It’s official: Head Coach Zeke Jones has returned the ASU wrestling team to national prominence after leading his team to its best finish and earning its first individual national champion since 2011.
Before last season, ASU hadn't had an All-American since 2011. Last season, Jones coached two Sun Devils to All-American honors, and this season Jones was able to improve with virtually the same roster.
Three Sun Devil wrestlers placed in the top eight, including national champion redshirt sophomore Zahid Valencia at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
There was a tremendous amount of progress made in Jones’ quest to return the Sun Devils to national prominence.
Shields can speak to Jones’ work in bettering the wrestling program at ASU.
During his redshirt freshman campaign, Shields suffered two losses in his first two matches in the double-elimination NCAA tournament; however, after another year of working in Jones’ program, Shields placed seventh at 157 pounds.
Shields faced adversity during the tournament when he lost to South Dakota State senior Luke Zilverberg, an opponent he had beaten twice during the regular season.
Shields was forced to wrestle back on the consolation side of the bracket.
During the “blood round” — the round on the consolation side of the bracket that determines if a wrestler will earn a podium spot or go home — Shields found himself down with few seconds left in the third period, but he was able to hustle his way to a late victory.
“We practice that all of the time,” an excited Jones said after Shields’ match.
Two matches later, Shields found himself face-to-face with Zilverberg for a fourth time. This match ended no different than the first two, and Shields capped his season off with a seventh-place finish.
“I took seventh this year, and that’s great,” Shields said. “But that is not where I want to be.”
Tsirtsis, a former national champion, earned a seventh-place finish, but was not in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season. Even before that, Tsirtsis had run out of eligibility from the NCAA and was done wrestling after his redshirt senior campaign.
Tsirtsis went through a couple of tragedies that he said affected him immensely.
Jones said Tsirtsis accepted help from people that cared about him, which allowed him to have a tremendous end to his collegiate career.
Tsirtsis wrestled a good tournament and turned some heads when he upset the seventh seed Ryan Deakin. Deakin wrestles at Tsirtsis’ former school Northwestern.
Tsirtsis ended up suffering a quarterfinal loss and wrestled his way back to the seventh-place match where he stood toe-to-toe with Oklahoma State redshirt sophomore Boo Lewallen.
Tsirtsis was able to fend off a late surge from Lewallen and take home a seventh-place trophy in his last collegiate match.
Before Zahid Valencia became ASU’s first national champion since 2011, he and his brother, redshirt sophomore Anthony Valencia, were a part of Jones’ plan to be the best in the world.
A few years later, Zahid found himself in the finals against a familiar foe: Penn State sophomore Mark Hall.
Last season, the two world team teammates squared up in the semi-finals. Hall earned the victory.
All season long, Zahid made it clear that the loss to Hall stuck with him, and he hoped for a rematch.
The rematch Zahid was hoping for was not close, and he left the crowd buzzing with excitement.
“It’s amazing," Zahid said about being Jones’ first national champion as ASU wrestling’s head coach.
Zahid said it was an honor that Jones wanted his brother and him to head his vision to be the best collegiate program in the nation.
Jones said his team will wrestle the summer freestyle circuit and start to train for the Olympic games.
“Ultimately, 2020 isn’t that far away,” Jones said.
Next season, the team returns eight of the ten wrestlers that entered the postseason as starters and will be looking to compete for a national title.
“It’s all a part of the plan,” Jones said about his success as head coach. “This is something that we have designed.”
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