After gradual improvement in his first two seasons with the ASU wrestling program, Blake Stauffer is ready to put in the extra work for a monster junior year.
The 184-pound redshirt sophomore bounced back from a disappointing third-place finish at the Pac-12 championships by qualifying for the NCAA tournament via a wild card bid.
But Stauffer didn’t merely show up at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. He came to compete.
“Last year was a big letdown for me, and I had plans to do better,” Stauffer said.
To say that Stauffer did “better” this year would be a severe understatement.
Stauffer’s 2013-14 season featured an undefeated conference dual meet record, and he was ranked as high as No. 18 during the regular season.
While coach Shawn Charles thought Stauffer should have stacked up higher because of a suggested flaw in the NCAA’s ranking system, Stauffer continued to go about his business and shut down whoever opposing coaches decided to throw against him.
Stauffer’s bonus points in a 15-2 tech fall victory helped power the Sun Devils to an upset over then-No. 22 Oregon State at Wells Fargo Arena back in February.
Charles did not understate the importance of Stauffer’s contributions to his team.
“He’s made significant progress,” Charles said. “Last year, (at nationals), he went 0-2, and this year, he was a round away from placing.”
Stauffer defeated Michigan freshman Domenic Abounader and Nebraska redshirt freshman TJ Dudley before falling to the No. 1 seed in the 184-pound bracket, Maryland senior Jimmy Sheptock.
Charles described Stauffer’s shift from 174 pounds last season as a redshirt freshman to his current weight of 184 pounds.
“(Stauffer) felt that he would be better and stronger at the weight class up above,” Charles said.
The success that Stauffer has experienced this past season didn’t come without hardship.
“He struggled. Last year, he took third at the Las Vegas Invitational, and this year, he didn’t place, so he went through some growing pains,” Charles said. “He also didn’t place at the Southern Scuffle, which is another big tournament for us. It took him some time to get adjusted to the weight class.”
While Charles has never questioned the effort and drive of his top wrestler, he did acknowledge that Stauffer would have to ramp up his intensity to match the upper echelon of Division I competition that Stauffer has now faced in the past two postseasons.
“For him to get over that hump, to become an All-American, and even an NCAA finalist, he’s going to have to work hard over the summer and commit himself in the wrestling room during the season,” Charles said.
Charles said that after talking with assistant coaches Lee Pritts and Tyrel Todd, the staff came to a consensus regarding their plan to take Stauffer to the next level.
“I think he’s made some huge strides with wrestling hard on a day-to-day basis,” Charles said. “He needs to get bigger and stronger for the weight class. He’s a smaller 184-pounder, so he can put on some more muscle and some size to make him more competitive.”
Stauffer, along with sophomores Ares Carpio (125) and Ray Waters (174), and redshirt junior Joel Smith (157) will form the core of the youthful 2014-15 Sun Devil squad.
Charles did not overstate his optimism for next year’s team.
“We’re about to come into our own,” Charles said. “We’ll have a bunch of younger guys coming in that will challenge the seniors for spots. As a group, we’re still young, but we’ll be more mature than we’ve ever been before, and we’re excited about our future right now.”
Stauffer shared his head coach’s enthusiasm.
“We’re definitely excited about what we can do next year, bringing a lot of guys back,” Stauffer said. “We have to learn from this year. We did some good things, but we also have things to work on.”
A great opportunity for the Sun Devils to improve in the offseason comes via individual freestyle tournaments. Among them is the U.S. Open, an Olympic qualifier.
Stauffer competed in the tournament last year. He and many of his teammates will join him in Las Vegas for the competition, with a focus on fine-tuning skills and refining form.
“It’s a little bit less conditioning, more laid-back. There’s more drilling, and less going live and more focusing on technique,” Stauffer said about the offseason.
Stauffer added that he could theoretically face Todd, a three-time All-American at the University of Michigan and competitor at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, at the U.S. Open.
Charles emphasized that a winning culture is necessary first and foremost for Stauffer and his teammates to maximize their potential as a program.
“It’s all about the environment,” Charles said. “I would have to say that the environment is a lot better than when I first took the job, and it’s only getting better.”
Despite marked improvement in his tenure as head coach, Charles said that one of the most crucial roles must be filled by one of the kids wearing maroon and gold singlets.
“Right now, we’re still hard-pressed to find a standout leader within our program, and if you ask any coach with any team, they will tell you it is important to have quality leadership,” Charles said.
Charles explained the dilemma facing his young team.
“We don’t have that individual or those individuals that want to step up and lead, because they feel like they’re younger than the upperclassmen,” Charles said. “Now, we’re going to be in a situation where we’ve had guys here for a while, they know our system, the environment that we’re trying to create, and they’re going to instill that in the people underneath them.”
Charles is confident that Stauffer can assume this position, and said the door is open for him to seize this opportunity.
“I’m hoping with his success at the NCAA tournament this year that he is going to want to take on that role,” Charles said. “(To) help push and motivate the guys behind him, to make sure they are doing the right things on a regular basis, on and off the mat.”
If his character and performance this past season are any indication of the future, Stauffer has the ability to rise to the occasion and elevate himself and his program to new heights.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @StefanJModrich