Look ahead: ASU wrestling has reason for optimism in 2019-20

Key experienced returners paired with young talent make ASU a potential NCAA title threat

The college wrestling season has come and gone and ASU continued its program-wide surge under Coach Zeke Jones after a 12th-place finish at NCAAs in Pittsburgh.

Among the school's national competitors, three, including redshirt junior Zahid Valencia, will return next year. 

Moments after capturing his second consecutive national title Saturday night, the 174-pounder was already thinking about just that.

"Two national titles, not bad. I want one more," Valencia said in an interview with ESPN post match.

As one of the most decorated wrestlers in the country and ASU history, Valencia will have a chance to elevate his legacy even further next season. 

"It's awesome to be able to give back to the school that I love so much," Valencia said. "They're helping me so I can help them grow the sport and ASU as a wrestling family, as a school."

Valencia, along with two-time All-American Josh Shields and Pac-12 Champion Josh Maruca, will provide significant postseason experience and a championship-level mindset for next year's Sun Devils. Jones believes their success will push ASU's other wrestlers to reach that level.

"When you have three guys like that, returning All-Americans, national champions, it lets you know that you’re (the wrestlers) essentially leading the group," Jones said. 

It remains to be seen how exactly Jones will round out the starting group, but a few welcomed additions already lie in ASU's wrestling room.

The team will get back two-time 165-pound Pac-12 Champion Anthony Valencia and Tanner Hall, a third-place NCAA finisher in the heavyweight class. Despite not appearing for the Sun Devils this past season, the redshirts' insertion into next year's rotation could form one of the most dynamic lineups in the country. 

Pac-12 Champion Kordell Norfleet also figures to have a significant role next year after an injury derailed most of his sophomore campaign. The same could be said for returners Josiah Kline, Brandon Courtney and Jacori Teemer, who all contributed in different capacities in 2018-19.

As far as who the veterans will be leading, that group has its own level of expectations. The incoming recruiting class is comprised of several highly sought after prospects. 

Back in November, ASU signed heavyweight Cohlton Schultz, Flowrestling's No. 1 pound-for-pound wrestler of 2019, along with Adam Busiello, a five-time state title winner in New York at 126 pounds.

The Sun Devils also signed fouradditional top-12 recruits by weight. 

"We have some studs who are coming in," Shields said.

Jones said that the new crop of wrestlers do not lack confidence and that the Sun Devils have some pretty established leaders for them to learn from.

"They’re going to be looking at (Valencia and Shields) for leadership and saying, ‘ok, you guys have been there, you have done it at the highest level, I’m pretty good too as a freshman. I want to get there,"’ Jones said. "But what’s going to validate it, is, 'if I’m doing what Zahid and Shields are doing, I can do it too.'"

Shields embraces the leadership role and relishes the opportunity in front of the Sun Devils. He said he knows he's one of the best wrestlers in the country.

With seemingly all the right ingredients in place — a high-end coach, elite wrestlers, championship experience and talented youth, next season could make ASU a threat to win its first NCAA team title in over 30 years.

"I’m really looking forward to coming back next year and putting in work," Shields said. "It’s going to be a great title race at NCAAs. I’m really excited. We have a great shot to win it next year." 


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

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