Pound for pound: The rise of ASU wrestling's Chace Eskam
Sacrifices are a part of life, and by extension, sports. Often, student athletes, whether they compete in the NAIA or Division I, are faced with tough decisions that can be life-altering, for better or worse.
Such was the case with ASU wrestling redshirt junior Chace Eskam, who is from Carlsbad, Calif. Originally, Eskam committed to Cal State Fullerton, until spring 2011, when he learned that the university was dropping its wrestling program. Eskam decided to transfer to what was then Fullerton's Pac-10 conference rival — ASU.
"I wish I went here from the get-go," Eskam said. "It's a lot nicer; there's a lot more stuff for the athletes. I like it more."
A psychology major with the intent of one day becoming a psychologist or an attorney, Eskam spoke highly of the academics at his new school.
"I enjoy the (psychology) program here, and it's a choice I'm happy I made," Eskam. "I'm going to continue to wrestle and study here, it's been a good transition, very positive."
Eskam came from an athletic family, as his father, Dave, ran track at Hastings College, and his grandfather was a boxer. Chace was involved in sports very early on, but didn't wrestle until his freshman year of high school.
"I was playing freshman football, and I had a friend on the team who said, 'You should try wrestling,' and I ended up liking it," Eskam said.
Transferring to Tempe didn't lead to immediate success for Eskam. As a sophomore, he rarely competed in the second half of the 2011-12 season.
Eskam redshirted his 2012-13 season and wrestled a few matches at 197 pounds, his first matches for the Sun Devils.
"(Eskam) was right in the mix with these other guys at 197," assistant coach Lee Pritts said.
Then, Eskam recalled the decision he made that has put him where he stands today.
"It was right before the Virginia Duals," Eskam said. "I think (the coaches) looked at our dual lineup and found that they needed someone at heavyweight, and that's when they told me to move up to heavyweight."
Coach Shawn Charles offered his insight on Eskam's growth.
"I think a lot of it has to do with confidence," Charles said. "As the season has gone on, I think Eskam is starting to believe he can qualify for the NCAA Tournament."
Charles did not attribute Eskam's progress to drastic changes.
"He's basically the same kid we had at the end of the season, but he's trying more things and doing what we coach him to do in the wrestling room," Charles said. "I'm shocked by how well he's done by giving up so much weight (at the heavyweight class), but each week, he seems to get tougher and better. I hope he uses that confidence to his advantage next week to get him to the NCAA tournament."
It took some time for Eskam to adjust to the new weight class.
"At first, I didn't know what to expect, because guys are a lot bigger when you jump up a weight class," Eskam said. "It was a little bit intimidating, but as I started wrestling more and more, I got comfortable with it and realized I was strong enough to take those guys on."
At one point, Eskam was just one of many guys competing for a spot at 197, but he was able to separate himself from the pack in his decision to wrestle as a heavyweight.
"It was a gradual process, but I've got the mindset down, and I learned along the way that I can go toe-to-toe with these guys," Eskam said.
A key figure in helping Eskam acclimate to competition at the heavyweight level was redshirt junior Kevin Radford, who last wrestled at 197 pounds for the Sun Devils.
"All the people I workout with are really supportive, and Kevin is special because he was a guy I was wrestling with since I first got to the program," Eskam said.
There were also things that he had to adapt in his sparring style because of the added weight and strength in his new weight class.
"You have to try for more snags, and high-level attacks, more single legs and snap-downs," Eskam said. "At (197) there were more lower-body attacks and double legs. Here it is more technical than being physical and muscling guys, and more like a chess game, much lower scoring."
Eskam earned the respect of the coaching staff, and has bonded with one in particular, assistant coach Tyrel Todd. The two often spar in practice due to their similar frames, and Eskam said he appreciates working with someone with Todd's expertise.
"(Todd) is helping a lot this year, and he still competes himself, so it's nice to have someone who is at such a high level wrestling near my weight to workout with and show me technique," Eskam said.
Todd reciprocated Eskam's gratitude, and was eager to commend his wrestler's hard work.
"(Eskam) is tougher than snot," Todd said. "He's probably going to be the fourth seed (after winning twice in his last Pac-12 competition) and go up against the kid from Boise State (senior J.T. Felix), who weighs 260 pounds and is ranked 17th in the country, and Eskam thinks he can beat him, and he might. That's how tough he is."
Todd said that opposing wrestlers and coaches would jokingly say Eskam had "'lead legs', because everyone shoots on him, and even though (his opponents) were bigger than him, (Eskam) is so strong that they can't move him."
Eskam's humble demeanor and genuine appreciation of the ASU staff have gone a long way in mutually benefitting himself and the program.
"It's really helpful and beneficial for me, and coach Todd is a great coach, along with all of the other coaches," Eskam said. "They all do terrific prep work and put in a lot of time for us."
Todd was a Big 10 Champion and three-time All-American wrestler at 197 pounds for Michigan in 2009, and he recently competed at the 2012 U.S Olympic Trials.
Pritts spoke highly of the heavyweight convert.
"He has a toughness about him, and to go through some of the stuff that he's been through in the last year and then to come back and put a ton of effort in," Pritts said. "It's pretty amazing for a guy that weighs 210 pounds."
Pritts attested to Eskam's character and selflessness.
"He's gonna be a pretty scary guy to wrestle at the Pac-12s, and it's hard to wrestle a guy that just will never quit," Pritts said. "What makes him dangerous is that he's a team guy. He went up to heavyweight, for the team, and he put the team in front of himself. That character base is where the work ethic comes in, he's so invested. When he's wrestling these bigger guys, that's where his toughness comes in."
Chace said he has several role models whom he looks up to, including his parents, undefeated four-time NCAA champion and Olympian Cael Sanderson and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"He was a pretty cool guy, really original," Eskam said with a smile.
Eskam has had numerous come-from-behind wins and impressive outings this season, but he was quickly able to pinpoint his favorite match.
"It was my second time wrestling heavyweight, and I was able to pull off my first win at heavyweight against Old Dominion," Eskam said. "The meet came down to me, and my win was able to clinch the win for us a team."
"I think this kid can do something special, and he's capable of winning the conference — at 210 pounds," Todd said.
Eskam's sacrifices and relentless pursuit of success have earned him the chance to do just that: clinch a win for himself, his teammates, his coaches and his new program.
He can do so Sunday afternoon in Palo Alto, Calif., the site of the Pac-12 Championships.
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