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On the mat: Explaining Sun Devil wrestling's late season surge

Since their loss to Little Rock, ASU has gone 5–2 in their last seven matches, completely revamping their season outlook


ASU redshirt junior Julian Chelbove during a match against Oregon State at Desert Financial Arena on Feb. 4, 2024 in Tempe. ASU won 19-17.

ASU Wrestling reached a low point on Jan. 19. After a loss to Little Rock - the Trojans' first-ever ranked win in program history - the Sun Devils were 2-4, and their season arguably looked lost. 

After the loss, the team sat in the locker room for hours. First came the overwhelming silence. The lack of discourse echoed the team's disappointment that had surrounded them throughout their start to the season. The players led the conversation. Once the players said their piece, the coaches spoke.

"A lot of things were uncharacteristic for Arizona State wrestling in that moment, and the players had some real decisions to make," head coach Zeke Jones said. 

According to Jones, multiple factors had caused such a bumpy start to the season. But that didn't matter to the team. The only thing that mattered was that something had to change. 

After their locker room heart-to-heart, things changed quickly for ASU. 

Two days after the loss to Little Rock, the team traveled to Pittsburgh, where they defeated the No. 29 Panthers in an emphatic 21-20 victory. Since that fateful loss to the Trojans, they've been 5-2. They've defeated No. 20 Oregon State, No. 24 Cal Poly, No. 21 Stanford and No. 8 Lehigh in addition to their win against the Panthers. 

In those victories, they've outscored their opponents 116 to 72. In the world of collegiate wrestling, where matches are incredibly close, often coming down to one or two points, the significance of that margin cannot be understated. 

Of course, the loss to Little Rock lit the fire underneath the Sun Devils. But there have certainly been other factors that have caused the recent run. 

According to assistant coach Frank Molinaro, the team's attitude is the most significant difference. Players have been taking themselves less seriously while continuing to practice harder. 

"Guys are starting to have more fun," Molinaro said. "They're starting to be less focused on outcomes and winning and more focused on details, wrestling and being present."

Additionally, players have become much less interested in individual performance and more intent on helping the entire squad. This team-first approach has boosted morale and helped the team compete stronger.

Another huge factor in the Sun Devils' success is teammembers' return to full health.Two key wrestlers have gotten healthier: Sophomore Jesse Vasquez and redshirt sophomore Richard Figueroa

Vasquez suffered an arm injury at the Journeymen Wrestling Classic, while Figueroa had been injured for the majority of the season. 

Since his return to the lineup, Vasquez has been 3-1 in matches. His only loss against Nebraska was subsequently the only time ASU has lost in their last four matches – he’s clearly an essential piece to the puzzle. 

"Having Jesse back in the lineup is huge," Jones said. "He brings a lot of energy and is very good."

Figueroa, the top recruit in 2021, was sidelined for the first three matches and has struggled to get back to full health even when he's played. In fact, he admitted that he hadn't felt healthy until the team's match against Oregon State. 

Since then, he's defeated both No. 2 Luke Stanich of Lehigh and No. 5 Caleb Smith of Nebraska in back-to-back matches. He has his "mojo back."

"My goal is to take these guys down one by one," Figuroa said. "It doesn’t matter what rank they are. I've done this before. I've competed at the highest level at worlds, so none of these guys scare me. They should be worried that I'm coming for them now."

ASU's strength of schedule has also become significantly easier as the season has gone on. At the beginning of the season, they had to play a gauntlet of teams. This made it particularly difficult to stack wins, especially when the team was banged up.

"Look at our losses with the exception of Little Rock," Jones said. "No. 3 Missouri, No. 3 Nebraska, No. 9 Iowa State – We've taken some losses, but we've obviously not been at 100% with the best teams in the country when we've wrestled them."

But according to Jones, playing the best programs at the beginning of the season is an overwhelming positive now.

"We haven't shied away from competition, and that's making us better right now," Jones said. "Wrestling those best teams in the December and January time frame has made us ready for February."

ASU has also looked a lot better technically on the mat. The technical mistakes in practices and games during the early portion of the year have faded as the season has gone on.

"I've seen some significant improvements in our hand-fighting to neutral offense," Molinaro said. "I've seen improvement on bottom and in mat wrestling every week by committing to the ride. The areas that we've put the most amount of time in, we’re starting to execute the best during matches right now."

READ MORE: ASU Wrestling emphasizes technique in order to get an edge over the competition

Jones also emphasized the importance of scoring bonus points in matches. Just winning in college wrestling isn't enough. To win close matches, players must score bonus points for their teams when they're winning and conversely protect bonus points on the other side when they're losing. The Sun Devils have been better at managing this balance recently. 

However, to say Sun Devil wrestling's recent run has been all due to whim would be false. In fact, the ASU wrestling program is designed to peak at the right time. 

Coaches and trainers measure everything throughout the season. They measure the periodization of training and the minutes and phases of such training. Practice schedules are curated explicitly for particular points in the season. Everything is done so ASU can do precisely what it wants to – peak at the end.  

"We're not trying to peak in December," Jones said. "We're not trying to peak in January. We're not trying to win the national tournament in December or January."

To Jones' point, ASU has been incredibly effective at preparing itself for the season's end. It’s why they’ve won five of the last seven Pac-12 Championships and have placed top 10 in four of the previous five NCAA Wrestling Tournaments. 

Some positive factors that have led to Sun Devils' recent run have been out of their control. However, the vast majority of their improvements have been due to their understanding of collegiate wrestling. ASU knows what it’s doing – that's precisely why they have a chance come March. 

"A lot of teams are starting to fade, but we all see the Sun Devils getting better," Jones said. "That's by design."

Edited by Alfred Smith III, Walker Smith and Grace Copperthite.

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