ASU and Stanford wrestling headline the Pac-12 Championships this Sunday

The Sun Devils head to California as the only team with four wrestlers ranked in the top-10

The freshness of the spring breeze, the green shades of grass that grow in front yards, and an upsurge of intensity across wrestling facilities are signs that the beginning of the NCAA wrestling postseason has arrived – beginning with the Pac-12 Championships.

It is intriguing to predict who will be crowned NCAA champion in each weight class, but the culmination of a champion begins with making a statement at the conference tournament.

Pac-12 Championship Preview

It is no secret that No. 9 ASU and No. 16 Stanford are the favorites heading into the Pac-12 Championships. However, Oregon State will be striving to win their sixth consecutive conference title, while ASU seeks to win their first since 2006.

The Sun Devils entered the top-10 for the first time this season, checking in with a 10-4 overall record, 4-1 in Pac-12 play. They are led by No. 1 redshirt freshman Zahid Valencia (174 lbs.), who enters postseason play undefeated at 31-0. Valencia has been an instant sensation for ASU this season as his aggressive approach to the game has grabbed the attention of legendary Sun Devil wrestler Anthony Robles.

“I would tell him to take it one match at a time and focus on every match like it is the national championship,” Robles said. “That’s what he seems to be doing out there, and as long as he keeps that up, the sky is the limit.”

Valencia remains at the No. 8 spot for NCAA’s Most Dominant wrestler of the year – the only Pac-12 member recognized on the list.

The Sun Devils have intensified their practice leading up to the tournament, while attempting to rest their bodies and still obtain the same level of training. The workload seemed to take a toll on the team earlier this season, but the coaching staff made tweaks to the teams schedule in order to maximize full potential. That small twist resulted in ASU winning its final three matches of the season and helped them gain momentum.

The goal for ASU is to win the championship, but to do so every wrestler has to focus on their individual effort and improvement. ASU's No. 8 sophomore Tanner Hall (285 lbs.) has taken responsibility for expanding his overall game and knows he has to execute his individual game plan to wrestle at the best of his ability this weekend.

“I understand that I will never be perfect in any one technique or position,” Hall said. “I have been working with my coaches to fix and improve the various areas which we feel I need to improve upon.”

ASU trails Stanford (10-3, 5-0 in Pac-12) in conference standings, but the Sun Devils are the only Pac-12 team that has multiple wrestlers ranked in the top-10 of their class. No. 1 Valencia, No. 6 redshirt freshman Anthony Valencia (165 lbs.), No. 8 Hall and No. 10 redshirt freshman Josh Shields (157 lbs.) all made TrackWrestling’s latest ranking update. Stanford's No. 3 sophomore Joey McKenna is the only other Pac-12 wrestler ranked in the top-10.

“Our wrestlers need to go out and score as many points as they can,” ASU head coach Zeke Jones said. “It takes 10 wrestlers to take a trophy home at the Pac-12s, everyone needs to play their role and put the team first.”

Stanford, nevertheless, has seven wrestlers ranked in the top-25 – the highest in the Pac-12. McKenna, who is 25-1 on the season and has yet to lose a match in conference play, leads the Cardinal. They pose the biggest threat at the Pac-12 Championships due to home court advantage, where they are 5-0 this season.

McKenna, a 141 lbs. wrestler with improbable versatility, has thrived under Stanford head coach Jason Borrelli this season. Borrelli has shaped many All-American wrestlers throughout his coaching career and McKenna is another who has emerged from the Borrelli tree. The All-American has defeated five ranked opponents this season:

No. 12 Jimmy Gulibon (Penn State)

No. 16 Logan Everett (Army)

No. 7 Bryce Meredith (Wyoming)

No. 10 George DiCamillo (Virginia)

No. 4 Matthew Kolodzik (Princeton)

Oregon State (5-7) has been the winner of the last five Pac-12 tournaments and head to California with five wrestlers ranked in the top-25. They are 4-1 in conference competition, however, as their signature win came against Stanford at home earlier this season.

CSU Bakersfield, Cal Poly and Boise State have all struggled in conference play, where they only have a combined three wins (out of 15 conference meets). They head into the tournament as huge underdogs and will be eyeing to pull off an upset in California.

The Pac-12 tournament will be on Sunday, Feb. 26 at Stanford University and will be an all-day, three-session event. Session 1 begins at 10:30 a.m. PT, Session 2 at 4 p.m. PT and the championship session starts at 6 p.m. PT.


Reach the reporter at fcorral1@asu.edu or follow @felipecorraljr on Twitter.

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