A season of ups and downs leveled out once and for all as the ASU wrestling team (5-8, 3-4 Pac-10) closed out its regular season against Cal State Fullerton (11-6, 5-3 Pac-10) with a 20-18 loss at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday.
While the result seemed short, onlookers might not have known it from the looks on the faces of the Sun Devil wrestlers.
That’s because a season that literally rose from the ashes culminated not in records, but in effort and progress.
ASU split the 10 matches against CS Fullerton, coming up short only on bonus points.
“I’ve got mixed emotions,” ASU coach Thom Ortiz said after the meet. “But as long as they gave their best effort, that’s all they can do.”
It was this effort that ASU carried into the final four matches of the dual, with four ASU freshmen awaiting their chance with the score knotted at 11 apiece.
It seemed a suitable end to a season that in many ways has been about these young wrestlers.
The Sun Devils split the four matches, yet lost the dual. This was due in part to a pin by CS Fullerton senior Teddy Astorga of ASU freshman Vicente Varela.
“I just think that Varela got caught,” Ortiz said. “He was going hard and he got caught. It is what it is.”
Varela took an early lead with a quick takedown, but was then caught from the neutral position as he attempted to make a move on his opponent.
The pin proved too much to overcome, but just barely.
Down six and needing a pin, freshman Eric Starks of ASU (174) avenged a loss to Titan sophomore Todd Noel from the Reno Tournament of Champions in December, scoring a major decision of 12-2.
The major was almost a fall, as Starks recorded four takedowns and one two-point near fall, nearly tying the dual for the Sun Devils.
It was progress that Ortiz and his men hung their hats on.
“I’ve been on these guys to do what they need, get that extra in,” sophomore captain No. 6 Chris Drouin (141) said. “Look at two of our young guns,  and . Both Starks and [freshman Jake] Meredith lost to both those Fullerton guys [earlier this season] and did real well against them here. We’ve been getting stronger. I’m real happy with how these guys preformed today.”
The latter bout Drouin referred to was the 184-pound matchup in which Meredith avenged an earlier loss to CS Fullerton junior Tim Hawkins, defeating him 3-0 Saturday.
The victories meant that ASU improved from 2-2 in December against CS Fullerton wrestlers to 4-0 in February against the same opponents.
Drouin made his final statement of the regular season by winning a hard-fought battle over sophomore Adin Duenas, 5-4.
Down after the first round, Drouin returned fire with five points in four minutes, securing a late takedown with just 10 seconds left, and the match tied at three to secure the victory.
“I wasn’t panicked,” Drouin said. “I’m confident with what I’m capable of doing. I was like, ‘Okay, he got the first one, I’ve got to come back and score points [and] keep my composure.’”
When asked if he was vying for an NCAA individual national championship, the top-ranked Sun Devil wrestler replied, “Oh yeah, it’s in my sights.”
For now, the sights of the Sun Devils will be on the mats at practice as they prepare for the Pac-10 Championships on March 1.
“We’re only going to get better,” Ortiz said. “Every day we get better, everyday we grow. These guys are 19 years old. Last year they were wrestling high schoolers, now they’re wrestling men.”
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