ASU has one of the best wrestling programs in the country, and it's not because of their recruiting, nor is it due to their talent. Sure, the team is full of all-world athletes and top recruits like juniors Cohlton Schultz and Kyle Parco, but the team doesn’t have the same talent to compete against the heavyweights of the college wrestling world without any preparation.
So, how do they gain an edge? By constantly focusing on improvement.
“ASU is a very technical program,” wrestling coach Zeke Jones said.
For ASU, coaching, preparation and an emphasis on technique are key. Whereas other wrestling programs rely on their athletes' power, speed, and athleticism, the Sun Devils take a different approach. Every day in practice, wrestlers are drilling their skills. Very few moments go by without a coach chiming in with another teaching point. Jones believes this is an area where ASU separates itself from other programs.
“We teach a lot each day in our practices,” Jones says. “Some college programs don’t. They just live wrestle. They just fight every day. We go and teach the art of wrestling, not just the physicality of wrestling. We’re a pretty technical team, and we’re pretty good at it.”
It isn’t just Jones giving instruction as practice goes on. A support system of coaches surrounds the mat every day, looking for areas of improvement. Coach Lee Pritts focuses on the lower weights. Coach Eric Thompson focuses on the upper weights. Coach Frank Molinaro focuses on the middleweights.
Perhaps the most important figure for honing in technique is Molinaro. After a legendary career in wrestling, which included a fifth-place finish in the 2016 Summer Olympics and an NCAA Championship at Penn State, Molinaro took up coaching. He joined ASU as an assistant coach in 2020 and has been helping wrestlers improve their craft ever since. Molinaro’s job description, in his eyes, requires rigorous attention to detail.
“I'm constantly evaluating their strengths and weaknesses and trying to identify what positions and areas of concentration we need to improve the most,” Molinaro says. “It's the same process every week. We compete, evaluate and try to come back here and constantly improve.”
Enhancing one's skills takes effort beyond the mat. Athletes must watch film, and lots of it, if they want their technique to improve. ASU’s wrestling program is adamant about watching the film every day. In fact, they just bought three more 77-inch Samsung smart TVs to display in the wrestling gym.
That way, the best wrestlers in the world will constantly be on display during practice. It's these kinds of details that separate ASU from its competition.
Molinaro also believes that the combination of emphasizing fundamentals while staying in tune with the current wrestling trends provides a recipe for success. No matter the level of wrestling, the same moves and techniques, known as hard skills, can always be seen on film. However, knowing what new moves are taking over the wrestling world is essential.
Focusing on technique, watching film and keeping up with the trends of the sport sounds easy, but there are admittedly challenges that come along with the constant ethic of improvement.
Every wrestler has their own style, and with that comes their unique strengths and weaknesses. Coaches must understand these strengths and weaknesses in great detail to mold each athlete into their best version. This is the difficult work that comes with being a technical wrestling program.
As Molinaro puts it, “Every wrestler is their own flavor."
Understanding that no two wrestlers are the same is paramount in helping each athlete become the best version of themselves. The Sun Devils coaching staff wants to assist all of their wrestlers in reaching their ceiling at the collegiate level and beyond in the professional world.
“In college, we always are sharpening our tactics and technique because, at some point, a lot of these kids wanna win more than NCAA championships,” Molinaro said.
Three wrestlers, in particular, stand out to the coaching staff regarding technical improvement. Redshirt senior Michael McGee, redshirt senior Brandon Courtney, and redshirt junior Richard Figueroa are all technicians in the sport who significantly improved during their time in the program.
Figueroa is perhaps the biggest technician of them all. Jones and Molinaro are convinced that the star wrestler from California has managed to master more moves than both of them. Figueroa believes his knowledge of different techniques separates him as a wrestler.
“It helps me know what situation I'm going to be in and how to either attack it or counter it,” Figueroa said. “It helps me tremendously because it saves me through matches and scoring takedowns and getting that win.”
The veteran has always been a student of the game. During high school, Figueroa’s coaches always emphasized the importance of watching film, and he listened. An emphasis on technique earned him the title of No. 1 pound-for-pound recruit in America in 2021. Figueroa could’ve gone to any school in the country, but he chose ASU because he saw it as the best technical program around.
“Zeke Jones is the best technician in the world,” Figueroa said. “That's why I came here. I could've gone to any other school, but I chose here because it's Arizona, and I love it here with the coaches.”
Since arriving at ASU, Figueroa has only improved upon his craft. In his first non-redshirted season last year, he finished undefeated with 14 victories. Figueroa's constant effort to improve through an ethic of technique embodies everything the sun devil wrestling program stands for.
In addition to a star-studded coaching staff, wrestlers like him have shaped ASU into the technical wrestling program it is today, effectively separating themselves from their contemporaries in the collegiate wrestling world.
Edited by Vinny DeAngelis, Walker Smith and Angelina Steel.