Elite opponents and heavy road schedule keep ASU wrestling battle-tested

The team looks to remain focused as Pac-12 play begins Sunday

Part of the ASU wrestling team’s recent ascension to national prominence under head coach and ASU legend Zeke Jones is its willingness to schedule tough competition.

By the end of this season, ASU will have competed in a slate of road duals headlined by No. 1 ranked and reigning national champion Penn State and current USA Today/NWCA Coaches' top-25 opponents, Lock Haven and Stanford

The team is currently in the midst of an almost two-month stretch where its only meet in Tempe was on Jan. 5 against then No. 6 Michigan. ASU will return to Wells Fargo Arena on Feb. 8 to take on No. 5 Missouri.

Back in November, the team also hosted big-name opponents, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 17 North Carolina.  

As for the Sun Devils, Jones said that the stiff competition keeps his team battle-tested. 

“We want to wrestle the best,” Jones said. "We definitely know right where we’re at. I think we made some adjustments because we found out where we were. You get beat, it takes a chunk out of you — how do you respond?”

Having entered the program alongside Jones in 2014, 165-pound redshirt senior Jacen Petersen has seen how the team's attitude and mindset have evolved throughout the years.

Petersen said ASU’s 2015 recruiting class, which was ranked No. 1 in the nation that year, had a lot to do with this shift within the locker room. From then on, the expectations within the wrestling program in Tempe elevated tremendously.

“It’s been crazy,” Petersen said. "We’re a lot closer now than we were then (to being NCAA champions). The expectations are a lot different. It rises everybody up.”

While wrestling some of the elite teams in the country is a notable benchmark for the Sun Devils, coupling that with an intense travel schedule has been no easy task. 

“It’s a little bit of a busy schedule,” Petersen said. “The coaches do a good job of getting us there (to the schools) a little bit ahead of time so we get some time to acclimate.” 

However, the schedule has taken somewhat of toll on redshirt freshman Brandon Courtney. A few days before the Virginia Duals, he got sick. 

“All that traveling just drains you,” he said. “I hate traveling. I hate flying.”  

Courtney was able to fully recover after the first day of the tournament and delivered one of the strongest performances on the team over the weekend. He established himself as a solid option at 125 pounds, earning three victories in the absence of injured redshirt senior Ryan Millhof.

“It was rough at first, getting thrown in there,” Courtney said. “It was my first actual college match. Filling that spot, it’s a great opportunity. I just feel like I have improved so much over the last few weeks than I did over the last year."

Following his recent performances on the mat, the Arizona native said he has seen his role expand on the team.

“Coach Jones saw me struggle at the beginning of the season, and he was just there to motivate me and guide me to where I’m leading right now," he said. 

Courtney, Petersen and the rest of the Sun Devils won’t wrestle in front of their home fans for another three weeks. But with the toughest part of its schedule behind it, the team's focus is now on the upcoming Pac-12 season. 

With a less than ideal 3-6 record, the team is continuing to find itself, all while trying to remain focused and prepared under the leadership of its coach.

"Everybody feels that if you can call on the magic at the end to be ready, that's what counts," Jones said. "But you don't get there without the preparation. You got to have the skill, the technique, the drive, and I think right now, the end of the season keeps them motivated to believe. Right now, they are in a hard grind and they have taken some lumps and they are deciding what team they want to be."

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

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