ” Stauffer said.
Stauffer’s wildcard bid gives him another shot at NCAA glory, rewarding his regular season performance.
“I knew that (even) with my record, there was a chance if things fell the wrong way, I wouldn’t go,” Stauffer said.
The news of his qualification for the national tournament boosted Stauffer’s confidence.
“In my head, the whole time, I planned that I was going. Obviously, it’s nice to get that confirmation that I was going, and I’m excited to go nationals,” Stauffer said.
Coach Shawn Charles insisted that the preparation for the NCAA Championship environment would be different than preparation for Pac-12 competition.
“We’re fine-tuning Blake, trying to get him individually ready for the tournament,” Charles said. “He’s been there before (at 174 pounds) and this time, he’s gotten there off his own merit, he knows what he’s supposed to be doing.”
In comparison, the selection process itself is very similar to that of college basketball.
“They go through each and every weight class and break down wins and losses and head-to-head matchups,” Charles said. “(Stauffer) had earned his way into the tournament well before, being as ranked as high as he was, and the guys he beat regular season.”
Charles said in practice, Stauffer’s sparring partners are attempting to challenge him with the same style and level of intensity of his opponent, Michigan freshman and No. 9 seed Domenic Abounader.
“We have guys emulating (Abounader) but we are mostly focusing on the things that he has to do to win, at a high level of intensity,” Charles said.
Stauffer and the coaching staff have done some advance scouting of their Big Ten opponent.
“I’ve watched some film on him, just to see what he does and be aware of it, but my game plan is just to worry about what I do,” Stauffer said.
Charles believes Stauffer should only be working on elements of preparation that are within his control.
“I would argue that he is going to nationals based on the things he does well,” Charles said.
“If we see something from the competition that is unique, we will try to model it in practice. It’s always good to see what your (opponent) brings to the table, but it’s really about (Stauffer) going out there and doing what he does.”
One of Stauffer’s more exceptional talents is his signature single-leg takedown, which he displayed against Stanford redshirt freshman Zach Nevills in a home dual meet back on Feb. 3.
“That’s his go-to single-leg, and you’ll be seeing that at the NCAA tournament,” Charles said.
Stauffer hopes to utilize the move in his first match in Oklahoma City.
“If I get in that position, I’m definitely going to go for that finish,” Stauffer said.
Charles said there is little variety in technique and strategy among even the best wrestlers.
“The thing that’s interesting about wrestling, everybody does a double-leg, single-leg and high-crotch, and everyone knows it’s coming,” Charles said. “You just get so good at it, that you can’t stop it. That’s how you win.”
Charles acknowledged that Stauffer would have to be at his absolute best to win in a deep field, and pointed out some areas of concern.
“Every kid here is capable of getting to the finals,” Charles said. “I’m just hoping that he’s mentally ready to compete at the level that he needs to. His body is ready. He’s strong; he’s in shape.
“He has to work hard on top, to get control of those positions so he can turn people. When he’s on his feet, he has to defend his legs, and attack when he has his opportunities.”
Ultimately, Charles is focused on maximizing his top wrestler’s potential.
“There’s not many things we’re going to do differently. In any big tournament or competition, the intensity hypes it up, so Blake has to match that intensity,” Charles said.
While Stauffer is a statistical long shot to win it all, Charles remains optimistic in advance of the championships Thursday.
“I’m excited for Blake, and just because he’s a wild card doesn’t mean he can’t win this tournament,” Charles said. “He’s in a great situation to become an All-American. I just want him to battle and represent himself well.”
Stauffer begins his battle for the 184-pound crown Thursday, March 20, at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla..
The championship will be televised beginning at 9 a.m. on ESPNU and via watchespn.com.
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