ASU wrestling program reeling, but more than salvageable - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Ahwatukee Sports

ASU wrestling program reeling, but more than salvageable

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Posted: Friday, April 4, 2014 3:50 pm | Updated: 4:01 pm, Thu May 15, 2014.

The end of the Shawn Charles era wasn’t a surprise to anyone.

In reality most people thought it was going to happen last year, but Charles bought himself some time after getting two national champions in Anthony Robles and Bubba Jenkins in 2011 when Arizona State had a top 10 finish in the national team standings.

There hasn’t been much success since then as wrestlers have quit, including this year’s only national qualifier Blake Stauffer for a short time, top recruits left the state for other programs and his relationship with area high school coaches continued to deteriorate.

When the program has already been axed once, is largely dependent on building relationships and fundraising, it wasn’t a good trend.

Something had to be done.

Charles, who took over for Thom Ortiz before the 2009 season, officially resigned, but we know how these things works. I am assuming he chose to go that route rather than being fired.

However it played out, it was needed.

Arizona State is in danger, if it hasn’t happened already, of becoming second fiddle to Grand Canyon. Antelopes coach R.C. LaHaye has done a tremendous job of running the program from the start and the Antelopes, who won the National Collegiate Wrestling Association team title this year, are transitioning to Division I.

Meanwhile, three projected starters (former national qualifiers Nathan Hoffer and Coltin Fought, and junior dual national champion Tyler Liberatore) for this past season quit and some of the in-state seniors wrestlers (Corona del Sol’s Ethan Tursini, Basha’s Trey Ronayne, Sunnyside’s Gabriel Gonzalez) were barely recruited.

“There was a real disconnect with who he brought in his room,” one wrestling parent said.

If the Arizona State program continued its downward trend it wouldn’t be long before Grand Canyon would be the top team in the state rather than the one that once had three-year run of finishing in the top two nationally, including winning the 1988 national title.

When the GCU program started seven year ago it was unfathomable to think it would ever be par with Arizona State, but that’s not far from reality now.

It’s testament to what LaHaye has accomplished, but also puts in perspective how far the Arizona State program has fallen.

If the right coach – uh, hello Zeke Jones – is brought in the Sun Devils will remain on top. There is some talent in the room and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those guys – Chandler’s Dalton Brady (Utah Valley) and Desert Vista’s Alex Bambic (Central Michigan) – who left the state decide to transfer back.

The program’s staunchest supporter – Sunkist Kids founder Art Martori – is confident Arizona State will start heading in the right direction again.

“Programs go in cycles,” Martori said. “If it didn’t Iowa or Oklahoma State would still being winning every year instead of Penn State. We haven’t had much success since 1988, but we had a pretty good go (in 2011). It doesn’t take a lot of athletes to get into the top 10 and if you get lucky with some kids it can happen.

“All sorts of things can happen that keep you from being successful.”

The hope is that changes with the hiring of the new coach.

I am hearing the top candidate is Jones, the former Sun Devil All-American who was a silver medalist at the 1992 Olympics in freestyle. He ran the Penn program starting in 2005 before taking of the U.S. National Freestyle team in 2008.

Jones has a great disposition, would be a great face of the program, and would be able to help rejuvenate excitement surrounding a program that so desperately needs it.

If he decides to stay with USA Wrestling then the other names that will likely surface are Sammy Henson, who is the assistant head coach at Missouri, and Casey Cunningham, a former Sunkist Kids wrestler who has been an assistant with Iowa State and Penn State under Cael Sanderson.

“They will probably go after one of the top coaches in the country,” Martori said. “Zeke Jones would be ideal. Whoever it is with new people there is change, but we are 100 percent behind ASU. We will help as much as we can.

“It all depends on how much the new coach wants to engage with Sunkist Kids. Hopefully, they will want to and things will continue to move forward.”

That first step was taken earlier this week.

Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or Jskoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.

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