ASU wrestling prepares to compete at the NCAA championships

All five Sun Devils competing at the NCAA wrestling championships March 16-18 were part of the 2015 recruiting class

No. 9 ASU wrestling (10-4) will be looking to bring heat to the windy city as they are represented by five Sun Devils. The team is coming off its first Pac-12 title since 2006 and has four wrestlers ranked in the top 10 – the most by a Pac-12 team.

The five wrestlers representing ASU are sophomore Tanner Hall (HWT), redshirt freshman Zahid Valencia (174 lbs.), redshirt freshman Anthony Valencia (165 lbs.), redshirt freshman Josh Shields (157 lbs.) and redshirt freshman Josh Maruca. All five were part of ASU’s top-ranked 2015 recruiting class, which was head coach Zeke Jones’ first since taking over the ASU wrestling program.

The tournament is scheduled to take place from March 16-18 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, MO. All rounds will be televised on ESPN and ESPNU.

Heading into the tournament, here's an in-depth analysis of each wrestler and his first round opponents.

Heavyweight Division

No. 7 Hall is considered the veteran going into the tournament because he is the only Sun Devil to have competed in the championships before. He finished the season 29-5 and hopes to guide the underclassmen both before and during the tournament.

“Hopefully, I can impart a little bit of the knowledge I have, having competed in the NCAA’s last year,” Hall said. “The atmosphere is a little different, the intensity, so hopefully that’s some knowledge I can communicate.”

He will be facing Utah Valley junior Dustin Dennison in the first round, who also happens to be a familiar foe. Hall, who is 28-9 versus common opponents over the last two seasons, defeated Dennison on Jan. 21, 2016 in a 2-1 decision. He looks to conquer the same result come Thursday.

As to what adjustments Hall has made from the beginning of the season to now, it comes down to preparation.

“Just a lot of review with the coaches,” Hall said. “That is one of the amazing things about this coaching staff … they are always conscious of you as individual, not just the team as a whole.”

174 lbs. Division

The story of an undefeated season will continue in St. Louis as No. 1 Zahid Valencia looks to be just the third freshman in NCAA history to finish a season undefeated. He is ASU’s only top seed in the tournament with a record of 33-0, putting him in the conversation for the Hodge Award, which goes to NCAA’s most dominant wrestler.

It is Zahid’s first trip to the NCAA championship, but he attributed his coach’s experience to how he is planning physically and mentally.

“He knows what it takes (to win a championship), he has been there,” Zahid said. “Having him talk to me through everything has prepared me and it feels like I am already ready and have been there before.”

His first round opponent is Minnesota senior Christopher Pfarr (18-13), the first-ever meeting between the two. Zahid is undefeated against common opponents.

165 lbs. Division

The second half of the Valencia brothers, No. 7 Anthony Valencia (32-5), is tied for team lead in major decisions and technical falls heading into the championships. He has raised the eyebrows of many ASU alumni with his aggressive and quick wrestling style, and has his eyes set on doing the same in St. Louis.

“I treat every tournament the same and try to wrestler my best,” Anthony said. “I’m just trying to get on top of the podium like every other tournament.”

Anthony’s first round opponent is Ohio State redshirt sophomore Cody Burcher (16-16), whom he has defeated twice this season. Despite his success, Anthony said he understands he will need to make adjustments.

“I have to work on dominating and attacking him more,” he said. “Because when I wrestled him before I wasn’t attacking much, or tried scoring, I just tried to win the match.”

157 lbs. Division

The Pennsylvanian, Shields, has gone through many obstacles this season, including a minor injury suffered at the Pac-12 championships. But he still managed to be tied for second most wins on the team, finishing the season 32-5.

Seeking guidance from Jones has been a trend for this young ASU team, as Shields has been trying to soak in as much advice from his coach too.

“We just have confidence knowing he has been there before and won at the highest level,” Shields said. “We believe in what he is doing and think we are going to see some good results.

Shields is set to face Duke redshirt junior Jake Faust (9-7) in the first round, which will be their first encounter this season.

149 lbs. Division

It is no secret that Maruca has the toughest road in the tournament — his first round opponent is No. 1 Zain Retherford (23-0), a junior from wrestling powerhouse Penn State. However, Maruca knows that at this point in the season, the preparation is mental.

“I’m not going to get any faster, any stronger or any more technical,” Maruca said. “It is a big opponent, I have to be out there with the right mindset and be ready to battle.”

Maruca said the amplified intensity of practices and the diversity of the training process will prepare him for the match and tournament.

Reach the reporter at or follow  @felipecorraljr on Twitter.

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