Following a top-10 finish at last year’s NCAA Championships, the two-time defending Pac-12 Champion Sun Devil wrestling team enters the 2018-2019 campaign with hefty expectations.
As the regular season approaches, the team is slotted at No. 6 in the nation in the Open Mat’s preseason rankings.
Last season, the program was led by then redshirt sophomore Zahid Valencia, as he became the 11th National Champion in Sun Devil history at 174 pounds.
Valencia and six fellow conference champion teammates return as the Sun Devils will host the Pac-12 Championships on March 9.
Among those is senior heavyweight Tanner Hall, who said he is looking forward to what the team can accomplish this season.
“Everybody’s dedicated,” Hall said. “We’re in here working hard in the room.”
Redshirt junior Josh Shields said the team is extremely motivated and ready to make the next jump after a successful 2017-2018 season.
“It’s easy to build up that momentum, but it’s easy because we’re not satisfied with where we are,” Shields said. "We took 10th in the nation, but ultimately, we want to be number one.”
ASU will open the regular season on the road at the 48th Bison Open in North Dakota on Nov. 10 and at South Dakota State the next day following the annual Maroon and Gold Scrimmage on Nov. 2 in Tempe.
Following back-to-back home matches on Nov. 17 and Nov. 18, the Sun Devils will only host one home match on Jan. 5 until early February. ASU will then host three consecutive matches to close out the regular season.
This year’s NCAA Championships are set for March 21-23 in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Throughout the season, the Sun Devils will face seven top-20 opponents from last season, including reigning national champion Penn State.
Matches against last season’s top-five finishers Ohio State and Michigan highlight ASU’s home slate. The team will take on South Dakota, Lehigh and Lock Haven on the road, all of which finished last season in the top-20.
“(The schedule) just proves … who we are … We’re not trying to shy away from the tough teams to keep a good record," Shields said. "We’re trying to get those tough teams on our schedule so that we can … challenge ourselves."
Hall added that the schedule is a good “benchmark” for the team to measure its growth this season.
Top-tier teams’ willingness to schedule ASU illustrates how much the Sun Devils have improved under coach Zeke Jones. The former Olympian enters his fifth year leading the program and redshirt junior Josh Maruca attributes a lot of the Sun Devils’ recent success to Jones's expertise as a wrestling technician.
“He has a tremendous amount of wrestling knowledge and life knowledge in general,” Maruca said.
The Sun Devils will take the mat Friday for the first time, where they will begin their four-month quest for a top finish in Pittsburgh. In that aspect, the team is on the same page, according to Hall.
“The end game, of course, for the team is to win a national championship, and I think everyone is united in that idea,” Hall said.