ASU wrestling enters NCAA Tournament with experience on its side

The Sun Devils are hoping tournament familiarity, attacking mindset is recipe for success in Pittsburgh

Fresh off its second-place finish at the Pac-12 Championships, the ASU wrestling team and its five NCAA Tournament representatives are gearing up for the trip to Pittsburgh next week. 

While not all five participated in last year's tournament when the Sun Devils placed tenth as a team, there's no shortage of championship-level experience. 

The group is led by returning redshirt juniors NCAA champion Zahid Valencia and All-American Josh Shields, each making their third consecutive appearance. Both are the No. 3 seed in their respective weight classes (174 and 165, respectively).

Wrestling coach Zeke Jones said Valencia's match in the Pac-12 finals was the best he has looked all season, highlighting how he was moving and changing attacks. Jones said he feels that with the national champion peaking at the right time, it can do wonders for the team.

"We go where Zahid goes as a team," Jones said. "When he’s firing on all cylinders, it’s good for him. It’s good for the guys to see it. It lets you know they’re ready and we’re all ready. He brings a tremendous amount of leadership."

The pair, along with fellow redshirt junior Josh Maruca, will also seek to create some positive momentum going into next season. Maruca, the No. 23 seed in the 149-pound weight class, went 2-2 in his NCAA Tournament performance two years ago in St. Louis.

ASU's 125-pound redshirt senior Ryan Millhof, the No. 14 seed, will perform at NCAA's for the third time in his collegiate career. Millhof will look to have better luck this time around after getting injured at last year's tournament.

"I don’t think I really have anything to lose," said Millhof, who also missed nearly two months this season with a concussion. "I think that’s pretty dangerous. I just go out there and wrestle and make it funky."

Another wrestler looking to right some wrongs on the big stage is 157-pound graduate student Christian Pagdilao. As a redshirt freshman, he competed at the 2015 NCAA Championships, when his inexperience got the best of him.

"I took a hard loss in the first round (in 2015)," he said. "I let it manifest in my head too much, and I wasn’t allowing myself to get over it. I ended up going 0-2. It was a really cruddy end to a good season, but I think that’s going to help me a lot this time around. It’s helped me this season already."

The Sun Devils hope to use their tournament familiarity to their advantage. Millhof and Jones both agreed that knowing the routine and what to expect helps with the process. But as Jones noted, this time of the year is different. His message to his team is simple: attack.

When facing the stiffest competition in the country, which ASU also did during the regular season, it's not enough to just want to win.

In the NCAA Tournament, Jones said, "those that go in just trying to win usually lose. Those that go in to try to dominate and take people out, those are the ones that usually win. You have to go out there and make that referee peel you off that guy. You have to attack it relentlessly because everyone talks a big game until they get there."

As the tournament nears, Jones said he has condensed practices to 60 to 90-minute sessions from the typical two-hour and 15-minute workouts. But the level of intensity will increase, the coach said.

"The best are going to be there, so you’re preparing for the best by being the best every day in practice," Jones said. "We essentially simulate everything you will ever see at the national tournament. We throw everything at them."

"Four years times 300 workouts. They’ve been through 1,200 of my practices … they still get a curveball," he said. "It’s the same thing in the NCAA Tournament, even though they’ve been there, you have to be ready for anything that gets thrown at you."

Jones constantly aims to keep his wrestlers on their toes. To him, that's the best way to prepare them for the rigors of a grueling wrestling season, and in this case, the tournament they've worked all year for.

Now that it's here, Millhof said he and his teammates are ready to capitalize on the opportunity. 

"We all want to come home with a team trophy, and we all want to get on top of the podium," he said.


Reach the reporter at kmgianco@asu.edu and follow @Kaleb_Mart on Twitter.

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