PHOENIX – With two wrestlers awarded at-large bids Tuesday, Arizona State has qualified eight for the NCAA Championships.
The Sun Devils dominated the Pac-12 Wrestling Championships at Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum recently, crowning five individual champions: Brandon Courtney (125 pounds), Jacori Teemer (157), Anthony Valencia (165), Kordell Norfleet (197), and Cohlton Shultz (285).
Additionally, Trey Munoz (174) also received an automatic bid after placing second, joining Michael McGee (133) and Cory Crooks (149), who received two of 64 at-large bids into the event, which unfolds March 18-20 in at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
Valencia won his fourth conference championship, the first ASU wrestler to do so since Eric Larkin (1999, 2001-03) and only the fourth Sun Devil to do so in program history. He joins Curley Culp (1965-1968), Markus Mollica (1993-1996), and Larkin as the only ASU wrestlers to win four conference titles.
After he won, Valencia held up four fingers to signify the accomplishment.
“It was just for me, showing everybody that I got my fourth title,” Valencia said. “I was very happy about that accomplishment.”
Trey Munoz (174) also received an automatic bid after placing second, and on Tuesday ASU wrestlers Michael McGee (133) and Cory Crooks (149) received two of 64 at-large bids into the event. The complete bracket with seedings for each wrestler will be announced today.
“I think it lets us know we’re prepared and ready,” ASU coach Zeke Jones said of the team’s performance in the Pac-12 tournament. “If I look back on the tournament, I think you know everything was great. I think overall our preparation is good, our conditioning is good, our strength is good, our speed is good.”
The at-large selections could give the Sun Devils important points in the NCAA tournament, which they enter with a No. 6 national ranking in the most recent Intermatwrestle.com ratings, their highest rating of the season.
“Obviously we’re excited about the NCAA Tournament coming up,” Jones said. “It’s the bullseye of the year. It’s what we focus on, so we’re obviously looking forward.”
According to the NCAA, “The at-large selections were made by the NCAA Division I Wrestling Committee using the following selection criteria: head-to-head competition, quality wins (defined as wins against wrestlers already in the field), coaches ranking, results against common opponents, conference tournament placement and winning percentage. The committee was also able to use subjective criteria such as, but not limited to, historical performance.”
Although the Sun Devils were excited to win the Pac-12 title, the focus immediately transitioned to the NCAA Championships.
“It’s the first step. It’s a big accomplishment, and we made some records and we achieved that goal. Now it’s time to put that behind us.,” Valencia said before the Sun Devils departed for St. Louis. “We celebrated it already. Now it’s time to get back to work and prepare for the bigger tournament, the one we really want.”
And Jones said the Sun Devils are, overall, “right where we need to be” for the national tournament.
Looking back at the Pac-12 Championship
While the Sun Devils dominated on the mat, they barely brought home the Pac-12 Championships trophy. Jones entrusted Norfleet to hold onto the trophy on Sunday, but after he accidentally banged it while trying to sit down, the trophy fell to the ground and broke.
“Let’s just say maybe the trophy needs to go to the hardware doctor,” Norfleet said.
That was about the only thing that went wrong for the Sun Devils, who were 6-0 in a limited regular season schedule after battling many postponements and cancellations because of COVID-19 protocols.
Before the Pac-12 tournament Norfleet said preparation was difficult during a season of interruptions.
“No one was wrestling,” he said. “Like, literally no one. And now we’re all still trying to get the same goal, to win the same tournament, so it’s all about who’s best prepared. If we still happen to be the ones that prepared the best, you cannot take that away from us.”
The Sun Devils proved early just how prepared they were for the conference tournament with all 10 wrestlers making it to the semifinals as ASU piled up a big lead in team scoring. And the success continued.
McGee, Crooks and Cade Belshay (185) all finished third in their respective weight classes, adding crucial points to the team scores. Heading into the finals, ASU led by 8.5 points and had six wrestlers still competing.
The first of five to win an individual title was Courtney (125). It was his second consecutive Pac-12 tournament win.
“This was my third time wrestling him so I kind of know how he wrestles,” Courtney said of his finals match against Kalani Tonge. “He’s really good on top so I just figured I just go out there, rack up a few points and just don’t get turned on bottom and that’s exactly what I did.”
Teemer (157) was the next Sun Devil to win an individual title, his second in a row.
“When those lights go on, Jacori’s very, very good.,” Jones said. “When he gets to the Big Show, he has always performed. Always.”
For Valencia, the road to a fourth Pac-12 crown was not an easy one. His opponent in the finals was Stanford’s Shane Griffth, ranked as the top wrestler at 165 pounds. Griffith blocked ASU’s Josh Shields from winning his fourth Pac-12 title last year.
But not Valencia.
“The week before, I was working with the coaches, especially with Coach Mark Perry,” Valencia said of his preparation for Griffth. “We were talking about how he wrestles his style, and what I could be doing during the match. And I think we game planned him right, and we figured it out.”
“He means so much to this program because of just the leap of faith he took to be a Sun Devil,” Jones said.
Munoz (174) followed Valencia and claimed second place. Under tournament rules, he had to wrestle the third-place finisher, Little Rock’s Triston Wills, to claim “true second” for the automatic NCAA qualifying bid. Munoz won that match to get the spot in the national field.
Norfleet (197) won his second consecutive Pac-12 title making him the third Sun Devil to win back-to-back championships this season.
Before the tournament Norfleet said he believed no 197 pounder could beat him.
“I know the work I put in. I know who I train with every day like Cohlton, Anthony and Zahid (and former ASU wrestler Zahid Valencia, Anthony’s brother) is still around. So honestly, I just need the tournament to prove it,” Norfleet said at the time. “I don’t think any 197 pounder can beat me in a seven minute match.”
Schultz, a redshirt freshman who won his first Pac-12 title at heavyweight, competed in a hybrid schedule, splitting time with ASU and training for the Olympics, where he hopes to qualify in Greco Roman wrestling, which is an upper-body style.
“When he puts on the Sun Devil singlet, he’s trying to wrestle the international style,” said Jones, a silver medalist at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. “He’s trying to do all upper body.
“You didn’t see him shoot on the legs once, because he’s trying to focus on making the Olympic team while he’s wrestling the college season. So he’s limiting himself to half the moves. They’re doing all the moves upper body and lower body, (but) he’s only doing upper body, because he wants to be ready for the Olympic Trials.
“I’m good with it. He’s still winning.”
After the Pac-12 tournament Schultz immediately flew to Rome to compete in an international tournament. He was required to get a COVID-19 test 48 hours before he landed in Rome, which meant leaving the Pac-12 tournament venue, driving to a remote Walgreens pharmacy location, getting tested, then returning to the arena to wrestle again.
Schutlz’s teammates were impressed.
“I don’t think anyone, anyone in the country is doing what he’s doing. And Greco is his strong suit,” Valencia said. “So it’s what he loves the most. Doing the competitions and getting better at it, preparing for the Olympics during the wrestling season, I think that’s really awesome. He’s just following his goals.”
“I think mentally he’s arrived in places where it even took me longer to get to be,” he said. “He knows what he does this for. He knows exactly what he wants out of the sport. He knows every goal he’s chasing, and he’s very sure of himself.”